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.
I am endlessly amazed by their politeness. They switch seats so couples can sit together. They give up their pasta entrees so a vegetarian can have the meal he wants. They are patient with delays on runways.
Just two days ago, a crippled teenage boy had to get out of his wheelchair and stagger down the aisle of a plane holding the seats to get to his place in coach. As he passed by, everyone smiled at him, patted him on the back, and more than one offered to give up his seat for the boy.
When conversation starts, it is rarely downbeat. Usually it is about their travels — very often going great distances for a mother’s birthday or a child’s graduation or an old friend’s illness.
If the passenger is traveling on business, he or she has hopes and plans and schemes. There is rarely complaining and often a spirit of extreme excitement about whatever work the passenger is doing.
IN A WORD, WHAT I SEE in America in the hundreds of thousands of miles I travel each year is something like the spirit I see on the weathered wooden docks at Bottle Bay Resort or Hill’s Resort in North Idaho. A spirit of clubby happiness. In an airport, there may not be bald eagles nesting on wooden pilings in the water a few feet away as there would be in North Idaho. But there is that same cheerful feeling of fellowship.
Despite the setbacks in Iraq, despite the long slow pullout from the recession that began in 2000, there is a happy mood in the country — we’ll get through whatever the problems are now, things will be better tomorrow, and for right now, we’ll all laugh about it together or maybe cry about it, but together, and the fact that we’re together will make it better.
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. There are pockets of constant complaining. The big cities of the east and west coasts, especially among people who make their living be complaining, are not so happy as North Idaho. Whole large swaths of the population who rationalize their own failings by thinking of themselves as victims, especially in big cities and heavy coffee drinking centers, have their own clubs. Those brotherhoods specialize in pessimism and anger as they spend the money they have inherited or receive as allowances from family, state, or university. The malcontents live on their frustration and envy of the people who are actually out there accomplishing things. That envy rises like the steam from the coffee and lattes they are endlessly drinking. The discontented survey the scene of those who are actually in the arena doing. Then they react with predictable jealousy and scorn. (And by the way, I wonder if we can positively correlate caffeine intake with levels of envy. I think we can.) But these people are a minority. They do not represent at all what I see as the upbeat, up tempo mood of America even with the Iraqi prison abuse scandals, even with the high price of gasoline. That predominant mood, at least as I see it, is still mostly determinedly happy. Even after 9/11, even after the mass rallies in Moslem nations against us, even after the Europeans have scorned us often and contemptuously, we are still living it up and mostly contented with our lives.
That this can be true is even more amazing when one considers the state of the mass media in America and the upside down fun house mirror that media presents to the nation.
The mass media outlets are usually based in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., all major centers of pessimism and anger. For reasons better understood by a psychiatrist than an actor and commentator, the people in the media in these places often — but not always — loathe and fear their own country in many ways. This shows in their endless “Hate America” pieces on the air, showing every kind of vice and crime and sorrow, and only rarely anything good. The news stories on the nightly news in America might just as well come from Al-Jazeera as from America, that is how filled with bitterness at their own country they are. America is torturing Arabs, repressing Black people, stealing the savings of the elderly, oppressing women, denying the elderly medical care. This in a nutshell is the news from the major networks and newspapers in America.
As far as I can tell, their dismal view of the nation and their general level of hostility and anger are largely unrepresentative of what the true mood of the nation is. Certainly it is wildly unrepresentative of the state of the nation. This nation, by and large, is wildly prosperous and happy. People of color have made amazing progress. Women in particular have made amazing progress. The news on the TV might as well come from the moon.
THE FASCINATING PART IS this: No matter how much the media puts it out there, a lot of America is not buying it. You get some idea of how much of America is not buying it in the truth that at least as of this writing, with torrents of hysteria about mistreatment of suspected terrorist prisoners in Iraq, with endless efforts to connect this abuse directly with George W. Bush, Mr. Bush still holds a lead in many polls. The lead is slender, but with the gigantic propaganda war being waged against him night and day by the major media, it is deeply revealing that he is in the lead at all.
Why is that? Why is Mr. Bush still fairly popular, especially in the interior of the nation, the parts where the beautiful people do not live? Possibly it is because those friendly folks at Hill’s Resort and Bottle Bay and in Ripon, Wisconsin, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Dennison, Ohio, know that Mr. Bush is one of them. Despite his patrician upbringing and his wealth — modest indeed by John Kerry’s wife’s standards — Mr. Bush connects with America. In his optimism and outgoing boyish cheer he resonates with the ordinary citizen in this country far, far better than his opponents. He is the happy, outgoing kid in the high school class whom everyone wants to be friends with. Not because he’s the smartest or the richest or the handsomest. But because he’s in the best mood.
This is a nation built on optimism. It is an idealistic nation. We have one candidate, Mr. Bush, who says to Americans, “We are all members of the great, happy club called America. We are the city on the hill, the light of the world. Let’s be proud of ourselves and be happy. We make mistakes, but we try to correct them and go on to better days.”
The men and women laughing softly into the summer night at Priest Lake and Lake Pendoreille would feel comfortable with him and he would feel comfortable with them — and that may yet tell the tale in this election. He is one of us.
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