Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 19: Road Trip Interruptus

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Joe Klein drives on the road between Texarkana, Texas, and Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Sept. 19, 2011.

New York

My mom has been ailing for the past few weeks–she’s 91–and I’ve decided to curtail this year’s road trip so that I can attend to her and my dad, also 91. So we pack up about 4 days and 1 state (Minnesota) short of what we’d planned. (Minnesota, I’m looking at you, for next year’s trip).

Meanwhile, this week’s print column, which can be found here, features a terrific meeting I had with residents of Ellston and Sun Valley Lake, Iowa, a few days ago. As with many of the other meetings set up by you, dear readers–in this case, the instigator was a woman named Kila Christensen–the absence of civility… in our political discourse was a prime topic of conversation. There were about 20 people in the room, none of the Tea Party members, all of them either conservative Democrats or moderate Republicans. And it was strange: they had no sympathy for the style or policy of the Tea Party, but they envied its ability to get the attention of the politicians in Washington. They reflected the vast majority of the country, according to the polls: they wanted something like the $4.7 trillion deficit reduction deal that President Obama and John Boehner nearly put together. They wanted tax reform, lower rates, fewer loopholes. They were extremely frustrated that their voices were never heard, that the extremists got all the press.

Mary Anne, 54, and husband, Wayne green, 59, members of The Patriot Party, an offshoot of the Tea Party, attend a meeting at Big Jakes BBQ in Texarkana, Arkansas, Sept. 20, 2011. (Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME)

That’s a pretty good explanation of the value of these road trips: to give normality a megaphone, and to try to find the civilized core of even the angriest Americans (as I did in my meeting with the Texarkana Tea Party). A furniture dealer in Conway, Arkansas, complained at one point: Why don’t the media, the cable news channels like CNN, ever ask politicians what they agree on? Why don’t they ask that first and then ask them about where they disagree?

That, I realized, was sort of the way I go about interviewing people on these road trips. It isn’t as exciting or outrageous as giving the ideologues their day; it doesn’t raise any real heat from those who comment on Swampland. But it’s important to remind you–and me, especially me–who you really are. Your concerns become my concerns when I return to the usual Beltway haunts (and to the campaign trail, which sometimes seems an extension of the Beltway). That’s why I’ll be out again next year.

This year’s reporting isn’t done, though. I’ll have one or two more pieces, including a summation, in the print magazine. I may have a few more observations to post here. The final mileage total, by the way, was 2976.

And here’s a final playlist:

1. The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design by Rodney Crowell

2. The Poet Game , sung by Ani DiFranco (written by Greg Brown, an American treasure who deserves more attention than he gets)

3. Sweet is the Melody by Iris DeMent (who, last I heard, was living with Greg Brown)

4. Talkin’ ‘Bout Women, Obviously by Buddy Guy

5. Leonard by Merle Haggard