I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it.
—George W. Bush, November 3, 2004
Driving north from Tampa on Florida’s Route 75 on November 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman’s voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of “voting for bin Laden” (“Haven’t you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?“), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the “hundreds of votes” Senator Kerry cast “against our national defense” (“In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering…can we afford to take that risk?“), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of “Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!” and “Need Help With Sinkholes?,” a series of perhaps fifty garish signs announcing an approaching “Adult Toy Café!” and “Adult Toy Extravaganza!” and then “We Bare All!” and finally, the capper, “All Nude—Good Food—Truckers Welcome!”
It wasn’t long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint—“Jesus Is Still the Answer!”—and by the time I reached the promised “extravaganza”—a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it—I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff’s always in redemption.
This was perhaps thirty-six hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question—more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected “moral values” as their “most important issue”—and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans’ disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other “Hollywood-type” moral laxity. Some, like the Reverend Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote the President with admirable directness to remind him what the election meant, and what he now owed:
In your re-election, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn’t deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate…. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ….
Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress…
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