The Hoosier prairie firestorm

The torrents of rain we had in May and June disappeared in July as more than 40 days of 90 degree heat set in. But more ominously – both agriculturally and politically – Hoosiers have been confronted with prairie firestorms this autumn. It can be wedged rocks sparking under the combines that light the tinderbox fields ablaze. 

The figurative prairie fires have invaded idled factories, council chambers, and of course the kitchens of the unemployed where Kraft macaroni and Ramen noodles are replacing T-bones and tenderloins. The prairie fires have blazed into campaign offices, where endangered incumbents toil to reconnect to the voters who brought them the victories of a few short years ago.    

It’s an utter contrast to that muddy, gloomy day – Oct. 8, 2008 – when Obama came to the Indiana State Fairgrounds. I wrote then: Hoosiers had been hearing about the financial collapse, golden parachutes, bailouts and rescues. The entire Western financial system was on the verge of collapse “within days.” Mad money man Jim Cramer said on the Today Show to sell all your stock if you needed the cash within five years.

“We meet today in a moment of great uncertainty,” Obama said at the Fairgrounds. “I know we can steer out of this crisis. Our destiny is not written for us, but by us. That’s who we are.” 

And Obama mimicked President Ronald Reagan and offered a variation of his “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” used in his 1980 campaign. “At this pace, we should be asking ‘Are we better off than we were four weeks ago?’” 

Today in Indiana, there is palpable anger at Obama, even though the Indianapolis Business Journal reported last weekend that 100,000 Hoosiers are now back working in Hoosier auto plants. Between that day in October and the time Obama took his oath of office, we faced not only a Great Depression, but the potential loss of our beloved auto industry – from the Chrysler complex in Kokomo to the sprawling GM plant just south of Fort Wayne and the older plants in places like Bedford and Marion. 

In this fall of discontent, the contours have changed and are confounded. Instead of hailing Obama as a president “who saved the auto industry” he is loathed by Republican candidates who say he perverted centuries of bankruptcy law. Had the 140,000-worker auto sector vanished, our own Great Depression would have been grueling and much more shocking than the steady loss of income we feel, or the shoots of poverty invading more neighborhoods, more food banks, more family kitchens. 

In 1982 I lived and reported in Elkhart, where the unemployment lines were long. President Reagan doled out surplus cheese and urged us to “stay the course” and even during those bleak times, we could envision what would become “morning in America.” 

Today, our new morning seems a long way away. There is no clear path. Our manufacturing sector is vanishing. In just about every Indiana city and town, you can find the ghost factories.  

We hear predictions that the jobless rate will hover in the 10 percent range through 2011. It may not come down below eight percent until mid-decade. 

Our homes are losing value. A mortgage lender told me that 40 percent of those he comes across fit that bill. Pristine credit scores are perverted by a single missed payment and there are now “risk coverage fees” even for the prudent. You can’t talk to a real person at the credit bureaus. 

The right raises the specter of “socialism.” Yet, in last Friday’s New York Times business section in an article on Eli Lilly & Company, an analyst for Barclays Capital – C. Anthony Butler – cited the company’s longtime relationship to Indianapolis as an “impediment” to taking measures like slashing costs to preserve its margins and dividends despite Lilly cutting thousands of local jobs. “I worry that they can’t do that because they’re too ingrained in the fabric of the community,” Butler said. 

Is this the capitalism that will secure our futures? Or is it all about shareholders? 

People on that soggy day at the Indiana State Fairgrounds looked at Barack Obama and sought “hope” and “change” and it is elusive. On TV tonight, Rep. Mike Pence can be found in an ad, standing in a storm-swept cornfield under the Hope, Ind., water tower. We hear him say, “a whirlwind from Washington has swept into Indiana” before saying, “Freedom always wins.” 

But we must wonder.  Republicans and Democrats have to work together, to form some semblance of trust, and compromise. That hasn’t happened over the past two years. Perhaps it’s time for a third party. 

In this autumn of prairie fires, the blaze of my own cynicism – long missing from my character – smolders. Sometimes I think of Democrats and Republicans and whisper this: a pox on both your houses.

(The columnist publishes at

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