Betty Kinder sees the world turned upside down--fear at home, morals in a downward spiral, and things she never imagined suddenly turn up in the privacy of the voting booth.
"Whoever thought we'd be voting about letting two men and two women get married? It's ridiculous," said Kinder, the postal clerk in this tiny southern Missouri town that marks the population center of the nation, America's designated bulls-eye.
"Things are changing so much," she said.
And they are changing in the context of an extraordinarily polarized presidential election campaign. Amid disturbing uncertainties about war, terrorism and economic security, both major candidates and their surrogates are barnstorming this state, peddling the elixir they claim will settle any doubts: values.
Values are inherently desirable, if hard to define. They speak of Old Glory, virtue and star-spangled optimism. Or of strength and resolve and determination to do the "right" thing. Candidates use values to claim a higher moral pulpit.
No candidate travels the roads of Missouri without the implicit claim that his values are those of Missouri, and by extension, better than his opponent's. Values are painted in bold colors: Main Street versus elitism, mainstream versus extreme, us versus them.
Forget about any Missouri compromise.
Values are a catchall kind of code language of this presidential campaign, which plays out almost every day in Missouri in the form of a candidate's visit or a television commercial.
President Bush touts "courage and compassion, reverence and integrity." Sen. John Kerry promotes unifying values--"faith and family, service and sacrifice, responsibility and opportunity for all." Vice President Dick Cheney says Kerry lacks "deeply held convictions about right and wrong." Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said Bush's values "are not the values of the American people."
Public opinion polls show Americans' top concerns are the economy, health care, the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism. But if those issues are the bricks of the campaign, then values are the mortar.
The values debate in meat-and-potatoes Missouri is noted for a thin rhetorical veneer, a message masking often divisive themes that stoke much of the debate in modern American politics: rich versus poor, working versus welfare, abortion rights versus anti-abortion and, more recently, straights versus gays.
"My father and my brother will sit up and argue about politics and neither one of them can see how the other can take the position they argue and still be a Christian," said Honey Pickren, who runs a real estate office with her father in the southwest Missouri town of Rockaway Beach. "You can pull whatever you want from the Bible and put your own spin on it."
Brice Hale, a car salesman from the St. Louis suburb of Northwoods, said he's already tired of hearing the chatter about values. Hale said he doesn't want a moral compass in the White House; he wants answers.
"I want to hear how they are going to deal with American problems, like education and health care," Hale said. "You ever been to Washington, D.C.? Why do they have so many homeless people across from Lincoln Memorial? I don't understand."
In the great political divide that is Missouri, a state where voters have chosen every presidential winner since 1900, save for one Election Day fumble in 1956, the debate over values--however vaguely defined--will no doubt help decide whether Bush or Kerry gets the state's 11 electoral votes and, perhaps, the White House. The latest polls indicate Missouri is emphatically undecided at this point, a statistical pick 'em.
Missouri voters testy
Voters are testy. Early this month they sent packing the incumbent Democratic governor, Bob Holden, the first sitting chief executive in Missouri history to be turned out in a primary.
"Voters are in an uneasy mood," said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. "They don't feel comfortable about the presidential race" because of the economy and the war in Iraq.
Missouri is the product of the tumultuous melding of disparate Northern and Southern cultures and attendant social turmoil. The conflict over values is not simply one between Bush and Kerry; in Missouri it is part of war-within-a-state struggle.
Missourians first started fighting over slavery and states' rights. In more recent times it has been school busing, abortion and the right to carry guns. Urban and rural interests are increasingly at odds. Political battles can be summed up as Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia, home of the University of Missouri, against the rest of the state. State politics has an increasingly harder and sharper edge.
And as people struggle over which candidate can best deal with the economy, the war and terrorism, presidential candidates toss values into the mix.
"They say they're for God, country, education and all things good," said Jerry McBride, a former Democratic state representative who lives in Edgar Springs and who admits to being suspicious when politicians pound away on values. "I think most people would rather watch a ballgame or a soap opera than listen to another political speech."
Yet only this month, thousands of Missourians flocked to rallies in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, Jefferson City, Hannibal and Joplin to hear speeches from the Bush and Kerry teams. (In a nod to the strategic political importance of the state, the second presidential debate is scheduled to be held Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis.)
Sometimes the conflict is as easy to spot as a highway billboard. A trip west down Interstate Highway 44 toward Springfield reveals one that advertises a strip club adjacent to another that says, "Porn destroys lives."
The Missouri radio audience for James Dobson, a syndicated champion for the preservation of the family, is booming. Arbitron, the radio audience measuring service, said listenership of Dobson's daily 30-minute "Focus on the Family" program has grown 64 percent faster than the national audience in the past three years. The broadcast bully pulpit of Cape Girardeau native Rush Limbaugh is carried on 22 Missouri radio stations.
Three weeks ago Missouri became the first state to approve a constitutional ban against same-sex marriage. Every county approved it en route to a 71 percent endorsement.
Betty Kinder, a regular Dobson listener, said she was happy to cast her ballot to ban gay marriage. "The Bible is very clear on marriage: `In the beginning, God created man and woman,'" Kinder said.
Jason Hall, a St. Louis attorney who is gay and was a spokesman for the campaign against the gay-marriage ban, said the vote promotes an impression that Missouri is intolerant.
"I was a Republican for a long time," explained Hall, who said he voted for Bush and worked for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, "but since the Republicans started bashing gay people . . . I don't want to be affiliated with a party that uses division and hate as a political tool."
When former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was in St. Louis last month, he defined values as "God, guns, gays and abortion." But it's far more complicated.
Clash of cultures evident
Dozens of interviews around the state produced a more textured definition. Values are described as traditional, patriotic, Christian, family, human, social, moral, ethical. Values also are referred to in financial terms, the monetary measure of homes, crops, cars, jobs, investment portfolios and overall quality of life.
The clash of cultures was evident this month when Branson, Missouri's self-declared entertainment mecca of family values, faced off against the one-time hot resort town of nearby Rockaway Beach, population 577.
Barely a dozen miles east of Branson, Rockaway Beach has the look of an old closet, filled with musty memorabilia of a long-past prosperous era: a 1960s-era marina, a weed-infested go-cart track, old motels with window air-conditioners and a main street arcade, now empty, that featured "SkeeBall, Bumper Cars, Prizes."
The proposed economic solution for Rockaway Beach was a casino, like the ones in 11 other Missouri cities.
The lure of $9-an-hour jobs, with health benefits, collided with a morality-tinged response from Branson. "Keep Branson Pimp-Free: Vote No on Amendment 1," read the placard held by a teenager on Branson's main drag.
"We'll get the Hells Angels and the biker gangs . . . and we'll get prostitution. It'll only get worse," said 17-year-old Christian Kriegel, a high school senior who was holding one of the signs.
Wanda Wilson, from Branson, said the casino would "bring a whole different group of people here. . . . This is a family values community. It's a safe place, and it wouldn't be like that anymore."
The criticism stung in Rockaway Beach because it smacked of a claim of moral superiority.
"I don't think our belief system is any different. We're the same over here. It just comes down to self-preservation," Pickren said. "The self-righteousness from the far right makes us indignant. I go to church. I read my Bible every night."
The casino proposal was roundly defeated.
The moral authority of values has mobilized Missouri churches in an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, most of them in support of Bush. In St. Louis, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke has said he would deny Communion to Kerry because of his support of abortion rights. Historically there has always been an uneasy alliance between political values and religion, but the bonds seem stronger now that the nation has a president who often makes references to his faith.
Values have long had their place in political debates here. Herman P. Faris, an ardent prohibitionist from Clinton, Mo., was the Prohibition Party's presidential candidate in 1924.
In the first half of the 20th Century, reform candidates ran against the corruption of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. But it was not until the 1960s that the values debate became more charged with the pungent rhetoric of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Tapping into public anger over riots and school busing, Wallace gained a following, including in Missouri, where St. Louis and Kansas City were approaching court-ordered school desegregation. He won 11.4 percent of Missouri's vote in 1968, the most any third-party presidential candidate had won here since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt collected 17.8 percent for his Progressive Party.
"There was a broad swath of traditional values being undermined--sex, race, gender relationships, what is proper and improper," said Dan T. Carter, author of "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics."
"He represented . . . middle-class people fed up with the counterculture," Carter said. "There is this sense of society that traditional cultural values are under siege. At various times in history a specific aspect of this siege emerges to the fore. Right now it's gay marriage."
Missouri, for the most part, was not a hotbed of '60s-era protests. That would change in 1973, with the Supreme Court's landmark abortion ruling, Roe vs. Wade. Missouri became an incubator of anti-abortion sentiment, launching protests, legislation and court fights challenging the legal right to abortion.
"The odd thing is a lot of the protests today have come from groups offended by the protests of a generation earlier," said Wayne Fields, a professor of English at Washington University and author of "Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence."
John Kenneth White, who wrote "The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition," said the importance of values was elevated in 2000 because people were disgusted by President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. "You had a paradox in 2000--people living in the best economy in their lifetimes but believing that values were off in the wrong direction," he said.
The divide can be separated by those who, White said, like their morality "writ large" and those who like it "writ small."
The fight over gay marriage is a natural point of dispute. While both Bush and Kerry oppose homosexual marriage, Bush supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning it and Kerry says the issue should be left to the states.
In Missouri, about 40,000 of the 1.05 million people who voted for the gay-marriage ban in the Aug. 3 primary voted only on this ballot measure and nothing else.
But nationwide polls as well as a July poll from the St. Louis Post Dispatch indicate that moral values, as a campaign issue, lag behind the economy, the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism.
People have their own views on what constitutes values, and some of that division can be seen in the eastern Missouri town of Cuba, which in the 1960s through the early 1970s sported a town sign on Route 66 that read "Cuba. No Castro Here."
Bush `looks more honest'
Mary Miller, a secretary for the local board of education, likes President Bush. "He looks more honest," she said. "He's a religious man and he's not afraid to say that. That's important to people here, and it's very important to me."
Miller and Sheryl Bach, who runs the public library, agree that they are not fond of the salty language of Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Bach, who said she spends most of her time listening to what other people say in the library, said a lot of people are angry over not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "And taxes," Bach said. "It's always taxes."
Along St. Charles Rock Road, on the gritty western edge of St. Louis, Rodney Lovings runs a used car lot. Lovings is an African-American and he has little use for the values preachings of President Bush.
"Bush is all about keeping the money at the top," Lovings said as he changed a light bulb in his one-room office. "The truest form of patriotism is to help a brother when he's down.
"When I hear them [Republicans] talk about values, I hear them speaking in code," Lovings said. "When they say `preserve true American values,' they mean it's the gold standard of living that whites are accustomed to living. Don't get me wrong--I have a lot of white friends. But talk like that is like red meat to the religious right [and] the paranoid white males afraid that a gay guy will make their kid gay."
The campaign rhetoric proceeds along parallel paths. One addresses the economy, the war and the battle against terrorism, and the other concerns values. The former are the issues that political scientists say will break the deadlock in Missouri, where some estimates indicated that only 10 percent of voters remain undecided. Among them is Marian Qualls-Nelson, a computer program analyst who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant.
"I'm really struggling," Qualls-Nelson said as she lunched at an outdoor plaza in downtown St. Louis. She voted for the gay-marriage ban on Aug. 3 and she hasn't heard anything from Bush or Kerry that stirs her.
She hears all the talk about values, but that just seems to cover up what she wants to hear about: health care and the rising cost of education.
"When I hear about families, I want to hear about families and my financial future, the things that support my existence," she said.
Much of this values debate slides right by Lawrence Reed, a custodial supervisor for the public school district in Cuba. "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic Party. This values stuff is just hype."
Pensions a gnawing concern
The future of Social Security and the financial stability of private pensions are a gnawing concern in Missouri. At the root of that worry are the actions of one of Missouri's own, Kenneth Lay, the indicted former chairman of Enron Corp. and emblem for corporate excess.
The University of Missouri, Lay's alma mater, has been unable to fill an endowed economics chair in Lay's name at the Columbia campus and says it will not attempt to appoint someone until Lay's case makes it through the courts.
But in Tyrone, the sad, shrinking hamlet in south-central Missouri where Lay grew up, the moral outrage over alleged ethical and legal lapses has been overwhelmed by more earthly worries.
Values here hew to the basic necessities: a good-paying job, health insurance. And a reliable volunteer fire department capable of responding to house and brush fires. The town's battered fire truck is 40 years old. Its top speed is 40 m.p.h. "It's a Mayberry truck," one firefighter said.
The fire department supports itself by holding breakfasts during deer hunting season, raffles, fish fries and bidding on pies. People don't talk much about Ken Lay, but they do sometimes wonder about all the millions he had and controlled.
"Everybody kids me and says, `I saw your cousin Ken on TV. Did he send you any money?'" cousin Doyle Lay, 60, said on his front yard, surrounded by 17 junked cars.
"I see him on TV, but I've never heard from him," Doyle Lay said. Ken Lay contributed $15,000 in 2000 to the nearby town of Houston, about 12 miles away, to help rebuild a downtown structure that was damaged in a storm. "Sending it to Houston and not here--that's real bad," Doyle Lay said.
Even though economic conditions seem to influence how people define values, there is a statewide strain of skepticism--from Bush and Kerry supporters alike--whenever the candidates talk about values.
It's as if people took to heart the words of Missouri's favorite literary son, Mark Twain, when he wrote a century ago, "If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times