WATERLOO, Iowa — When Michele Bachmann launched her campaign for president, she raced to a small town in Iowa to do it.
When Rick Perry jumped into the race, he headed toward the same town in Iowa, talking about his own small-town roots as the source of enduring values.
And when Barack Obama wanted just the right image for his summer bus tour, he went straight to small towns of the heartland.
Coincidence? Hardly. American politics may live in the cities and suburbs — but it dreams in small towns.
More than a century after the American people migrated from the farms to the cities and then to the suburbs, the image of small-town America endures as the birthplace of solid character and sound values. In the gauzy image of politics, as in popular culture dating back more than a century, small-town America is a place where the people go to church, work hard and help one another in ways unknown in the cities and suburbs of America.
It's the place that sent the idealistic Jimmy Stewart to clean up the nation's capital in the classic movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It's the kind of place, as Garrison Keillor wrote of his fictional village Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
Much of this is, in fact, a dream.
The small town of legend has largely passed into the pages of history. Today's small-town children are exposed to the same Internet, the same games and pop music as city kids. Its people shop in the same chain stores and eat in the same chain restaurants as those in the suburbs.
People get divorced in small towns. They commit crimes. There's no reason to believe small towns produce better politics, or politicians, than anywhere else.
Still, politicians love to wrap themselves in the sentimental image.
"The people still have the same spirit in Waterloo that Iowans have always come to exemplify. We work hard. We don't spend more money than what we take in," Bachmann said in Waterloo, where she was born.
Perry wears his childhood in Paint Creek, Texas, as a badge of honor. "Doesn't have a zip code. It's too small to be called a town," he said during a recent visit to Waterloo. "What I learned growing up on the farm was a way of life that was centered on hard work, and on faith and on thrift."
Obama can't claim a childhood in a small town — he was born in Honolulu. But he, too, reveled in small-town values during his recent Midwest bus tour.
"You know how to make it through a hard season. You know how to look out for each other in the face of drought or tornadoes or disasters, looking out for each other until we reach a brighter day," Obama said during a stop in Peosta, Iowa.
"That ethic, that kind of honor and self-discipline and integrity, those are the values that we associate with small towns like this one. Those are the values that built America," the president said.
People in the small towns of Iowa share the affection.
"We have a lot of churches. And they're all full," said Mary Elsloo, a clerk from Pella. "Until recently, no one even mowed their lawns on Sunday."
"My son goes to school in Chicago," added Sherri Pothoven, also a store clerk in Pella. "It's a different atmosphere. Not as friendly. Not as personal. If you don't go right away at a green light there, they're blaring the horn."
"Life is so much more peaceful," said Jim Strubel of Waterloo. "We take things at a more leisurely pace. There isn't the violence you see in the city, not the traffic."
Jeanne Tocco of Shell Rock, Iowa, recalled how neighbors responded when the Shell Rock River overflowed its banks in 2008 and flooded her home. "People showed up to help. That's what you do. In the city, they walk with their eyes down. We look each other in the face."
Most acknowledged that their hometowns are not perfect, and that they might be no better than the cities or suburbs.
"We have our problems, no question," said Strubel. "There are good people in the city, and bad people in small towns," said Tocco.
Take divorce. It's growing more common in small towns — Bachmann's own parents divorced — and the divorce-rate gap between small towns and big cities is narrowing.
A key reason is education. Divorce is rising among small-town white working-class couples with only a high school education, according to June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In the big cities, where more people graduate from college, the divorce rate has dropped from its peak.
Or take crime.
Waterloo, Iowa, was not the hometown of icon John Wayne as Bachmann recalled, but was the place where John Wayne Gacy was first charged with sodomy, long before he became a serial murderer in a suburb of Chicago.
Oelwein, Iowa, spawned a meth lab and crime that became the subject of the best-selling book, "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town."
"Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation myth," wrote "Methland" author Nick Reding. "But it has become something else, too — something more sinister and difficult to define."
It's not that small-town America is worse than cities or suburbs. But it's clearly not the singular birthplace of principle and virtue portrayed by mythmakers and politicians. What happened?
"Historically, there WERE differences in values," said Paul Lasley, a sociologist at Iowa State University and an author of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.
"But owing to a variety of factors in the 20th century, much of those differences have disappeared. ... Many of those differences that were so prominent in 19th century have faded away."
Interstate highways connected small towns to cities. Cable TV connected rural living rooms to Hollywood. The Internet connected everyone to everywhere.
Small-town teens play the same video games as their urban and suburban cousins. Readers buy books from the same online outlets. Students study much the same curricula from small town to suburb to inner city.
"That's all had a leveling effect," said Lasley. "Much of the uniqueness has faded away."
Even the notion that small-town people help one another more than others is no longer true, as found by the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.
"At one time, people did rely more on neighbors," Lasley said. "As farms have gotten larger and more mechanized, they don't rely on their neighbors as much."
In fact, he said, the presence of ethnic communities in cities, and of retirement communities and gated developments in the suburbs, might be creating closer, more interdependent neighborhoods.
"One could make the case that neighboring is actually stronger in suburban communities than in rural America," said Lasley. "In cities, you may in fact have more neighboring — helping and visiting — than you have in the heartland."
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