The last time the people of Anthony, Kan., chose a president, Memorial Park was a patch of grass with picnic tables and elm trees but no memorial to speak of. Rising from the earth now is a tribute to the turning point of the past four years — parts of steel beams from the World Trade Center, a block of limestone from the Pentagon, some dirt from a field near Shanksville, Pa.
Osama bin Laden is as common a household name as John Deere. The postal carrier’s son spent eight months in Iraq and might have to return. Wheat farmers at the co-op feel the pinch of soaring diesel costs. And business at the Pride of the Prairie Quilt Shoppe has collapsed as manufacturing layoffs have left customers cutting back.
Change has visited Anthony’s 2,440 souls. It’s in their park and pocketbooks and fields, in the eyes of their friends.
And it’s very much in their hearts and minds as they get ready to pick a president again.
“I’m real concerned, real concerned about this election,” says the quilt shop owner, Debbie Mangen. “This country is a lot more vulnerable than we were. That makes it very important.”
The consensus in Anthony and Anywhere, U.S.A.: Election Day 2004 matters one heck of a lot.
Four years ago, when 105 million Americans cast ballots for George W. Bush or Al Gore, there was peace and relative prosperity in the country. Airport security meant a quick zip through an
X-ray machine, not a shoeless pat-down. Iraq was a distant memory — a place where a fast war was fought and won. Florida was about Mickey Mouse, not hanging chads.
What were the issues then? some voters now ask. A few need prompting to even recall whom they voted for.
In the next breath, in voices full of passion, they explain why things are so different this time. Why voters so closely monitored the race between President Bush and John Kerry. Why citizens
endured lines at election offices to ensure they were registered. Why the debates drew more viewers than baseball.
Why, this year, the presidential campaign is America’s pastime.
They use words like scared, frustrated, disgusted, angry. But mostly, they echo Mangen.
Americans are real concerned.
Will their votes count? Will they wake up Wednesday and not yet know who the nation’s next leader is — again? Who can protect them, provide them insurance, create a job for them, lead them out of war? Will they make the right choice for the times? Will whomever they choose make a real difference in their lives?
“This election is more important to me than any other election I’ve voted in,” says Clint Flanagan.
“This year, there’s a lot of issues I feel strongly about,” says Jimmy Gosnell.
Both Gosnell, 45, of Irmo, S.C., and Flanagan, 33, of Frederick, Colo., are Iraq-bound. As they prepared for deployment, many things shared space on their to-do lists: getting wills in order, spending time with their families — and voting.
Gosnell supports Bush. Flanagan supports Kerry.
What they agree on is how invested they are in the outcome this time.
“My life is on the line,” says Flanagan.
Far from any war front, Margie Miller sees it that way, too. She wonders whether her kids will be safe from terrorists — or killed like her husband, Joel, who was sitting at his desk on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center when an airplane hit and “vaporized him.”
“Every election’s important, but ... my very survival is an issue, and that never was,” says Miller, 55, of Baldwin, N.Y. “I’d like to know I’m gonna live another 20 years, that I’ll have grandchildren. All I care about is safety, safety, safety.”
Miller, a self-proclaimed “loyal Democrat,” was undecided heading into Election Day. As she put it: “in turmoil.”
Mary Maglidt — one of those millions of uninsured everyone’s heard so much about — is desperate to know how the next president will help her afford her medicines for diabetes and arthritis. Trouble is, the 64-year-old Wal-Mart cashier has been unable to wade through the negative ads and personal attacks to get a sense for either candidate’s plan.
Kerry’s Vietnam service? Bush’s National Guard record? Maglidt, of Parkville, Md., quickly got her fill.
All this “bashing back and forth” has left her undecided, she says. “Sometimes I even think like my husband does — ‘Why bother?’”
But she darn well plans to bother, because: “Every vote counts.” She remembers Florida four years ago.
Palm Beach County, Fla., was election-fiasco-central in 2000. And that’s where Florence Zoltowsky, 74, will vote. “I know it won’t count,” she says. “It won’t make a difference. Am I cynical? Yes I am.”
Zoltowsky was a plaintiff in one of the many lawsuits over Florida’s confusing butterfly ballots; in 2000, the Gore supporter accidentally cast her vote for Pat Buchanan. This year, she’s infuriated over pre-election lawsuits and word that so-called “SWAT teams” of lawyers are geared up for a postelection battle.
“They’re already in line to sue and to sue and to sue. It’s not supposed to be like that,” she says. “A vote should be holy.”
So who gets hers? She’s uncertain.
Miller, Maglidt and Zoltowsky are three of the much-sought-after undecideds ready to finally decide. In past years, their choice was clear-cut. What changed?
Miller’s explanation: “I can’t seem to filter out one person’s spin versus the other’s to find the truth. I guess we never do get the truth, but I guess I never cared as much to know the truth.”
It all comes down to that. People care, many more than ever before.
In Anthony, Kan., folks turned a patch of grass into a memorial to the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, not because someone with ties to Anthony died that day — no one did. They built it because the attacks somehow felt ... personal.
This Election Day, they feel much the same way.
It’s less about lawsuits or flip-flopping or finger-pointing. It’s about whether mail carrier Randy Patterson’s son has to quit college and go back to Iraq, whether co-op manager Dan Cashier’s patrons can afford fuel to plow their fields, whether Debbie Mangen can hold onto her quilt shop.
Election 2004 is about more than politics. This year, it’s downright personal.