On brink of election, U.S. at odds with itself

Monday, November 1, 2004

DULUTH, Minn. -- The battle for Bob James' front yard has been venomous, rancorous, vicious -- a small-scale replica, in other words, of America in the jaws of Campaign 2004.

It started when James, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, planted Bush-Cheney yard signs -- many, many such signs -- on his corner lot on London Road in Duluth, along with two 4-by-8-foot plywood signs of his own pro-President Bush design.

Then James' son caught a 22-year-old man painting "war" on one of the big signs.

Then, that same night, two 17-year-olds tried to make off with some of his yard signs.

Then, at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, three teenagers defaced the signs, one of them spray-painting a swastika on the sidewalk.

Some might be surprised that this happened in Duluth, a quiet city of 87,000 on Lake Superior, in a state so soft-spoken that it is renowned for its "Minnesota Nice." But folks there say Duluth is no different from the rest of the United States these days.

It is angry. It is often uncivil. It is divided.

This is "the most divided America in the recent memory of our country," said John Kerry at the third presidential debate. Typically, the candidates disagreed as to why -- Kerry blamed Bush, and Bush blamed Washington's partisanship.

In Duluth, the division can be measured by Bob James' defaced signs -- but also by Duke Skorich's daily golf game at Northland Country Club, where friends of 30 years' standing can discuss just about everything, except politics. Too close to the bone.

"I think right now it is probably as bad as I've seen it in my 33 years of living in this community," said Skorich, a "Humphrey Democrat" who hosts a radio call-in show on KUWS.

It can be measured in the deliberations of a group of young leaders convened by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation to consider the community's needs. The No. 1 issue, according to executive director Holly Sampson: "improving the quality of public debate."

It can be measured in the reaction earlier this year when Mayor Herb Bergson and a split city council, under threat of court action, decided to move a Ten Commandments monument from the spot outside city hall where it sat for nearly half a century.

There were death threats and hateful phone calls and e-mail messages -- even though the monument was actually a promotional tool for the 1956 movie "The Ten Commandments," and even though it only listed nine commandments ("no graven images" was missing).

"Some of the language was not Christian language," Bergson said. "It's not OK to curse in the name of God."

'The roots of grumpiness'

"The roots of grumpiness are deep. It's not just George Bush and Kerry," said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist whose book "Bowling Alone" argued that Americans are participating less and less in civic life.

"There's an absence of friendship across borders -- and I think that's close to being the most important problem this country faces," he said.

Of course, the idea of a contentious America is not new. When John Jay helped negotiate a controversial treaty with Great Britain in 1795, a graffiti artist in Boston didn't take it well: "Damn John Jay!" he wrote. "Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won't put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!"

"People view the other person as basically stupid if they support John Kerry or George Bush," said Andy Peterson, director of public policy for the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. "When candidates come to town, people get angry at people they know who show up."

This is a city that has always had strong civic participation -- voter turnout for municipal elections routinely reaches 60 to 70 percent, said Donny Ness, a city councilman. As many as 85 percent may vote on Tuesday.

While Duluth itself remains solidly in the column of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, there have been numerous visits by candidates and their spouses, and there has been a constant stream of campaign ads, many of them negative. Though Duluth ranks 136th among media markets in the country, a University of Wisconsin study found it ranked 37th in campaign commercials.

That relentless drumbeat, says Morris Fiorina, may lead some to believe that their society is more divided than it really is.

Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, believes that the parties and candidates are divided -- not the American public. Most Americans, he said, are moderates, even on hot-button issues like abortion, where they favor choice, but some limits.

In Duluth, many are appalled by the vandalism of the signs at Bob James' place; others are appalled by James' refusal to forgive the teenagers who came forward to admit their crime and to apologize, or by James' insistence on putting up such an outsized display in the first place.

"Does that mean to tell me that you're a better American, a stronger patriot?" asked Skorich. "When you put up that many signs and signs of that size, I'm not certain what kind of a statement you want to make."

Bob Mars, head of a local family business, is appalled by behavior he sees on the many civic boards he serves. "Boards are having trouble coming to compromises," he said. "It's as though each person wants to be a winner. They don't necessarily want to solve a problem."

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