VENICE, Neb. — There is no waiting in line to vote in this quiet town of rolling cornfields and canals, but not for lack of interest. It may, rather, have something to do with its population count: zero.
For the developers who named this area after the picturesque Italian city on water — the land of glass, gondolas and romance — complete vacancy was not exactly the intention. Had all gone well, the town would have been a resort getaway for Omaha’s wealthy.
Then the Great Depression hit. For the developers, bankruptcy followed. And raisins in the Cornhusker sun shriveled: The vision of a rare Nebraskan farm town featuring man-made waterways cutting through serene fields died with the times.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting that on Election Day 2008, 80 some-odd years later, a shop offering a peek into the region’s past — Venice Antiques — is the only store standing. (Well, that and a gas station called, naturally, “The Merchant of Venice.”)
Since the town is unincorporated, the shop has a Waterloo, Neb., ZIP code and a Valley, Neb., area code. It has state license plates, Briwax and about two dozen “You might be a redneck if …” stickers. And it has two owners, Dave and Laverna Edmister, who are behind the store’s counter Tuesday touting their “I Voted Today” stickers.
I notice them only after spelunking the entire store in search of Heartland souvenirs. After settling with an original Johnson & Johnson Plastic Strips container (“New Super-Stick!”), the record version of John Williams’ soundtrack from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a Warhol-era Campbell Soup mug and a local publication from Dec. 1, 1963 — “This Week in Omaha: A Modest Voice,” featuring a slain John F. Kennedy on its cover — I delicately place the items on the counter.
We chit-chat about the election, about why not just one party but everyone in Washington should be replaced, about their vote for Scott Kleeb GRD ’06, my reason for trekking west to Nebraska.
Then I throw a curve, veering toward the apolitical for a change: “What is this region like?” I ask. It’s a silly question, I admit, but one with which I have been grappling all week.
“Most people out east think this is flyover country,” David says.
“Don’t say that!” retorts his wife.
Then they explain.
“People here are pretty down-to-earth and friendly,” he begins. “They take people just as they are.” Adds his wife, “And they are far more intelligent and knowledgeable than a lot of people think they are.”
It’s time for my ticket, the local term for “check.”
I ask whether they take Visa.
“Do I take it where?” David retorts. “I’ll take it out to dinner — I’ll take you out to dinner!”
They really are friendly in the heartland.
Campaigning in Connecticut is about rallies at Hartford arenas, mobilizing town political machines and wooing coverage from television stations and dailies.
Campaigning in Nebraska is about people. People on porches; people in parking lots; people at the Cowboy Christmas craft show in North Platte, Neb., on Sunday afternoon.
That’s where Kleeb, sporting his silver tie, blue shirt and trademark grin, spent 30 minutes after a town hall this weekend. (I tagged along, purchasing a lasso in the process.)
Many of the merchants behind the tables in the eerie warehouse — the sign in front read “Bloodfest” — said they had not heard of Kleeb. That’s not to say they didn’t care. Besides one resident — “I don’t vote, but I don’t complain” — each promised an open mind, the streak of “independent thinking” that Kleeb has said he hoped would lead to a surprise victory.
There was, however, was no sense of celebrity. Although Kleeb is tall and striking — a standout in a crowd if there ever was one — no shoppers jumped to speak to the Democrat. Only one asked for a cell-phone photograph. Most simply looked up — and then looked away.
But when Kleeb approached a booth, conversations flew like the tumbleweed that scurried across the road on the way to the event. Sometimes, even, they lasted more than 10 minutes.
After all, they call campaigning “retail politics” out here.
“Politics at its root is about people,” Kleeb told me after he lost his campaign for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night. “That’s where the Greek word comes from.”
As his staff rushed the candidate out to catch a small plane to Scottsbluff, Neb., a women offered Kleeb — who had forgotten his wallet — some jewelry for his wife, Jane. He promised to pay later.
“Now that’s trust,” a campaign staffer said.
Developing personal trust, for better or for worse, is the basket in which Kleeb put most of his campaign’s eggs — a very Nebraskan decision.
Hence the pick-up truck at the center of his campaign: the same white 2000 Chevy Kleeb used to drive around this region in search of interviews and history for his doctoral thesis, an experience that informed his decision to enter politics, where conversations with average Americans are part of the daily routine.
On its sides, front and hood now are hundreds of messages that just about say it all, from “I <3 Scott” and “Scott Kleeb FTW [For The Win]” to “Keep God in Our Schools” and “Work For Those Who Work.” They also say just about everything there is to say about the way Kleeb ran for office: not primarily by attracting media attention as he did in 2006 — seven out of seven major dailies in Nebraska endorsed his opponent this time around — but by aiming to establish connections between voters, who, in turn, would activate social “networks” throughout the state.
There were not, perhaps as a result, many statewide turning points in the race to fill Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel’s vacant seat. There were, however, quite a few one-on-one turning points for individuals: voters in painfully small towns swayed by a conversation with the natural talker.
“If we’ve learned one thing this campaign,” said Paul DeleHanty, Kleeb’s online communications director, “it’s that Nebraskans like Scott Kleeb. He has a way with them. They trust him.”
(They also trust and like the man who beat him, former Gov. Mike Johanns, who pointed out in an interview Tuesday that he could boast field operations in every Nebraskan county.)
The nature of this trust, of course, is on one level literal: a feeling that the down-to-earth former professor, rodeo rider and rancher will do what he says he will do. Truth be told, however, it is also about identity.
During the race, Kleeb has pitched himself as an area native, even if he was born on a military base in Italy and attended college in Boulder, Colo., and New Haven. (This is toned down some from 2006, when he was almost always pictured with a cowboy hat.)
On his bright-red — not blue, interestingly — campaign sign, the word “NEBRASKA” was nearly as large as “KLEEB.” The campaign’s incorporated name was “Nebraskans for Change.” His refrain on the truck was, “Out here, a man’s pickup is his all.” He aimed to distinguish himself as a campaigner by pointing out that he talks to “hunters and ranchers,” even though “Democrats are not supposed to … for some strange reason,” and he asked volunteers to respect “McCain–Kleeb supporters.” His father, Al, calls him an “absolute moderate.”
For Allen Schreiber, a registered Republican for the past 25 years, all it took was a 25-minute conversation several months ago.
“When I was done,” he said, “I was thoroughly convinced that the man should be the next senator.”
Several days before his birthday this summer, Kleeb found himself kibitzing with ranchers hours northwest of Omaha at the famous Morgan Ranch, where Kleeb once worked for Dan Morgan, a wealthy benefactor who is known internationally for the gourmet meat he produces.
Rolling sand dunes, verdant fields and a brilliant orange sun made for the picturesque scene at the Johnson ranch, where I witnessed the very essence of Nebraskan politics: five dozen guests, neighbors who nonetheless had to schlep two hours to reach the location, gathering in front of a porch and chowing down on renowned Nebraskan burgers.
Gone, truth be told, are the town centers where residents used to gather to play checkers, one area resident who had just purchased a cell phone told me, but since very little has replaced it — there are few, if any, Internet hot spots or chains in the region — porches remain a focal point of interaction.
With a summer drizzle muddying the ground but not the mood, Kleeb began to talk to the crowd. It wasn’t flawless — jean-clad, six-foot-three and unsure of the right cadence to adopt, he still did not seem quite comfortable in his own boots — but the talk did cut straight to the heart of the matter.
“I stand for Nebraskan values,” Kleeb said, eschewing the typical Democrat-progressive stump speech. With anecdotes in hand, he talked about not spending more than we have and helping neighbors in times of need. He spoke about his daughters, energy independence and health care.
Months later, these same values would evolve into Kleeb’s “Ten Commitments to Serve Nebraska.” Among them: stay in Hastings, Neb., with his family; send his daughters to public school; refuse to accept free health care before all those in his state have access; decline “junkets or gifts” from lobbyists; vote against a pay raise until the budget is balanced.
The formula may not have worked this time around, but Kleeb, according to staff and family interviewed, won’t stop here. He says he loves the heartland too much to retire from the professional art of building relationships, listening to ideas, asking questions.
“No part of me is done,” he said Tuesday night.
Throughout my several days and two trips observing Kleeb, I never heard big promises, erudite words or proud proclamations. I never caught the candidate straying too far from his roots. I never witnessed him balking at the chance to speak to a voter.
At a University of Nebraska café Tuesday, I consider what, if anything, all this means. I think of the small towns I passed through: Tecumseh, with its stillness reminiscent of the dead towns in the Langoliers; Hastings, with the OK Café, a relic of the days when the Union Pacific Railroad rules the Midwest; Venice, with its population of zero.
I reach into my bag of antiques for guidance. With CNN pundits discussing the gravity of the presidential election on a projection system nearby, the 1960s publication featuring the JFK cover catches my eye.
Published one week after the 35th president died, its cover touts a reflective editorial inside. I flip open to page two and read: “It is the responsibility of every earth-bound individual to purge himself of hate, regardless whether it masquerades as prejudice or righteous indignation, and rededicate himself to the perpetuation of society. For without such a creed, Man will follow the whooping crane into ultimate extinction.”
In a moment of humility, the editors then conclude: “Our voice is modest. Our influence is small. But to this credo we pledge.”
I close the pamphlet and look at the date. I consider the location, printed white-on-black inches away: Nebraska. And once more, I check the date: 1963.
Save for the JFK references, I wonder, could the same words have been written in today’s Cornhusker State?
For an answer, I must wait until a quarter past midnight on the morning of Nov. 5, when I accost Johanns as he appears in an otherwise-empty ballroom to speak to a lingering staff member about late-night returns.
Nebraska, the senator-elect tells me when I ask him to describe the heartland voter, “is a state where traveling the state and getting to know people … really does pay off.”
Although the same statement could be made across the country, Johanns’ emphasis on “does” is telling: All that the voters here want, after all, is that small influence, that modest voice.
Like every American — at heart.