One perk of covering a White House race from day one is that early-bird journalists snag lots of one-on-one time with the candidate.
Thus, Candy Crowley of CNN found herself sitting with John Kerry in a super-ordinary coffee shop in Dubuque, Iowa. The veteran political correspondent ordered coffee.
The senator, from Massachusetts, ordered green tea.
The waitress, from Iowa, was puzzled.
"I advised the senator that he would need to carry his own green tea in Iowa and probably several other states, as well," quipped Crowley, speaking at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in South Florida.
Yes, it's time for "post mortems" on 2004. So far, said Crowley, the experts insist the race was decided by -- take your pick -- the 22 percent of the voters that yearned for "moral values" or the 23 percent that were white evangelical Christians.
Crowley grew up in the Midwest and she thinks she can tell red zones from blue zones. Democrats have cornered the green-tea crowd, she said. Republicans are winning what Capital Beltway insiders now call the "Applebee's vote." This schism may have as much to do with cappuccinos and chainsaws as with the New York Times and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Faith played a major role, but it's simplistic to say that religious people voted for President George W. Bush and secularists for Kerry, said Crowley. The religious left has its own moral and spiritual beliefs and it will, in future elections, find ways to express them in the public square.
It would also be inaccurate to claim that evangelicals marched into voting booths and seized control. Bush won 52 percent of Catholic voters, facing a Catholic candidate, and 59 percent of the overall Protestant vote. The New York Times noted that the president, in four years, raised his share of the Jewish vote from 19 to 25 percent, winning two-thirds of the Orthodox Jewish votes.
The elites just didn't get it. "Somewhere along the line, all of us missed this moral-values thing," said Crowley.
This will be painful for journalists to hear. It is one thing, after decades of dissecting media-bias statistics, to know that armies of religious conservatives believe American newsrooms are packed with God-forsaken libertines. It will be harder for journalists to admit that they are blind to important stories.
Nevertheless, it's time to face the facts, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. 'Different' is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens," he said, in an essay called "Confessions of an Alienated Journalist."
"The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible. ... My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist."
As a Catholic progressive, Clark said he finds it hard to hear "moral values" without thinking of "showy piety and patriotism, with more than a dash of racism and homophobia." He knows all about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and Bubba the Love Sponge. How come so many other Americans know what it means to be "evangelical," "charismatic" and "born again" and feel at home at church suppers?
Right now, there needs to be "more self-doubt in the journalistic system, as opposed to arrogance," said Clark, reached at his office. "We need to be able to say that we don't know it all and that we need to learn. We need to take a step back."
Most of all, said Crowley, journalists and blue-zone leaders must grasp that many parents feel threatened by the "coarsening" of American culture. They feel attacked.
"It's like they are saying, 'I was made to feel like a freak because I go to church' or 'I was made to feel like I was an idiot because I believe in God,' " she said. "They're telling us, 'I want my family safe and I want to be able to teach my children what I believe is true.'