I was filling up at a truck stop in rural northeastern Georgia the week before Election Day when the man at the next pump looked at my New Jersey license plate and asked, politely, “What’s a fellow like you doing here?”
I told him I was doing a tour with my new book, “Worst. President. Ever.” I told him it was an irreverent biography of James Buchanan.
“Don’t know that you might not need a new chapter,” he said, not revealing whether he meant Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I had decided to do my tour of talks, radio shows and book-signings by car, more than 4,000 miles in about five weeks, off and on, either side of Election Day. Wherever I went — from universities to truck stops; radio interviews to friends’ houses — people all seemed anxious, especially when they heard the name of my book, asking me, as if I knew something, what I thought was happening not in 1856, but today.
I have been a reporter all my life, but that wasn’t what I was doing on this Kerouacian road trip. College professors and even public radio hosts seemed to think I could give an answer. I felt like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when he dreamed of being rich and discussing “the holy books with the learned men” solving “problems that would cross a rabbi’s eye.”
That anxiety that everyone seemed to have, though, made me more aware of what I was seeing, especially on the road. While looking at social media, not to mention TV and radio and publications, it had seemed like a major tectonic event had happened, and everyone jumped to one side or another, never seeing friends across the great crack again.
On the road, though, it appeared to me in a different manner, with more shades and grades of grey involved.
In the sparseness of northwestern Indiana, for instance, I passed through 15 or 20 miles’ worth of huge white windmills — rows and rows to the horizon.
Trump might have been talking the return of coal in this and other neighboring red states, but someone was clearly investing in the other side.
Similarly, I saw a warren of organic farms in South Carolina and went into unisex rest rooms in that toilet-aggravated state of North Carolina.
On the other hand, I saw more Trump-Pence signs than I could imagine in Minnesota, which votes collectively for Democrats as often as any place in the country.
When home in New Jersey, too, I rode through the nearby town of Atco, the bluest of blue-collar areas, where I worked at the drag-strip food stand as a kid, but also where Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s all-in campaign manager, grew up.
I tried to imagine that way-back-when she may have hung out there, a fun drag-strip girl like in “Grease.”
When I spoke at David Axelrod’s Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago, my sister-in-law and I got to see his collection of political memorabilia, and she was a bit puzzled that a Democratic operative would have a photo of Douglas MacArthur.
I have to admit the same feeling chatting with several Republicans when I appeared at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta.
What everyone wanted to be assured of, I imagined, was that whoever was next would not be the “Worst. President. Ever.” What I saw, in my limited, if lengthy, drive was that we surely are, as Walt Whitman noted of himself, containing multitudes.
I can’t tell you that the people who own those South Carolina organic farms don’t also belong to some “alt-right” secret club. Or that the Trump-Pencers in Minnesota also don’t break into song when they hear native son Bob Dylan chant, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.” My drive drove me to think that America’s main theme might well be, not the schism commentators are pushing, but the oddments out my Toyota’s window.
The night before the election, I went to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and saw the fiesta before the coronation that never happened: three Clintons, two Obamas, two Jersey guys — Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.
As the 40,000 or 50,000 there filed out one way, I went the other a few blocks, to Musical Fund Hall, the still-standing site of the first Republican convention, the one in 1856 that nominated John Fremont to run against my now-friend, the Democrat, Mr. Buchanan.
The old Stetson hat factory — it was a Philadelphia firm — is just two blocks down the street. It all made me think of the differences between that time of multitudes and today.
I looked up at the small building — it now holds but nine condominiums, hardly the vastness of a convention site today — and envisioned a triumphant Fremont, known as “The Pathfinder,” because he and Kit Carson mapped out the routes to the west in four expeditions.
Like Trump, Fremont was a celebrity, not a politician. There, in my vision of more than a century past, I saw the celebrity-candidate Fremont putting on a Stetson, stenciled in front, “Make America … ”
Robert Strauss is the author of “Worst. President. Ever.,” an irreverent biography of James Buchanan. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.