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End of the road

  • Jon Kelly
  • 18 Oct 08, 03:10 GMT

PALISADES, NEW YORK: The bus rumbled into the quiet cul-se-sac before juddering to a halt. This was my final destination. It was time to step off for good.

Since the start of my journey, I'd travelled more than 7,500 miles across 16 states. I'd spoken to dozens of Americans about their hopes and fears as election day approached.

But having made it from one coast to another, I reasoned that the US had probably endured quite enough of me by now.

Jon Kelly with the BBC Talking America bus I had one last appointment to keep. Kurt and Kristan Bridges had been following my blog, along with the rest of the BBC's Talking America coverage. They'd invited me round to their home to give me a send-off. Not for the first time, I was touched by Americans' capacity for hospitality and kindness.

The couple's home in upstate New York looked like the sort of place most of their countryfolk would aspire to raise a family. Kristan and Kurt had worked hard to get here. There were no Republican or Democrat banners on their lawn, just Halloween decorations.

We talked politics. Kurt, 41, who ran his own audio-visual technology firm, was for Obama. Kristan, 32, hadn't made up her mind yet: she saw good and bad in both candidates. Having quit her job as marketing executive to look after her two small boys full-time, however, she marvelled at Sarah Palin's ability to balance her career with her family.

Kurt was fascinated by how a foreigner like me saw his country. "We're all interconnected now," he said. "This might be my house, but we're all neighbours."

Like so many of my readers, Kristan wasn't afraid to tell me, in good humour, what I could have done better. "You said you'd put on weight," she scolded, smiling. "But you didn't tell us what you'd normally eat back home. That would have been interesting for your readers in the US."

A load of rubbish normally, Kristan, just less of it. But so much for the notion that Americans are insular. If I'd learned anything on this trip, it's that preconceived notions won't get you very far here.

I'd met conservative Texans who were green energy pioneers and gun enthusiasts who turned out to be cheerful, homely moms. Likewise, there were the gay activists who espoused family values and religious faith, and the evangelical Christians who believed the church ought to stay out of politics.

I wouldn't dream of claiming that any of the people I met were representative of America as a whole. How could they be, in a country so magnificently vast and diverse?

To truly do justice to the range of experience here, I'd have to interview 300 million people: a feat that would test the BBC's resources, not to mention my shorthand. But I hope everyone I spoke to provided a snapshot of how surprising and illuminating this place can be.

These were nervous times for Americans. In Memphis, Mississippi, Las Vegas and West Virginia, I heard how the least fortunate face hardship and uncertainty. Even the traders on Wall Street and the socialites in Manhattan were edgy.

But against backdrops of poverty, I also heard truly inspiring tales from the Native American runners of New Mexico and the ballet dancers of Harlem.

I encountered some individuals whom I deeply admired - among them Rahim Al-Haj, the Iraqi oud player turned anti-Saddam dissident, and Dusty Flynn, who was compelled to help others after the death of her husband.

Kristan and Kurt Bridges with their sons Harrison, six, and Tate, fourIn particular, the story of the incredible James Meredith, whose lone stand against racism was one of the defining moments of recent US history, showed me how far this country had come. Within a lifetime it had gone from segregation to an African-American man running as a prime contender for the presidency.

Yes, race was still a sensitive issue here. There was the (very) occasional ugly remark. And one politician's comments landed him in hot water. But I don't think any comparable nation has made so much progress in so little time.

And despite the acrimonious tone of this election, I'm confident that Americans will continue to come together. You only have to look at their music - be it nominally black or white - or their food to see that this nation of immigrants is the world's biggest and most successful melting pot.

Sitting across the dinner table from Kurt and Kirstan, I didn't want to leave. But I knew I shouldn't outstay my welcome, either.

As I stood up to go, I told them what I'd say to any American right now.

Thank you. And good luck.

Recent entries

Best foot forward

  • Jon Kelly
  • 17 Oct 08, 05:57 GMT

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: The young members of the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) were putting me to shame. I watched bewildered as the largely African-American troupe stretched, spun and contorted with impossible suppleness.

I marvelled at their athleticism, their poise, their strength. Then I looked down at my paunch, acquired during six weeks sat immobile on the bus eating burgers, and regretted slightly less that my journey would end the next day.

Ballet performers at the Dance Theater of Harlem, led by Keith Saunders Harlem might be best famous for its basketball, soul food and jazz - and, of course, as one of the focal points of US black culture.

This was where Duke Ellington played and Billie Holliday sang, where Malcolm X preached and W E B DuBois agitated. Although the area's reputation nosedived in the 1970s and 1980s amid soaring crime and crippling poverty, recent years have seen the area begin to undergo some measure of gentrification - a development that hasn't met with universal approval.

With the DTH on its doorstep, Harlem could also legitimately call itself a ballet capital, too. The theatre operates a world-renowned touring ensemble as well as its own school, which teaches more than 1,000 pupils each year.

I wondered how such a troupe would fit to an inner-city neighbourhood. During a break in rehearsals one of the dancers, 25-year-old Brandon Perry-Russell, quietly explained as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

This was no oasis of gentility in urban New York. The DTH had roots deep in the community. The students were far from privileged: some 70% were here on grants or scholarships.

Brandon Perry-Russell "We reach out to kids, and they realise pretty quickly that it isn't sissy," he said. "You've got to be physically tough to do this, you've got to be athletic. Plus, the little boys get to an age where they want to hang out with the little girls.

"Dancing is valued in Harlem, and we fit into that."

Like the rest of Harlem, he said, the troupe was changing: he danced alongside white, Hispanic and Asian performers. In the streets outside, the vibrant cultural scene was drawing people of all races and backgrounds to the area.

All the same, though, I'd noticed the Obama posters and flags that seemed to adorn every window. I asked Brendon what it meant in such a strongly African-American area that a man of colour stood, for the first time ever, within reach of the country's top job.

There was no doubt that people were inspired and energised. But wasn't so much the fact that Obama was black that excited them, Brendon said. It was because victory for the Democratic candidate would signal that there were no barriers to opportunity.

"If he's elected, it sends out the message that even if you come from a single parent family, if you've been raised on food stamps, you can still become president. Or a teacher. Or a ballet dancer."

For Keith Saunders, however, the significance of Obama's ethnicity couldn't be overstated. As he took a pause from leading a dance class, Keith, 55, told me that he'd first joined the DTH in 1975. Back then, Harlem was a very different place: hardship and racism were ever-present.

"I think if you'd asked most African-American people even two or three years ago whether they'd see a black president of the USA, the answer would have been no," he said.

"It's wonderful to witness a moment in history like this. I feel truly privileged."

Just as Senator Obama's successes so far have plotted a new template for black leadership, Harlem, too, has become upwardly mobile in recent years. As the crime rate was brought down, young professionals began to move in, attracted by the handsome brownstone apartments and the relatively cheap property prices.

Ashley Murphy On my way here I'd seen the upmarket delis and the renovated buildings that signposted pockets of gentrification. But another young dancer, Ashley Murphy, 23, told me that the changes hadn't been good for everyone in the community.

"They're building a lot of condominiums, refurbishing the apartments, but that's making it more expensive," she added.

"Although it's improving, some people have had to leave because they can't afford the rent."

But a more ominous danger was threatening the area: the credit crunch. A project like the DTH was dependent on philanthropy; much of its funding had come from donations provided by the collapsed Washington Mutual and the troubled AIG.

Lavine Niadu, the theater's executive director, admitted he feared that up to a third of the $300,000 it received each year from corporate sponsors was under threat. There was already a waiting list for places at the school, he said, and it was likely to rocket if funding were cut further.

I looked out at all these talented young people, utterly composed and focused as they moved into first position. I wondered what each had sacrificed to be here.

This was what America was supposed to be all about, wasn't it? It seemed a bitter irony that at a time when their political hopes looked close to realisation, the dancers' own aspirations and ambitions were at risk of being snatched away.

Material girls

  • Jon Kelly
  • 16 Oct 08, 16:10 GMT

NEW YORK, NY: Sarah-Jessica Parker has a lot to answer for. In the imaginations of most of my female acquaintances, Manhattan is a sort of metropolitan Shangri-La where empowered, glamorous ladies spend eternal lunches discussing footwear and their endless stream of male admirers.

I feared I wasn't going to be able to do this place justice. I'm not quite conversant with the latest stiletto fashions. Where I grew up, a romantic dinner a deux meant stopping by the chip shop on the way back from the pub.

Luckily, I had an offer of help from on high - thirty stories high, to be precise, with stunning views across the island.

Jill Zarin Jill Zarin, 44, invited me to the luxurious downtown apartment she shared with her husband Bobby, a home furnishings magnate. She introduced me to her friend, 37-year-old Bethenny Frankel - a socialite, businesswoman and writer who was a regular fixture on New York's dating scene.

The pair had already been the subject of a reality TV show. Jill spent her days organising glamorous, $2,500-a-head charity fundraising events. Bethenny, essentially, saw herself as Carrie Bradshaw made flesh.

This all seemed a bit unreal. On my trip across the US, I'd met a lot of people on low incomes who were struggling as the economy worsened. Now, I had a chance to find out how those at the other end of the social hierarchy were faring.

Regular readers will know that I've been endeavouring to avoid easy archetypes in this blog. But really, Bethany made it difficult for me.

"My life is Sex and the City," she purred. I heard how she made a point of only going out with good-looking men. Less attractive specimens generally had something to prove from their High School days, she added, when they wouldn't have been able to snare girls as pretty as her.

For some reason, her friends had suggested that guys might find her intimidating.

The credit crunch hadn't affected Bethenny's natural food business, she said, but the economics of dating had been transformed.

Although she insisted that she wasn't an expensive dining companion ("I only order appetisers, in general"), she had noticed a heightened sense of anxiety among suitors who told her they were investment bankers or hedge fund managers.

Bethenny didn't care too much about what these men actually did all day. "I'm like, show me the bank statement," she drawled. "But they're saying, 'This is the great depression again.'"

Against this backdrop, Bethenny felt was only good manners to reign in her shopping. The other day, she'd looked on with distaste in one downtown store as her fellow Manhattanites carried on burning up their credit cards as much as ever.

"I find it a bit vulgar to be spending $2,000 on a handbag at this time," she sniffed.

Jill agreed. "We haven't felt the pain that the country is feeling," she admitted. "But we can see it."

Bethenny FrankelIt was time to pass on the same message that I'd delivered to traders on Wall Street: that many ordinary Americans blamed wealthy New Yorkers for the nation's economic woes.

Jill disagreed. The problem, she said, had been a country-wide lack of personal responsibility: borrowers taking on heftier mortgages than they could afford.

"If you spend more than you make, it's a problem. I've always lived that principle. I've always saved."

Both were voting for Barack Obama. Jill, who was strongly pro-choice, wanted justices who would uphold Roe v Wade appointed to the Supreme Court. Bethenny believed that "Sarah Palin was the most moronic choice on earth" to be John McCain's vice-presidential nominee.

I'm sure that Senator Obama will be glad of their votes. But there was something incongruous about the fact that the Democrats - supposedly the party of social justice and redistribution - were guaranteed votes here, but met with ambivalence back in West Virginia.

Talked out

  • Jon Kelly
  • 16 Oct 08, 14:39 GMT

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK: Annoyingly, I couldn't find any plumbers called Joe hanging around outside Hofstra University, the setting for 2008's final presidential debate. I did, however, talk to voters who felt that the duel had, for once, risen to the occasion.

I'd been disappointed by the two previous encounters between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. In Oxford, I felt they had done little more than restate well-established positions; Nashville was, for me at least, a bit of a wash-out.

It wasn't always easy to gauge from the partisan crowds of Republicans and Democrats (mostly Democrats, this being New York State) crowding the bars around the campus.

Noy Sayouthnasad But in between the whoops and the chants that punctuated each point, it sounded the candidates were, for the first time, being encouraged by the moderator to engage with each other's positions - on education, health care, abortion - rather that just recite their well-rehearsed scripts. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mudslinging over who had slung the most mud, a timely riposte to the old adage that Americans don't do irony.

But who cared what I thought? I don't even get to vote here. So I kept my opinions to myself and quickly canvassed spectators' reactions.

Noy Sayouthnasad, at least, was in a cheerful post-debate mood. A McCain supporter, the 32-year-old research administrator been left disappointed by the previous encounters; until tonight, she'd felt that her man hadn't been aggressive enough, hadn't hit Obama sufficiently hard over Bill Ayres and Pastor Wright.

But now she sounded buoyant. Her man had done enough, she hoped, to revive his lagging fortunes in the polls.

"It was just what I was hoping for," she grinned. "He was more charismatic, he attacked Obama about his associations and his record.

"Before, I felt he needed to be tougher. Now, I'm hoping that he'll only be maybe two or three points behind in the next polls.

"Oh, I liked Joe the Plumber too," she added. "It was a good way of connecting with people, of showing that he's the guy to connect with their problems."

Chris CarrChris Carr, 30, rolled his eyes when I mentioned McCain's recurring motif. The website creative director was biased, he acknowledged, having already made up his mind to vote for Obama. But all the references by the Republican nominee to this one tradesman had, Chris felt, sounded clichéd and patronising.

"To be honest with you, I expect Obama will increase his lead after tonight," Chris said.

"McCain sounded angry to me: he kept personalising the arguments. But Obama came across as presidential, going into detail on his policies."

With polling day getting closer, and the partisan atmosphere growing increasingly fierce, I wondered if there were any more undecided voters left in America.

I came across one, anyway - Pat Montagano, 48, from Queens. In between working as an administrator at the University, she'd been weighing up how to cast her ballot.

Pat MontaganoTonight's debate hadn't helped her much.

"When they were asked about their Vice Presidential nominees, I thought Obama did much better," she said.

"But I liked what McCain was saying on education. I don't know," she shrugged, "I will vote. I'll make up my mind before 4 November."

She won't have any more debates to help her with this, however. Somehow, I think both she and American democracy will cope.

Wall Street blues

  • Jon Kelly
  • 15 Oct 08, 03:46 GMT

NEW YORK, NY: Here I was at last: Wall Street. So often in the past few weeks, since the $700bn bail-out, I'd heard that address spat out rather than spoken. Now I could see the focus of so many Americans' fury for myself.

It was narrower than I expected, less prepossessing. Then I noticed the glittering window displays of Tiffany's and the ostentatious frontage of Trump Building: conspicuous wealth wasn't quite so well-concealed after all.

As brusque, anxious-looking young men in suits bustled past me, I thought back to all the working people I'd encountered who had referred to America's financial institutions with fear, contempt and anger.

Steven SchimbleWell, here was my chance to pass on what they'd told me. Sitting outside the Stock Exchange, rubbing the bridge of his nose, was 48-year-old floor trader Steven Schimble. He wasn't having a good day: shares were dropping and forecasts were grim.

I introduced myself, explained what I was doing here. I'd been travelling across the US for the past month, I told him, and the ordinary Americans I'd spoken to were really angry. Angry about foreclosures, angry that the economy looked as if it was nosediving, angry that they'd had to bail out the companies they held responsible.

Steven was no Gordon Gekko: affable, pugnacious, speaking with a grainy New York twang. He threw up his hands - of course everyone thought it was all his fault.

"I just saw a guy in the street throw something at one of the traders," he said. "Everyone blames Wall Street because they know the address.

"But down on the floor, we were executing orders to the best of our ability. It was all down to the big banks: blame Lehmann Brothers, blame JP Morgan, blame Bear Stearns."

This wouldn't be enough to placate people, I said. Those who had seen their investments wiped out, and were then asked to come to the rescue with their tax dollars, surely had a right to be upset.

"Right," he nodded. "But investing in stocks is like gambling in a casino. It's legalised gambling. We need to make people aware of that."

Billy McInerneyHe called over his friend and fellow trader, 45-year-old Billy McInerney. Billy needed a break, too: he'd already seen the exchange fall by 300 points since the morning.

I ran through everything I'd told Steven: people out there were livid at the whole financial system.

Billy looked skywards. "It all comes down to mortgages. Giving people who make $50,000 loans for $200,000 houses: I wouldn't sign up for those terms, and I make five times as much."

He could understand, though, why people felt such a strong sense of injustice.

"Look, I don't like it either," he sighed. "But we need to do this. If we don't, then we go into recession and more people lose their jobs."

I had to give them credit for answering the charges against them. Faced with an entire nation's hostility, I might have preferred to keep a low profile. But essentially their message was: it was someone else's fault.

Not everyone on Wall Street was a banker or a broker, however. At the junction with Broadway, 49-year-old Asif Khan was packing away his fruit stall.

Asif Khan Business was terrible, he told me. Sales were down by 50% - even the traders were spending less. "The only thing I'm selling more of is bananas, because you can get three for $1," he grimaced.

The slowdown was hurting Asif, who had moved to New York from Pakistan in 1985. He had a wife and a 12-year-old daughter over in Queens to support. I wondered if he blamed his customers for the downturn.

He shook his head. "No, it's not them I blame. It was the White House - they should have put proper regulation in place.

"The only people they cared about were the billionaires, not the middle class - that's what got us into trouble."

At last, a charitable view of the banks and the Stock Market. Asif's opinion that politicians were ultimately responsible will be widely shared. But I don't think the rest of the country is ready to forgive Wall Street just yet.

Anger management

  • Jon Kelly
  • 14 Oct 08, 19:18 GMT

LEBANON, PENNSYLVANIA: A quick fuel stop en route to New York. There weren't any opportunities to chat to anyone, but I grabbed a copy of the local paper to scan on the bus.

Today's Lebanon Daily News didn't carry much on the campaigns, save for an item about Joe Biden stumping in his native Scranton with the Clintons in tow. But the letters page was a different story.

It looked like my hopes in Gettysburg that the election might take a calmer tone weren't being realised. "I wonder how many American can support for president a man who has listened for 20 years to the sermons of an America-hating preacher," fumed Kathy Horst of South Annville.

C. Robert Rose of Lebanon, meanwhile, raged against "conservatives who constantly use Jesus and religion" to drum up support, insisting that "such pandering results in greed, fear, criminal transgressions and ethical collapse".

At least Karl Kohr, of the same parish, had an even-handed message. The idleness of politicians from both parties was, he said, to blame for the current economic mess. "Vote them out in November," he thundered.

There's a lot of anger out there. It's not going away between now and 4 November.

Band of brothers

  • Jon Kelly
  • 14 Oct 08, 03:13 GMT

GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA: When Michael Cobb retuned from the Vietnam war in 1968, he had trouble following orders. After witnessing carnage all around him and losing his closest comrades, it was near-impossible for Michael to take instructions from civilians who just didn't understand.

Back home in the US, he'd flitted from job to job. He recognised that his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) made him a difficult character with which to live.

Michael Cobb, John Molloy, Artie Muller "As a veteran, your life has been threatened so many times," Michael told me. "To come back and have some guy in an office tell you what to do..." He paused. "You think: how dare they. How dare they. But you can't operate like that.

"I take anti-depressants all the time. I wake up in a cold sweat thinking I've killed someone.

"The only people who understand are other veterans. That's why we're all like brothers."

Michael, 61, had found that sense of fraternity in Rolling Thunder, a pressure group of which he was national chairman. Dedicated to supporting and lobbying on behalf of veterans and prisoners of war, it has specialised in mobilising mass protests led by motorbike-riding ex-military personnel.

Artie Muller, 63, another Rolling Thunder officer and Vietnam vet, shot me an inscrutable look from behind his dark glasses. "We're not a motorcycle club," he intoned. "When 500,000 of us show up for a demonstration in Washington, there aren't any clowns or sideshows."

Both Michael and Artie had come through from New Jersey to see their friend John Molloy, who headed up the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition.

They felt that veterans had been ignored by Washington. Michael said he'd spent 23 years fighting the system to claim the benefits he was due before the authorities relented. All three were scathing about politicians who, they felt, were only out for themselves.

You might have expected that they'd be enthusiastic backers of John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate and former prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton.

They were all voting for him, but reluctantly. They had disagreed with his efforts to normalise relations with Vietnam while US personnel who had been reported missing in action remained unaccounted for.

"I've got mixed feelings about Senator McCain," Michael said.

"But we can't have Obama running the country. He doesn't have the experience."

I asked them how they felt about the issues surrounding the election. John, 62, had studied hard after leaving the military and become an investment banker.

But it angered him, he said, that Wall Street had been given a $700m bail-out while ex-service men and women had to struggle to get their dues.

Artie Muller "If it wasn't for the veterans, people wouldn't be free to make money in the first place," he said.

I wanted to know how they felt about Afghanistan and Iraq. John spoke for all of them: he'd worked in the World Trade Center before 9/11, and had lost friends in the attacks.

This had convinced him firmly the conflicts were justified. "You can talk about coming back with PTSD from Vietnam - well, it comes after watching people jump out of those towers, too," he added. The others nodded in agreement.

At a time when the outgoing president's popularity had fallen to an all-time low, they remained staunch supporter of George Bush. He had been rare among politicians, Michael said: Bush had listened to them on veterans and POW issues, spoken to them after demonstrations.

"We gave him one of these vests we're wearing," chuckled Artie, pointing at his leather waistcoat. "He couldn't wait to put it on.

"He doesn't care about being popular, he just wants to do the right thing."

I asked if I could take their photograph. They instinctively wrapped their arms around each other's shoulders.

Theirs was a bond forged by a common experience. A bond that someone like I, never having witnessed the same hardships and traumas, shouldn't pretend to understand.

Battle hymn

  • Jon Kelly
  • 13 Oct 08, 16:52 GMT

GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure..."

Site of the battle of GettysburgI shivered. Before me, the early morning mist clung to the ground like ghosts. Here, in July 1863, these gently rolling fields witnessed the bloodiest battle in the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy. There were over 50,000 casualties on this site.

Some five months later, Abraham Lincoln came here to deliver his famous Gettysburg Address - one of the most celebrated speeches in American history. In it, he vowed in the name of the fallen to forge a nation based on freedom and equality.

As his words echoed around me, I thought about how far this country had come in such a short space of time - first the abolition of slavery, then women's emancipation in 1919, followed by the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, and now the landmark of an African-American man competing seriously for the presidency.

But I couldn't escape, either, the very modern civil war that was being fought across the US right now. Over the weekend, the election had grown increasingly bad-tempered.

John McCain had been booed by his own supporters at a rally when he called on them to show respect towards Barack Obama; members of the crowd had shouted that his rival was a "traitor" and a "terrorist". Meanwhile, an Obama supporter drew a parallel between the Republican candidate and segregationist former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Paolo Ciocco and Madeleine BirknerThis didn't sound to me like the kind of democracy for which Lincoln struggled.

As the haze started to lift, I met two teenagers on the battlefield site - 19-year-old Madeleine Birkner, and Paolo Ciocco, 17. They recited the address for me. Growing up in Gettysburg, Madeleine told me, you were taught to learn the speech by heart.

They'd been raised to value the high-minded ideals of the Republic. I wondered what they made of the low turn the election had taken.

"I think it's horrible," Madeleine said. "There's all this underlying tension coming to the fore.

"I think we're seeing the ugly side coming out in this election."

Paolo nodded. "The tone of the campaign really detracts from the way our ideas as a country were conceived," he agreed.

"When I look at the Gettysburg Address, I think it's still relevant today."

Still, I took some comfort from the location in which we were standing. At least all the political warfare and bloodshed that the rolling news channels had been describing was only metaphorical.

Dr Michael BirknerMadeleine's father, Dr Michael Birkner, was also enjoying the morning air. He was a historian who understood the context of today's arguments better than most. When I asked Michael about the heightened level of animosity, he instructed me to look past the monuments and picture the scene here in 1863 as the battle raged.

"It would have been one long tableau of death and suffering," he said. Enough to put today's inflamed passions in perspective.

"This is just the way a popular democracy operates. It's October. Soon we'll all be able to move on."

I hoped he was right. The mist had cleared. I turned around and walked away from the battlefield.

Fast food nation

  • Jon Kelly
  • 13 Oct 08, 02:19 GMT

AKRON, OH:Is there a symbol any more American than the hamburger? I don't think cowboys, the Statue of Liberty or even the Stars and Stripes come close. If you're looking for an icon of gung-ho enterprise and king-sized consumer demand, stick a disc of beef between two buns and smother it with relish.

I don't want to sound like I'm down on burgers. Quite the opposite; I've been enjoying US cuisine all too much during my travels across the country. It's easy to pontificate about obesity and diet, but it's even simpler to succumb to fatty, salty, high-cholesterol temptation.

Whenever foreigners want to vent their displeasure at the American Way, they tend to take it out on burger chains - whether it's French farmer-activist José Bové wrecking the site of a planned McDonalds, or Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me being feted internationally.

But however much it complains about US fast food, it seems the rest of the world can't get enough. Profits generated in Europe alone are worth $1.2bn (£600m) to the Golden Arches.

The BBC's Jon Kelly talks to teenagers at Menches Brothers hamburger restaurant in Akron, Ohio If anything encapsulates the contradictory nature of so much anti-American sentiment, it must be the hamburger, too.

Well, I've been here long enough now to realise that there's more to this country than any stereotype could ever suggest. But what did Americans themselves think of the way they were perceived abroad?

To find out, I visited Menches Brothers restaurant in Akron. Owner John Menches has long insisted that his great-grandfather, Charles, co-invented the hamburger in 1885 - though the claim has been disputed.

I'd arranged to meet a group of five teenagers from the city's PeaceMakers programme - a community group aimed at keeping young people away from crime.

They were smart, engaged kids who were all interested in the views of people from beyond their borders. Each one quickly dispelled any suggestion that Americans wouldn't be interested in the rest of the world.

Ariel Davis, 17, ordered a chicken burger. She didn't have a problem with fast food, she said. But she thought it was a shame that it was used to symbolise her country.

"It makes it seem like we all just want to have fun," she added. "But we're not just about having fun."

There were, she'd noticed, three recurring themes the overseas media would employ to characterise America.

"One is the hamburger, the second is that we're the land of opportunity, and the third is the war," she said.

"I'd like it to be not so much about hamburgers, not so much the war. We're a bunch of people who want peace."

Her friend, 16-year-old Dominique Council, agreed that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had distorted many foreigners' views of the US. Her family had hosted a Spanish exchange student who, Dominique noted sadly, had written off the nation before she even arrived.

"She was really upset about the war," Dominique remembered. "She thought everyone agreed with the president.

"She couldn't see that people here might believe the war is wrong, but they still respect the troops."

Cory Jarvis, 15, saw the role of the American military differently. He said he was frustrated that attempts to spread democracy had been misinterpreted as bids to grab power.

"They think we're a bunch of violent people," Cory added. "But we're over there to help them."

Members of the PeaceMakers community youth group in Akron, Ohio For Dao Letdara, the view from the outside was closest to home. The 15-year-old's parents had moved here as teenagers from war-torn Laos. The steady stream of incomers was testament, she said, to the fact that America was seen as a place rich in possibilities.

"The immigrants are coming here because they want a better job, they want a better life - obviously, they believe they can get all that here," Dao added.

But she worried that the American media was tarnishing this impression.

"I think they're getting their images from music and movies - all the R-rated movies with killing and violence," she frowned.

Travis Carlton, 16, disagreed. To him, the image that America projected of itself was one of wealth and prosperity - far removed from the reality of life in a place like Akron.

"People don't see cities for what they are," he argued. "They don't know that there are people living like they would in Africa.

"I'd like America to be what it's portrayed as: the land of the free. I want it to live up to the name."

I thanked them all. As an outsider trying to understand this country, it had been instructive - and encouraging, too, given that they all seemed to really care what the world though of them

But it was time for me to let them enjoy their lunch.

Finger pickin' good

  • Jon Kelly
  • 12 Oct 08, 17:10 GMT

My colleague Steve Evans has just alerted me to a rather amazing story. Back in Nashville he met Eddie Alcock, one of the pillars of bluegrass music, whose career looked threatened when he developed a tremor in his banjo-plucking hand.

Surgeons at Nashville's Vanderbilt Medical Center told Eddie they could help him. But they needed his musical assistance.

The doctors hoped to halt the shaking through a process called deep brain stimulation - sending an electrical charge to his brain via wires pushed through a hole in Eddie's skull.

But the only way they could tell when they had hit the 'sweet spot' was to ask Eddie himself. So before he was put under local anaesthetic, he took his banjo into the operating theatre.

As the surgeons adjusted the electrodes, a fully-conscious Eddie began picking at his banjo strings. As the current moved closer, his playing improved. It was, according to Peter Hedera, one of the medical team, 'the ultimate Nashville experience'.

It was left to Eddie to judge when the stimulation was working. As Dr Hedera told Steve: "My ear is not that great, so it was his assessment".

You can watch footage of the incredible procedure here:

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A month later, he illustrated the effect for Steve by playing - clumsily and barely discernibly - with the device turned off.

Then he put a remote control to his chest and turned the current on, and his playing suddenly improved - not quite as fluent as it had been, due to lack of practice, but getting there.

'My life has re-entered my body," Eddie said. "I felt like I was dead when I felt like I couldn't play any more'.

Eddie had played with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe before setting up his own bands. Martha, his wife and musical partner, told Steve what a huge difference the surgeons had made.

'You can imagine that it was just a gift to us," she said. "One does what one must do. If there's a mountain to climb, one climbs it or goes around the side or tunnels through. I would do it for him and he does it for me. We're partners in life.'

Road rage

  • Jon Kelly
  • 12 Oct 08, 03:43 GMT

AKRON, OH: Rows of shiny, all-American automobiles glimmered in the sun. I marvelled as their owners diligently polished all these lovingly-preserved Chevys, Fords and Plymouths.

They'd picked a glorious October morning for this classic car fair. But I couldn't help thinking there was something poignant about celebrating America's industrial past here, right in the heart of the rust belt.

Now, I'm no petrolhead. It took me three attempts to pass my driving test. I couldn't tell you the difference between a crankshaft and a fender. But even I could appreciate that these were beautiful vehicles - all gleaming chrome and rolling contours.

Back when most of them were built, Akron was known as the rubber capital of the world. The bulk America's tyres were manufactured here by firms like Goodyear and Firestone, and the city's blue-collar workers enjoyed a boomtime of high wages and steady employment.

But by the 1980s, production had started shifting elsewhere. The city experienced the same hardships of post-industrial decline as other Midwest cities like Detroit and Cleveland - soaring unemployment, rising crime, urban decay.

Pam MazzolaAkron's chamber of commerce can boast, with some justification, that the city has since bounced back by diversifying its economy. But the empty warehouses I passed on the outskirts were testament to the hardships local people have experienced.

It would be easy to feel forgotten in a place like this, but winning the support of Akron will be absolutely crucial to America's presidential candidates. Ohio is, of course, a vital state, credited with securing George Bush's presidency in 2004.

And although Akron itself has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold, Barack Obama may have to work harder than usual to win over its voters. Hillary Clinton trounced him in the state primary back in March, and questions have been raised about whether he can keep her white, working-class supporters onside.

Hence my decision to visit the car show. I knew I'd find some Hillary fans here, and I wanted to ask whether they would stay loyal to the Democrats come November.

Sure enough, I got talking to Pam Mazzola, 54, as she waxed her 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda. Pam and her husband Joe had bought the automobile 35 years ago before driving off to get married.

Now, however, she was nervous; on the verge of retirement, she wondered what the chaos on Wall Street would mean for a place like Akron.

Pam had enthusiastically backed Hillary in the primaries - both out of admiraton for the New York senator's common touch, and respect for her husband's achievements as president. She had no hesitation, however, in backing Obama for president.

"I like Hillary a lot," Pam said. "She understands what things are like for people round here.

Ed Bogovich "But we need change. I think McCain is too close to Bush. I don't agree with his policies. I'm going for Obama."

Sitting in front of a 1920s Ford Roadster, however, was 72-year-old retired engineer Ed Bogovich. He'd come through from Pennsylvania - another blue-collar swing state - to attend the show.

Ed had backed Hillary, too. But there was no way he would support Obama; no way he would support any black man for the presidency.

"I don't want him to be my leader," Ed barked. "I am a staunch Democrat, but I will not vote for a negro.

"If his grandfather is a Muslim, wouldn't be one too?"

It was shocking to listen to all this. But it was no use correcting Ed that Senator Obama was, in fact, a Christian.

"Come on, don't tell me that," he replied. "It's in his heritage."

I shook my head as I walked away. I've met enough Americans these past few weeks to know that views like his are in the minority. I'm sure most former Democrats who've gone over to McCain reject them, too.

But it was depressing, all the same.

I remembered what I'd been told earlier by Akron's mayor, Don Plusquellic. He had also backed Hillary in March, but was now voting for Obama.

Jennifer spoke to him too:

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He told me that race was no longer an issue for the majority of his compatriots, Republican and Democrat alike.

"There are always going to be people who have a problem," he frowned. "But most of us - we've got over that."

Mayor Plusquellic said he was confident that most Democrats in Ohio would vote the same way as him. There was genuine anger here at the Republican White House, he added.

November will tell us if he was right. But whoever wins, I'm sure most Americans will hope attitudes like Ed's belong to a dying era.

Surface tension

  • Jon Kelly
  • 11 Oct 08, 03:52 GMT

MADISON, WV: Driving along West Virginia's roads, you wouldn't have noticed anything was out of place. Bright woodland and foliage rose up on either side of the traffic; the ramshackle trailer homes notwithstanding, it looked as close to a rural idyll as anywhere I'd seen in America.

Once I climbed up into the hills, however, it was a very different story. From up here, out of view from the freeway, it was all too clear that thousands of acres of Appalachia's most spectacular mountain ranges had been reduced to rubble.

Hill in West VirginiaBlame King Coal for decapitating the landscape. Mining has always been a major industry here, but traditionally it took place out of sight, below ground. Now, however, a modern technique known as mountaintop removal has dramatically reshaped West Virginia.

It is, literally, a scorched-earth process. First the hill is stripped of all its trees. Then explosives are brought in to blast through the rocks. The rubble is taken away and dumped in nearby valleys. Diggers can then gouge coal from the exposed surface.

I stood on ground that had already been emptied of its black gold. Grass was growing where the excavation had taken place, but the surface's harsh, angular contours made it clear what had occurred.

According to some estimates, mountaintop removal has been responsible for the destruction of as much as 150,000 hectares of forest, and 2,000km of valley streams have been affected by waste.

All this posed a dilemma for West Virginians. All around them their heritage was being despoiled. But here, in the second-poorest state in the union, any prospect of skilled employment was desperately needed.

I stopped in Madison, a decaying town which had seen better days. There I met Carolyn Kuhn, 58, at the Coal Heritage Mining Museum, where she was working as a volunteer.

Carolyn Kuhn The industry had been crucial to every aspect of Carolyn's life; her husband, Rodney, had worked underground for 35 years, and the pit had been the focal point of the community.

She showed me round artefacts of coalfield life: pith helmets and shovels, pick-axes and union banners. At the back of the building was a darkened corridor designed to resemble a tunnel. I fumbled way through, conscious that this sanitised visitor attraction couldn't do justice to the hard reality of working at the coalface.

To someone like Carolyn, mining had always been something that went on deep below the surface of the earth. I asked her what she thought about this new wave of excavations going on in the mountains above her.

"I know it's a shame what they're doing to the landscape," she said.

"But I'm selfish. I want my grandkids to stay here.

"Several years ago, I thought our town was folding. It was all second hand shops and thrift stores."

But not everyone who was steeped in these traditions wanted to preserve coal jobs at all costs.

Julian Martin Julian Martin, 72, was an eight-generation West Virginian. His father had lost an eye working underground; his grandfather had taken part in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, when striking miners took part in America's largest insurrection since the civil war.

He wanted to keep the pits open. But Julian was passionately opposed to mountaintop excavations, horrified at the prospect of this landscape being permanently disfigured.

He also disputed the idea any economic benefits would trickle down to miners and their families.

"In my father's day, there were 125,000 mining jobs in West Virginia," he said. "Now there are only 17,000.

"There's no way they'll ever repair the damage they've done to the environment. This habitat took thousands of years to grow."

I didn't envy Julian and Carolyn for the dilemma they confronted. As the economic climate worsens, however, I suspect that those who love West Virginia's scenery will face tougher choices yet.

Take me home, country roads

  • Jon Kelly
  • 10 Oct 08, 05:04 GMT

CHARLESTON, WV: I picked the right time to come to West Virginia. With autumn well underway, the leafy hillsides were exploding with reds, browns and yellows. It reminded me so much of Scotland - my parents' native Perthshire in particular - that I felt a sudden, oddly reassuring, lurch of homesickness.

The Mountain State might have looked beautiful, but I'd heard what a tough place it could be in which to live. Poverty here has long been well above the national average, and median incomes well below. The scarred landscape bore testament to the legacy of coal mining which has provided hard and dangerous employment to generations.

You'd think blue-collar terrain like this would be happy hunting ground for a Democratic candidate in November, but you'd be wrong. West Virginia voted for George W Bush at the last two presidential elections, and Barack Obama was utterly crushed by Hillary Clinton in the primary here.

westvirginia203.jpgBut this state was once reliably blue. Some commentators have even suggested that Senator Obama has an Appalachian problem on his hands - a worrying inability to connect with white, working-class, rural voters.

These were exactly the people with whom I wanted to spend some time. So I hooked up with Bob and Debbie Schultz - a couple who seemed to encapsulate the political dilemmas faced by West Virginians.

On the one hand, both were on the left when it came to the pocketbook issues. Bob, 55, had been a miner and loyal member of the United Mine Workers of America until he retired with black lung disease earlier this year.

Debbie, 52, spoke proudly of West Virginia's mine wars, when workers battled with employers and the authorities for the right to organise. Like her husband, she was deeply unhappy with the Bush administration's handling of the economy.

But on the other hand, they were firmly conservative when it came to social matters. Bob had served as a pastor until his retirement, while Debbie was an accomplished gospel singer who performed in churches across the country. Both described themselves as pro-life and patriotic.

Neither of the main parties quite represented them. Despite the similarity of their views, Bob was registered as a Democrat, Debbie as a Republican. They'd both voted for George Bush in 2004, but were unhappy with the choices before them this time.

bobdebbie203.jpgI asked Bob which way he intended to cast his ballot. For Obama, he replied, but reluctantly so. He was quite clear, though, that West Virginia's scepticism about the Illinois senator had nothing to do with racial prejudice, despite what some commentators had written.

"In a mine, we're all black after the first hour," he insisted. "People are preoccupied with colour. But it seems to be working for Obama, and not against him."

However, he had been deeply unsettled by the "God Damn America" speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former church minister.

"He went to that church all those years, but he says he didn't know the pastor was saying those things?" Bob shook his head.

Debbie was equally disillusioned with her party. She would have voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, she told me, had she not been a registered Republican; instead she went for Mike Huckabee.

She wasn't sure how she would vote in November. Distrustful of Obama for the same reason as her husband, Debbie identified with Sarah Palin. But she had also grown cynical about Republican rhetoric.

"At every election, they talk about abortion. But nothing ever changes," she complained. "It's just a way to win votes."

It looked to me as though the GOP were losing their grip on people like Bob and Debbie. Whether the Democrats will win back what was once the bedrock of their support was a lot less clear, however.

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