The Road to Mount Vernon

NPR's "On the Road" series concludes at Mount Rushmore, where NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Jeff Brady talk to Michele Norris about their observations during their two-week cross-country tour.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This month, a pair of NPR reporters have been on the road. Andrea Seabrook and Jeff Brady have been crossing the country, talking with Americans about their relationship with government. Andrea began in South Carolina, Jeff in Oregon. And now they've met up at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Andrea and Jeff are with us now.

Hello to both of you.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Hello.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Hello.

NORRIS: Now we know that Americans have a somewhat conflicted view of government. They like the benefits but can resent the intrusions and the expectations. You both have been on the road for two weeks. What would you say surprised you the most about what people said about their relationship with the federal government? I'm going to begin with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Well, Michele, you know, I was actually constantly surprised by every answer I got out on the road, because the answers were so apolitical. And it occurred to me after a while that, you know, we ask people so often about politics when we come out, you know, outside of Washington, red or blue, Republican or Democrat. And when you ask them, it's a very different question, `What is your relationship to the government?' And whether they answer at a Tennessee yard sale that they're, you know, losing their health care or at a Missouri cattle ranch that they need drought assistance money, Americans don't seem to buy into the `us and them' political fighting as much as it might seem.

NORRIS: Jeff, any surprises for you?

BRADY: I was surprised how eloquent people can be. When you approach them just cold on the street and ask them about the issues that are important to them, they have immediate responses. I took--there was the Republican in Wyoming; just right off the bat, he said, `The most important thing to me right now is that we have a new treatment center for meth addicts in my community.' And the Democrat in South Dakota who said--you know, he's riding his motorcycle, and he says, `The helmet laws. I want those helmet laws repealed.' People think about their government and their relationship with the government a lot. And I was constantly surprised by that.

NORRIS: So when they talk about the helmet laws or the meth clinic, are they thinking about the local government there, or is their mind on Washington?

BRADY: Well, they're certainly thinking about local government because that local government's going to build that methamphetamine treatment center, or the state government is going to repeal that helmet law. But a lot of people don't seem to distinguish necessarily between state and federal government; they see government as sort of this big general entity that gets things done. And we were trying to ask people, you know, generally about government, not specifically about federal or state government.

NORRIS: You've both covered a lot of ground. Andrea, you've been in South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Iowa. What kind of differences did you find along the way?

SEABROOK: Well, I think so much of the regional differences that I found, you know, what people want from their government, what they think it should be doing, has a lot to do with the kinds of communities they live in. And you know, the land itself--you know, in South Dakota and Iowa, they farm; they grow corn. The land is fertile itself. And so they want, you know, corn subsidies. They want ethanol. So the land itself spurs these national issues, whereas in Missouri, where the land is not as fertile--it's rocky--then they end up doing cattle ranching there. And they want beef prices to be high and grain prices to be low. And so the way these people interact with their government, what they want from it, has so much to do with the ground under their feet in these places.

NORRIS: And, Jeff, you've been to Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. What kind of differences did you discover on your journey?

BRADY: Well, I started out in a big city, Portland, Oregon, and I noticed an interesting difference as I moved inland to the more rural areas. In Portland, the talk seemed to be a lot more political, you know, Republican vs. Democrat and liberal vs. conservative, and people seemed quite aware of the politics that were going on, and that's what they wanted to talk about. But as I got inland to the rural areas, the issues seemed more pragmatic and kind of on the ground. So the fellow in Wyoming who said that he wanted a treatment center, the mother in Nevada who has a son who's a soldier in Iraq and she says she just wants good mental health care for her son when he gets home--the differences were just really striking there, that they just wanted to talk about things that affected them personally. And then when you think that there's 280 million of those `thems' out there, that's a lot of complicated relationships with government and a lot of complicated needs from government.

NORRIS: We're so glad that both of you were out there listening to America. Thanks so much for being with us.

SEABROOK: It's our pleasure.

BRADY: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Jeff Brady, speaking to us from Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota.

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