Sam Dohle never met Harry Truman, but after years of leading tours through the 33rd president's humble wood-frame birthplace in this flyspeck of a southwestern Missouri town, he feels a sturdy kinship. Dohle thinks he knows how Harry, as Dohle calls him, would deal with the war in Iraq, the economy and the turmoil that divides the nation.
Just ask him.
"Why, I think he'd go straight to the White House and fire 'em all," Dohle said. "Then he'd say, `I'll show you how to do it.'"
Opinions in Missouri are stubborn commodities that defy drought, locust swarms, 100-year floods, social upheaval, and the economic forces of supply and demand. From the acerbic pen of Mark Twain to the acid tongue of Rush Limbaugh, there has never, ever been a crop failure of homegrown opinion.
And every four years, opinion here commands special attention because Missouri voters have picked every presidential winner since 1900--except in 1956, when their unerring ballot magic deserted them and they supported, by an electoral eyelash, Adlai Stevenson over President Dwight Eisenhower.
Missouri is so often right in presidential elections because Missouri is so much like so many parts of America. It mirrors the nation--one part Dixie, one part industrial Detroit, a bit of Great Plains conservatism and a dash of the get-the-government-off-my-back-and-cut-my-taxes West.
Amid the Republican "red states" and Democratic "blue states," the crossroads called Missouri is decidedly purple--not only in political coloration but also in the vehemence of public debate over the issues. Missouri's name derives from an Indian tribe and means "town of large canoes." Its modern definition could be "microcosm of America."
Figuring out the fractured, shifting puzzle of Missouri is the political equivalent of nailing oatmeal to a tree.
Voters here have swung from JFK to LBJ to Nixon, then from Carter to Reagan and from Bush to Clinton. And then to another Bush.
Missourians tend to be more conservative and to shun ideological extremes. The death penalty is popular here. Only three states--Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia--have executed more inmates since the death penalty was reinstated.
"It's a conservative state in between two large metropolitan areas that vote Democratic," said former Democratic Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who won his first statewide election in 1960 and seems most thankful to be watching the political wars in electoral retirement from his 33rd-floor office overlooking downtown St. Louis.
"Foot by foot, this is a state that tilts slightly Republican," Eagleton said. "I used to call myself a liberal," he said, recalling the days when the liberal tag was more acceptable, "but I changed it to progressive."
St. Louis and Kansas City, now by far the state's largest city, are geographic bookends to a state in continual political turmoil. Missouri is a precise, and sometimes troubling, window onto the nation's economic transformation from manufacturing to service industries. The face of Missouri is changing as well, fueled by a surge in Latino immigration (soaring by 92 percent to 118,000 during the 1990s). And the increasing ideological split between urban and rural America is made vivid each Election Day.
St. Louis loses clout
The political balance of power continues to move away from St. Louis, which a century ago was the nation's fourth-largest city but has lost more than half its population since 1960 even while the state's population has been showing modest growth.
The boom area is around the southwestern city of Springfield, the hometown of former Missouri governor and now U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.
So contrarian are Missouri voters that they could elect Ashcroft to statewide office five times, then send him to ignominious defeat when he ran against a dead man, Gov. Mel Carnahan, in 2000. Carnahan died in a plane crash in the last weeks of the campaign.
Missouri pays tribute to the Hatfields and McCoys by pitting rural counties against St. Louis and Kansas City. In 1999, 104 of the state's 114 counties overwhelmingly approved a proposal to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. But opposition from St. Louis and city dwellers in the 10 most populous counties sent the measure to defeat with 52 percent of the votes.
In this campaign season, it's not clear what the presidential election will turn on, the economy, the war, or something else, but it is quite clear that the campaigns of both Bush and Kerry believe that Missouri will have an outsized say in the outcome. Already, millions of dollars have been spent on advertising here, and millions more will be spent before November.
Bush has visited Missouri 17 times since taking office. It's not because he likes the weather.
Voters selected Bush by a mere 3.3 percentage points in 2000 and the betting line for 2004 is currently a pick 'em. A prudent Eagleton ventures 51-49, either way. And he says he wouldn't bet more than 5 bucks.
Missouri is a lot of things this campaign year, but one of them is anxious, not necessarily about one defining issue, but rather about a range of sometimes blurring issues, many of them well beyond the control of ordinary citizens.
"There's a sort of nervousness in Missouri that you'd find in a cattle herd just before a thunderstorm," said Jerry Wamser, a lawyer and former mayoral candidate in St. Louis. "I think what we may have is an election based more on feelings than in hard facts ... This is not a very confident time."
This has been a bruising year in Missouri with political fights that may or may not affect the national election. There have been battles over concealed weapons and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Missourians have been fighting for years over abortion and school busing.
Democrats have a homegrown problem as embattled first-term Gov. Bob Holden faces a serious primary challenge on Aug. 3.
The economy here has not kept pace with the recovery in other parts of the nation. This used to be a state that made things--airplanes, Corvettes, shoes--that now are made somewhere else. Those jobs and other manufacturing jobs will not return.
Personal bankruptcy filings soared more than 45 percent from 2000 to 2003.
So while the war matters here, pocketbook concerns might be more important. "People vote their wallets, mostly," said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist and pollster at St. Louis University, "but there is always a visceral, personal connection that comes into play."
Missouri mirrors many of the nation's key demographics and prominent sore spots. If you're looking for America--raw, quarrelsome, troubled and ornery--look here.
The war isn't wearing well, even among those who strongly endorsed it. Although Republicans wring their hands over Bush's sagging popularity, Democrats worry about the ability of the upright Easterner, Kerry, to connect in the solidly middle-class Midwest.
Already, though, Kerry has the unyielding support of many Democrats (mostly in St. Louis and Kansas City and Columbia) while Bush has locked down most Republicans (essentially the rest of Missouri).
`I'm very, very torn'
Howard Gordon, retired from the former McDonnell Douglas Corp., is ready to vote. "Bush is one of the few presidents doing good things for the country," he said.
Clyde Nelson, an operations manager at a St. Louis hospital, said he'll vote for anyone but Bush. "I don't lean to any particular candidate, but I know the devil when I see him," Nelson said.
But the undecided voters in places like Webster Groves, a tree-shaded St. Louis suburb, embody the edgy cattle herd that both parties worry about and spend millions to attract.
"I'm very, very torn," said Margie Barnes, a photographer. "It's a difficult decision this time. I'm questioning the long-term Iraq situation and how long we should mess around over there. I don't like either one of them, to tell you the truth. We're stuck with either the top floor or the bottom floor of the Titanic."
It was rivers, of course, not oceans, that made Missouri such a vital national crossroads. The confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri conjures an image of majesty and Twain-inspired musings. But in 1673, as the French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette worked their way down the Mississippi, just south of what is now Alton, Ill., they described the intruding Missouri as "that savage river."
The ferocity of the Missouri's current, which more than once almost doomed the Lewis and Clark expedition 200 years ago, was a harbinger of the state's political and cultural discord.
The plucky "Show Me State" is embodied by Truman, Route 66, Kansas City jazz, Branson, Hall of Famer Stan Musial and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins. Its culinary claims to fame are Arthur Bryant's ribs in Kansas City, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and toasted ravioli in St. Louis and the enduring treat from Sedalia known as the Goober Burger--peanut butter slathered on a hamburger.
Civil War division
Before all that, though, Missouri was slavery, Dred Scott and bushwhackers like William "Bloody Bill" Anderson and the notorious Jesse James. During the Civil War, a Confederate government, led by Missouri's elected governor, secessionist Claiborne Jackson, was headquartered in Neosho, in the far southwest corner of the state. One of the 13 white stars on the Confederate flag represented Missouri, though the state never seceded from the union.
Nineteenth Century St. Louis, then the gateway to the Western frontier, was anti-slavery, but much of the rest of the state was not. During the Civil War, Missouri sent as many soldiers to fight for the Confederacy as it did for the Union. The state was so volatile that federal troops occupied Missouri during the war, preventing its secession.
Reconstruction was much easier said than done.
While the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804, which opened up vast new territories for a young nation, was all about addition, the state that was officially created in 1820 would be marked by deep divisions. Some endure while others contribute to the state's reputation of being a petri dish of contentious litigation over abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, campaign finance reform and school desegregation. All are defined largely by Missouri's profound urban and rural divide.
The fight over those social issues also helped spawn a potent political movement in Missouri among social conservatives. Religious fundamentalism is strong in Springfield, home of the 2.7 million-member Assemblies of God denomination. Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, is the headquarters of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
In a state where 20 percent of residents are Roman Catholic, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has said he would deny Communion to Kerry because of his support for abortion rights.
The conservative movement in Missouri has influenced the court system and the ballot--especially with regard to abortion and euthanasia laws.
"The reason so many cases emanate from Missouri is because the state is a microcosm of American society," said David Webber, a political scientist at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
And Missouri remains politically and culturally polarized. "There has always been a rural-urban split, but now we're seeing it more closely aligned with Republican and Democratic allegiances," said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Talent defeated Sen. Jean Carnahan in 2002, he won 86 of the state's 114 counties but eked out only a 22,000-vote victory, from the nearly 1.9 million votes cast. In 2000 Bush won 102 counties, with Vice President Al Gore drawing heavily from the Democratic strongholds of the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.
The decision couldn't have been closer in the county just north of Kansas City, Clay County, storied land of Jesse James--America's natural-born killer, 19th Century terrorist, fabled bank robber and iconic symbol of rebel resistance. The first bank the James Gang knocked over, in 1866, is now the Jesse James Museum.
The bank vault is still open.
"He's a rock star here," said Angie Borgedalen, editor of the Liberty Tribune, which publishes a block away from the bank. And long before there were sightings of Elvis Presley at 7-Elevens, James, who was gunned down in 1882, was reported to be alive and well 50 years later.
No middling opinions
Clay County also has the distinction of giving Abraham Lincoln no votes--not one--in the 1860 presidential election. In 2000 the county distinguished itself again by throwing its support to Gore--by one vote, 39,084 to 39,083.
Today in Liberty, the county seat, there are no middling opinions about the choices in November. "I wouldn't walk across the street to see him," Jane Hooper said of Bush. Hooper, who owns a bookstore across from the county courthouse, described the political mood in Liberty as "increasingly divisive. . . . You've still got people here fighting the Civil War."
And that's true. Jean Warren sees a lot of them in her shop that specializes in Civil War regalia--blue and gray uniforms, hats, shoes, pistols, holsters. Buyers show an overwhelming preference for Confederate gear.
"It's 10 Confederates to 1 Yankee," Warren said. "There's a lot of Union sympathies in St. Louis, but you go west and you find people lean Confederate. It's a statement against federal control. People don't want to be told what to do."
Warren, who said she used to be a "Don't-blame-me-I-voted-for-McGovern Democrat," now casts her lot with Republicans because "health care and taxes are killing me. At this point I'm voting for Bush."
The attraction of the Confederate flag goes far beyond Warren's shop on Main Street. Last year Holden, the governor, ordered the removal of the Stars and Bars from the Higginsville cemetery, where nearly 700 Confederate veterans are buried, and a fort in southwestern Missouri, saying the flag could hurt economic development efforts.
A majority of Missourians polled after Holden's decision opposed the flags' removal. Today, Jean Warren sells bumper stickers at her front counter, emblazoned with the Confederate flag and reading "DUMP HOLDEN."
The names that will matter more to the rest of the country on November's ballot, however, will be Bush and Kerry, and an issue at the fore will be the war in Iraq, and its cost in lives and treasure.
In Missouri, Staff Sgt. Jamie Huggins came from Hume, population 287. Sgt. Richard Gottfried was from Lake Ozark, population 701. Spec. Jonathan Barnes lived in Anderson, population 1,432.
They are three of the 16 Missouri soldiers killed during the war in Iraq. Most of them grew up in isolated towns with populations smaller than 5,500. In the long and sometimes-violent history of Missouri, a state that sacrificed more than 10,000 soldiers in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, 16 fatalities would hardly seem enough to provoke a debate.
Unease over war
But in places like Missouri City, population 295, where four young people served in Iraq, there's ample reason. "What you've got is a bunch of poor kids and patriotic kids fighting this war," said Jay Jackson, school superintendent of the tiny Missouri City school district. "If the middle-class sons and daughters had been drafted, we would not have gone into Iraq."
Jackson's is a voice of conflict and anguish in the evolving war debate. His two sons, 24-year-old Aaron and 22-year-old Miles, are sergeants in the Army. One is on temporary leave from duty in Iraq, and the other is in Kuwait. While Jay Jackson says he is an unqualified supporter of the military, he thinks the war in Iraq is a mistake.
"We should not have gone in," said Jackson, wearing shorts and a blue T-shirt that reads "Army Chemical Corps." "Our perception of ourselves is we don't go to war unless we have to, we don't lose a boy or a girl unless we have to. We didn't have to.
"We have to be strong, but we have to be right," he said.
Despite unease over the war, Missouri, long a contributor to the national arsenal of democracy, has a strong legacy of supporting the military. It is the birthplace of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, and Gen. Omar Bradley, who led the U.S. 1st Army in the invasion of Normandy during World War II.
B-2 Stealth bombers flew missions from Whiteman Air Force Base, about an hour east of Kansas City, during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Ft. Leonard Wood in southern Missouri is one of the Army's major training centers. The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence is the Pentagon's only small-arms ammunition producer, turning out more than 340 million rounds annually. McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics and--later--Boeing and Honeywell have been major defense contractors operating in Missouri.
Deep military support
All these military players are descendants of Jefferson Barracks, the St. Louis-area military base that launched troops into wars, starting with the Indian wars and ending with World War II. "This is a state that supports the military and the commander in chief, no matter what party," said state Atty. Gen. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
In Branson, a thriving mecca for country music and family entertainment, patriotism abounds. A marquee on one hotel reads: "Pray for Our Troops and Pray for Peace."
In Washington, a quaint old Missouri River city about 60 miles west of St. Louis, Helen Hallam said she "certainly supported President Bush's choice" to invade Iraq.
"But I'm especially concerned over how it will end and if it will end," said Hallam, who helps run an antique shop near the river. She notes that she was born in Lamar, "me and Harry Truman."
Just down the street at a corncob pipe factory, Marilyn Lanning, a customer service representative, is convinced "it's not going to end."
"Our biggest downfall is that we didn't take into account . . . that they've been fighting among themselves for thousands of years. And they hate us. For us to think that we'll just fix this in a couple of years is arrogant and naive," Lanning said.
In the southwestern Missouri town of Marshfield, the home of Army Spec. Michael Campbell, killed in Iraq in May, truck driver James Smishek expects a long ordeal. "This deal in Iraq is going to be with us for awhile, whether we like it or not," he said, sitting with a plate of burritos at a Taco Bell. "It's almost like Americans forgot what happened on 9/11. If you don't have stability in that region, we're all gonna pay."
Norma Bacarisse, who is repairing an antique shop in the tornado-damaged town of Pierce City, said she is not happy with developments in Iraq. "But you have to know where the tide is going and go with the guy steering the boat," Bacarisse said.
"I hear people say our boys shouldn't be there. Well, if they're not there, where should they be? They weren't drafted. It [the war] might end up being something like Vietnam or Korea, where you don't end up with anything.
"But there is no doubt," she said, "that this was worth doing."
That kind of certitude is often associated with Truman. But his firm conviction was also tinged with humility. One of Truman's heroes was Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen-politician who returned to his plow after serving his nation in times of need. When Truman visited his birthplace in Lamar in 1959, he signed the guest registry and listed his occupation as "retired farmer."
It's one of those little touches of the humble that resonate so well in Missouri, where small-town politicians tend to get an electoral leg up on their big-city brethren. The last St. Louis-based governor was Republican Forrest Donnell in 1940. He served one term.
That suggests an uphill road for Kerry. "A Northeastern liberal like Kerry is just off the wall to a typical Missourian," said St. Louis University's Warren. "City slickers tend not to win in Missouri."
The small-town persona is certainly no guarantee of success in the presidential race. John F. Kennedy, like Kerry a Massachusetts senator, won Missouri in 1960 by 10,000 votes, out of 1.93 million cast. But that was on the strength of St. Louis, when the population was 750,000 and the clout of organized labor was much greater.
For all of the importance placed on small-town values, the prize of Missouri will likely be decided by big-time concerns: the economy, war and health care--and all the old historic fractures.
"Kerry is not going to win Missouri," said Terry Jones, the political scientist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "Bush is going to win it or lose it, based on his competence."
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POPULATION (2002 est.)
MISSOURI 5.7 million (17th largest)
U.S. 5.8 million (average per state)
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Almanac of American Politics, Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Missouri: Gateway to the White House?
In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush won 102 of Missouri's 114 counties, but Democrat Al Gore's success in heavily populated areas made the race close. Four years earlier the state helped re-elect Democrat Bill Clinton.
How Missouri voted in the 2000 presidential election
Bush (R): 50.4%
Gore (D): 47.1%
Clinton (D): 47.5%
Dole (R): 41.2%
Sources: State of Missouri, Bureau of the Census