In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 25: The End

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Photograph by Joe Klein

Los Angeles, Ca.

Traveling Companions: none

Events: Closing it Down

Mileage: 6,782

Yesterday, in late afternoon, I stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It was a beautiful day, the beach was empty, the ocean calm. The trip was over. It was an amazing experience, perhaps a transformative one. I’ve started to rethink my positions on several important issues as a result of the things I’ve learned on this trip, especially on economic issues like free trade, and the emphasis we place on military force projection. There is a simple calculus: for every time a voter has mentioned Afghanistan on this trip, other voters have mentioned China 25 times. I realize I’ve been spending too much time worrying about the former and not enough time thinking about the latter.

But my experiences on the road have reinforced my views in many other areas. Democrats really do need to spend more energy managing the federal government ¬†and less energy putting foolish provisions into overly-complicated legislation. People simply don’t understand what they’ve been doing in Washington–and they see evidence of the sloppiness of government programs on an almost daily basis. The creativity and energy that immigration, ethnic and religious diversity bring to our country has also been made clear, yet again, on this trip.

The first thing everybody asks me about is the Tea Party. I’ve met more than a few Tea Partiers on this trip; I understand their fears–and I’m impressed by their efforts to study early American history (even if it’s a rather selective and sometimes distorted view of the founding fathers). I’m not impressed by the simplicity of their remedies nor overly concerned about their long-term impact on American politics. The Tea Party seems a largely Republican phenomenon, defenestrating incumbents and pushing the party way to the right–and producing a crop of ignorant and defective political candidates that have given Democrats new life in several important races. Most of the Republicans I’ve spoken with on this trip are vehement in their support for traditional conservative positions–less government, lower taxes–but they’re uneasy all the same: they sense a larger problem in the country than the strawman of “creeping socialism.” They’re beginning to wonder about free trade and huge military expenditures as well. At the same time, a majority of the Democrats I’ve spoken with on this trip are totally flummoxed, unsure of what their party should stand for. Both sides are convinced the country is sliding downhill.

In the end, though, the policy questions raised by my trip are overwhelmed by the sheer tide of raucous American humanity I’ve encountered along the way. I’ll never forget people like John McGraw, who sent out 4000 resumes looking for work–and then was hired a few days after I left; and Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Gentry, who gathered some of his fellow first responders for a conversation with me in Brighton, Michigan–and Terry Polidori, who invited me to her family’s weekly Saturday breakfast in Detroit. I’ll never forget the undocumented immigrant Michael in Phoenix, who only wants to join the Marines; and Bill and Pat Chavez, who invited their neighbors to dinner with me in Yuba City, California. It was great to spend time with old friends like Harper Barnes, Fred DuVal, Morley Winograd–and especially Captain Jeremiah Ellis and Sgt. Jack Robison, who are safely home at Fort Carson, Colorado. (It was great to have a mini-road trip with Victoria, too.)

One thing I realized on this trip was how much time I spend immersed in the media back home–reading newspapers and blogs and books, watching tv–and how little time I spend immersed in other people. On Tuesday, I spent five hours talking to Dalia Mogahed, my last traveling companion, as we drove from Sacramento to Los Angeles. I can’t remember the last five-hour conversation I’ve had with anyone, except Victoria. We talked about Dalia’s fascinating work as Gallup’s Director of Islamic Studies; we talked about her family and mine–and her decision to wear hejab as a 17-year-old growing up in Madison, Wis.; we talked about her subsequent turn toward religion and about the peace that Islam provides her on a daily basis (we stopped midday so that she could pray in a restaurant parking lot). It was a lovely drive; I’m very grateful that Dalia flew all the way from Abu Dhabi to join me.

I’m also grateful to the Time staffers who helped me along the way–especially the invaluable Katy Steinmetz, who has the instincts and enthusiasm and creativity of a great journalist in the making. I’d like to thank Peter Van Agtmael for all the terrific photos; Craig Duff and Natasha Del Toro for the memorable video. I’d like to thank Rob and Michele Reiner for hosting an end-of-trip party at their Los Angeles home Wednesday night. But most of all, I’d like to thank you–the and Swampland readers–who introduced me to your friends, family and co-workers. You taught me so much, were so generous with your time and opinions, and forced me to start re-examining some of the assumptions I’ve held for twenty years. My daily interactions with your friends and family–and my drives through the spectacularly beautiful American heartland–were a reminder, not that I needed one, of how simply magnificent this country is…and how important it is that we work hard to figure our way through this current dark season.

I figured that I’d go out with a final playlist, featuring California songs and California artists:

1. Big Sur–the Thrills

2. California Bloodlines–Dave Alvin

3. Portions for Foxes–Rilo Kiley

4. Mama Tried–by the Bakersfield genius, Merle Haggard, who really did spend “21 in prison.”

5. Do It Again–Steely Dan…

And yes, I may well do it again, in 2012.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.