The land of self-reliance also has softer side that Americans want to protect, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
Last week, as I waded through innumerable articles on the US presidential election campaign, I was moved by a story about the kindness of American strangers in an article by Alexandra Frean, the Washington bureau chief of The Times.
Last February, just two weeks after she and her family moved to Washington, her husband died suddenly. Annie, a neighbour she had barely met, having ascertained that it was he who had done the shopping and cooking, installed a big blue cooler box on her doorstep, and arranged for a rota of neighbours to cook dinner for her and her teenage sons.
For months, food arrived from people Alexandra had never met and whose identities she didn't know. A neighbour's son turned up in the driveway repairing the boys' bikes; another man noticed the garage door was stuck and came over and fixed it without comment.
Alexandra had heard of such community spirit, but in remote places. I came across it once myself, when a friend died on holiday in Kerry and his devastated large family were joined by grieving friends. While we were based there, a neighbour, the wife of a lawyer, arrived several times a day bearing salads and whole salmons and roast meat and poultry; she would pause only to collect the dishes from her previous trip, and then go home to cook some more.
But that was rural Ireland. As Alexandra pointed out, she was living in one of the most sophisticated urban areas in the world. Why, she asked an American friend, would people in a country that prizes self-reliance show such generosity?
The answer was that it was the pioneer spirit, "the idea that if the people in the next wagon don't rally round to help, nobody will". It's not that America has no safety net; "more that there is no safety net mentality". Hence the deep suspicion among so many that Obama is trying to turn the USA into something foreign: a European social democracy. Hence too the determination of so many Americans to hang on to the right to bear arms. It's in their DNA.
Part of the American way has been to strive to achieve rather than to envy those who are better off. Until now, being rich hasn't been a handicap in running for high office, but in a recession, that can change: Mitt Romney has been reeling from the attacks on his wealth and allegations that he is an example of hard-hearted corporate greed.
He turned the tables neatly on Thursday night, when two days after an often angry presidential debate, which Obama won on points, the two candidates, both resplendent in white tie and tails, spoke at a New York dinner in aid of a Catholic charity. By tradition, the speeches are funny and self-deprecating. Obama did well: Romney did even better. "A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes," he said: "blue jeans in the morning perhaps, a suit for a lunch fund-raiser, a sport coat for dinner. But it's nice to finally relax and to wear what Ann and I wear around the house." Both speeches are available to watch on YouTube.
The race is agonisingly close and the final presidential debate tomorrow night, which majors on foreign policy, could be decisive. As the pundits keep pointing out, this time the debates really matter. Romney's performance in the first changed many minds, for there was no trace of the stupid, bigoted extremist portrayed in much of the liberal press. Since then, Romney has increasingly looked likeable, reasonable and presidential.
Obama came energetically back to life in the second debate: at Thursday's dinner he made a rather good joke about having benefited from his nice nap during the first. The partisan commentators, stirring the entrails of the debates, are certain their man can win. "President Punches Hard, Hits the Mark," says The Washington Post. "Why Romney is Winning the Argument," says The Wall Street Journal.
It's a bad feature of many democracies that some voters have such a disproportionate influence.
In America, the power of the independent voters in the swing states is astonishing. They take their responsibilities seriously, and will be paying close attention. Of the nine states that could go either way, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Ohio are the most hotly contested. Obama, Romney and vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and their caravans will be criss-crossing those territories almost daily over the next couple of weeks, knowing there's everything to play for between now and election day on Tuesday, November 6. The electors are decent people who want the best for their country. They won't be voting about race or religion, but about the state of the economy and America's role in an uncertain world.
May the best man win.