Last year, President Clinton quietly brought Harvard University professor Robert Putnam to Camp David to brief him and the Cabinet on a new threat to American democracy. A few months later, preparing for his State of the Union speech, Clinton called the international relations expert to the White House for another update.
The creeping menace, the professor warned the president, is not a hostile foreign power, but an enemy within. It is the way Americans bowl: While more people bowl than ever, fewer bowl in leagues.
That may sound like an esoteric distinction, but to Putnam and a surprising number of supporters, it symbolizes a frightening decline in crucial activities that keep American democracy healthy, from voting and reading newspapers to PTA membership and church suppers.
Since Putnam outlined that theory last year in his scholarly paper, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," he has enjoyed an improbable burst of popularity among a broad range of opinion-makers from conservative George Will to card-carrying liberal Hillary Rodham Clinton. (She endorses his message in her book "It Takes a Village.") A series of newspaper and television reports have seized upon Putnam's catchy metaphor to warn of a troubling disconnectedness and the collapse of America's sense of community.
It's a compelling theory--until you check it out by venturing through Southern California's bowling alleys for a few evenings.
What you find around the lanes, rather than a dearth of community, is a new kind of "social capital": more relaxed, less traditional patterns of social connection shaped by the new ways Americans live and work.
You see it on Friday nights in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock, when the bar at the All Star Lanes roars to life with couples singing karaoke and line-dancing to "Achy-Breaky Heart." (If you're lucky, there might be a washtub-sized pot of Filipino goat soup on the buffet table.)
It's there on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, where glow-in-the-dark bowling with fluorescent balls and pins at the Alhambra Bowling Center draws teenagers in from cyberspace.
Throughout the Southland, bowling alleys that were once the exclusive turf of chain-smoking, big-betting guys in matching shirts are now just as likely to be filled with people coaching their children on lanes with gutters blocked by bumpers.
Putnam's essay, published in the Journal of Democracy, was inspired by his 20-year study of Italian towns, which correlated efficient local government with high civic participation. The essay struck a chord with Clinton, who enjoys bowling (he called last month's Santa Monica meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto "an absolute 10-pin strike") and is the product of a Southern culture whose emphasis on family and social networks shaped his political style. (The president, who claims a 135 average, knows from reading Putnam's essay that more people bowl than vote in national elections.)
According to social science surveys cited by Putnam, as well as numerous journalists who have written recently on the withering of American community, Americans trust each other less. Surveys, Putnam notes, show faith in people, God and government is far stronger among those of the "long civic generation"--the people who fought World War II and built their lives around institutions like bowling leagues and Elks lodges.
But V. Richard "Dick" Cunningham, who at 68 is firmly entrenched in the long civic generation, thinks there are simpler, less abstract explanations than Putnam's for the fall of bowling leagues and older civic groups.
"There's just so much more to do now," said Cunningham, a fourth-generation Angeleno and longtime Knights of Columbus league bowler at the Hollywood Star Lanes. "When my dad was alive, the Knights and Elks were a major part of a man's social life because there wasn't much else."
Another dagger in Putnam's theory is the fact that almost nobody bowls alone. Leagues may be smaller in the Southland, but the centers are filled with office parties, rollicking retirees and bowling birthday parties. Some alleys reflect the character of their neighborhoods as accurately as food, music and literature define broader cultures.
Cunningham's alley, the Hollywood Star Lanes, is on a run-down stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, across from a place where people turn in bottles and cans for cash, next to a Korean auto repair shop called Ben Hur. Its neon sign is broken so that it reads "OWL" when lit up, fitting for a place that is open all night.
But amid the dilapidation of Hollywood and the shrinking of leagues, the alley continues to thrive by welcoming all types. If bowling is indeed a social science barometer of where America is headed, this is a promising observation point.
Long-standing leagues run by the Knights of Columbus Catholic men's organization and the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs still draw teams here. There are also two gay bowling leagues, Muslim and Greek Orthodox groups, enough Filipinos, Chinese and Thais to get fried rice onto the snack bar menu, and two leagues for blind bowlers.
In the glass display case under the cash register are bowling pins autographed by Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Dreyfuss and other movie stars who have stopped by to bowl.
The list of high-scorers on the wall shows the diversity in Hollywood that seldom is projected onto movie screens. Among the leaders are names like Phounsavath, Powers, White, Barnese and Munoz.
"If you look at the faces here, what you see is like the United Nations," marvels Cunningham, who was among those who started the Knights of Columbus bowling league 30 years ago and is there every Thursday night at 9.
Cunningham's family founded the Cunningham and O'Connor mortuaries. He grew up with bowling and civic organizations. (His father was also in the Knights of Columbus.) As a boy, he worked as a pin-setter at a bowling alley at 8th Street and Western Avenue, where bowlers rolled dimes down the gutters for tips.
With 10 four-member teams, Cunningham's bowling league is only about half the size it was at its peak in the 1970s. His Knights of Columbus branch is only a fraction of its 1950s size.
But the waning of two pillars of his social life doesn't bother Cunningham as much as it bothers Putnam. A veteran of World War II and Korea, Cunningham knows what threats to democracy look like, and doesn't think a lack of interest among younger Americans in the Knights of Columbus and bowling leagues is among them.
Noting that cigar smoking and card playing were a big part of the club life of yore, Cunningham identifies another obstacle: "A lot of women today don't want their husbands doing things like that."
Although individuals work fewer hours than in the past, the number of working women has grown. Married couples are thus often busier than previous generations when both have jobs outside the home. Men may be expected to contribute to child-rearing and housework more than in the past, diverting time once spent at weekly lodge meetings or bowling leagues.
"I think I'm a lot more involved in the home or with my kids than men in my dad's generation," said Lawrence Alarcon, a 32-year-old asphalt contractor, between games of glow-in-the-dark bowling at the Alhambra Bowling Center with his wife and two children. "When I go to a function or meeting at school, I see a lot of dads there. It's nothing like when I was a kid."
Alarcon, who took over his father's business, says that's why he feels he simply doesn't have time to bowl in a league, the way his dad did.
And while dad's life may have connected with "The Honeymooners" television show, built around the antics of bowling bus driver Ralph Kramden, there's a whole different notion of what's appealing these days.
"Bowling's fun, but to a lot of people it may not be the coolest or trendiest thing to do," said Alarcon. Dressed in a collarless white shirt and jeans, he said he wouldn't have taken his family bowling that evening were it not for the disco music, mirror balls and fog machine that enliven the Alhambra Bowling Center.
In echoing Putnam, social scientists and opinion-makers appear to have overlooked some factors in the decline of bowling leagues that have nothing to do with social trust or civic interest.
The changing nature of work from manufacturing to service industries and the erosion of the workplace as a stable institution hit leagues hard, and probably dealt a blow to other organized groups as well. The large groups of workers who once bowled in company leagues disappeared when their plants were closed.
From 1979 to 1994, 286,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Southern California as aerospace, auto and other plants closed, according to UCLA labor economist Goetz Wolff. Nationwide, manufacturing work accounted for only about 16% of jobs in 1994, compared to 31% in 1960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"There just aren't as many big companies and institutions" that once fed the leagues, noted David Spiegel, president of Active West Bowling Centers, which operates a chain of bowling alleys.
Membership in labor unions, another key social institution that fed bowling leagues, also dropped dramatically in the United States from 33% in 1955 to 16% in 1994. Since unions encourage political involvement through candidate endorsements and rallies, their decline might help to explain the drop in the number of Americans who say they've attended rallies, speeches or meetings.
William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who celebrated both bowling and the Knights of Columbus in the first chapter of his novel, "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," believes the old model of civic life, built around physically demanding and personally dehumanizing jobs, is outdated.
"Those [social] clubs were a diversion after a horrible workday. You got dressed up and went there at night. It added another dimension to life beyond the demeaning 12 hours you spent in the shops. A lot of us don't have that need anymore," said Kennedy, who as a young man in Albany, N.Y., followed his father and uncles into the Knights of Columbus.
Kennedy, 68, said life today is "less restrictive, and that's very healthy. One reason the old groups existed was that the Catholics couldn't join the Protestant groups and the Jews couldn't join any of them."
Putnam acknowledges that old groups may not be able to reinvigorate American civic life. "The last thing I want to do is be an advocate for simple-minded nostalgia for the '50s," he said in a telephone interview.
But Americans cannot go on neglecting to vote and substituting political activity with television, he said. "We must reinvent ways of connecting," creating new, more relevant organizations.
What does the author of "Bowling Alone" do to connect? Pressed to detail his own civic involvement, Putnam said he had been in the town choir in Lexington, Mass., but had quit.
"I'm too busy," he said with a laugh. "But make sure you say that I said so with a tone of embarrassment."