BEVERLY HILLS — I have followed elections pretty closely for many decades now, and I think I have a clue about why George W. Bush, for all of his problems in Iraq, still has a fine chance to win this election.
For about ten years now, I have been going to North Idaho, a mountainous, heavily forested region in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, adjacent to Canada, to vacation, ride in my little motor boat, ride my bicycle by the lakes and rivers, and just to be in a beautiful setting far from the pitiless freeways and snarling traffic of my usual home, Los Angeles.
I first started going to North Idaho because a man who had directed me in commercials built a home there, told me how magnificent his view was, and invited me to see the area. I was tempted but frightened. This was the early 1990s. Word on the street was that North Idaho was filled with Nazis and ultra-right militiamen. It might not be safe for me, a very Jewish-looking Jew.
But when I went there, fearful and anxious — well, that’s my normal state, I guess — I was stunned. For one thing, the region was far more beautiful than I had dreamed it would be. Rugged mountains, dense forests, wide, empty rivers.
My main destination, Sandpoint, Idaho, was a small, picturesque, friendly town with a sandy beach and a charming green park on the northwest corner of an astonishingly large, mostly uninhabited lake called Lake Pendoreille, or “earring” in French. On the lakefront beach were happy families lazing about in the sun, families with children and two parents reading quietly or watching their kids play in the water. No gangs, no scary knots of teenagers looking as if they wanted to rumble. Just friendly people, many of whom recognized me from the movies and TV and greeted me cheerily.
On my next visit, as winter was coming, I took my son, then age six. He naturally fell into playing with kids in the park, and had friends at once. One day, I packed him into the rented car and headed for an even more rural area north of Sandpoint called Priest Lake. This, I had heard from my pals in California, was undoubtedly Nazi country. But in fact, it was stunningly pristine, untouched country. A light snow began to fall and I stopped by the side of the road to take some photos. After a moment, a beat-up pickup truck pulled up behind me. Uh-oh, I thought. This is surely a patrol of the Nazi party come to murder me for trespassing on their turf.
But, no. A grizzled man got out of the truck walked over to me and asked me if I was having car trouble and if he could help. I told him I was just taking some photos. “Great day for them,” he said, waved, saluted and drove off.
I was hooked.
I HAVE BEEN BACK dozens of times since then. There is a special spot I like to go called Bottle Bay Resort on Lake Pendoreille and another, on Priest Lake, called Hill’s Resort. These are small inns with restaurants. In the summer, families fish, swim, bike, hike, eat and drink. They’re all friendly, all cheerful, all welcoming. Once you are in either of them a few times, it’s like being in a club.
If you sit on a deck overlooking the lake with a drink in your hand and the sun reflecting on the lake, you feel safe, happy, optimistic. Strangers share confidences and jokes. People laugh easily and the laughter whispers out through the pines, and over the still water.
Again, like the best part of a club.
Now, fast forward. About two years ago, I began to earn my living largely by speaking at colleges and universities and business meetings. It is a grueling life, but a great life. And the best part of the life is seeing people and places I would otherwise have just flown over. Holland, Michigan. Ripon, Wisconsin. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Greenville, South Carolina. Walla Walla, Washington. Dennison, Ohio. Places I would have never seen as an actor or economist or lawyer or screenwriter.
There is a common theme to all of these places and it is linked to the magnificent feeling I get in North Idaho: the men and women there, in interior America, are friendly, open, curious, kindly, and immensely optimistic and hopeful.
I talk to them after my speeches. I talk to them at dinners before my speeches. They are invariably polite. Invariably helpful.
I sit next to them on the hundreds of airplane flights I take each year. I wait with them in lines to board planes or to check into hotels. Sometimes I even sit with them on long train rides when the airports are closed by snowstorms.
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