[Paleopsych] NYT: Everything's Coming Up Kansas

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Thu Apr 14 19:14:13 UTC 2005

Everything's Coming Up Kansas


    WICHITA, Kan.

    ABOUT 18 months ago, government, economic and marketing officials from
    around the state of Kansas gathered in a series of meetings to address
    what a top tourism official called the "volatile, emotionally charged
    subject" of the state's national image.

    Their findings were exceptionally bland.

    "The image of Kansas wasn't negative, it was blank," said Scott
    Allegrucci, the state's director of travel and tourism development,
    who had conducted some very polite focus groups. "The biggest response
    to Kansas was no response. A lot of Kansans expect people to say Oz,
    or cowboys, or just being flat, but what it really boiled down to is
    that as far as image, we don't have one."

    Well, that was then. For better or worse, Kansas has been claiming a
    much greater place in the national consciousness lately: through its
    association with conservative politics, documented in Thomas Frank's
    best-selling 2004 book "What's the Matter With Kansas: How
    Conservatives Won the Heart of America," and through a bushel of
    headline-hogging news stories that came flying, twisterlike, out of
    the state over the last month.

    One was the case of the B.T.K. killer, a chilling serial-murder
    mystery that reached its movie-of-the-week denouement in late February
    with the arrest of a part-time dogcatcher and Wichita suburbanite
    named Dennis L. Rader, who the police say has confessed to murdering
    10 people over nearly three decades.

    Just days before, however, the state attorney general, Phill Kline,
    made his own headlines when he announced that he would try to force
    abortion clinics throughout Kansas to turn over private medical
    records documenting any abortions performed on minors. Like the B.T.K.
    saga, news of Mr. Kline's efforts rocketed from local papers to cable
    news and front pages around the world.

    Then, while those two developments were still percolating, Steve
    Fossett landed a glider-like aircraft called the Global Flyer
    (sponsored by the attention-hungry billionaire Richard Branson) in
    Salina, Kan., and became the first pilot to circumnavigate the globe
    solo in a single nonstop flight. At the celebration afterward, Gov.
    Kathleen Sebelius tapped into the rising
    Kansas-as-the-center-of-the-universe spirit by saying that the world
    begins and ends in Kansas, a notion that probably alarmed geographers
    and biblical scholars alike.

    All of which has left some native Kansans with the feeling that, well,
    they aren't in Kansas any more.

    "This time of year, the biggest news would probably be that tornado
    season is coming and, oh God, did the civil defense sirens get
    updated?" said Ron Shively, a comic who performs as Mr. Biggs. "But
    right now, people are really excited. They're like, 'Ooh, we made the
    big time; we made the national news.' "

    Of course, not all news is good news, as even Mr. Allegrucci, the
    tourism chief, concedes. "It's tough to spin B.T.K.," he said, before
    trying anyway: "At least they got their man." (Or so they say; Mr.
    Rader has yet to be convicted of anything.)

    And while it has probably been good for circulation and ratings, the
    suddenly torrid news cycle here has left many local news people as
    beat as a cow patty after a rainstorm.

    "We keep getting calls from people around the country, saying 'What's
    going on out there?' " said Sherry Chisenhall, the editor of The
    Wichita Eagle, which broke the B.T.K. news a few days after Boeing
    announced a huge round of layoffs at the local plant. (Which somehow
    didn't make it past the CNN crawl.) So thinly stretched was The
    Eagle's staff, Ms. Chisenhall said, that when Mr. Fossett landed, the
    only person available to cover the event was the paper's food

    For all the excitement, Mr. Frank, who grew up in an affluent suburb
    of Kansas City, Kan., says that what has traditionally made Kansas
    exceptional is its amazing ability to be unexceptional.

    "There is something in the state that creates real geniuses of
    averageness," said Mr. Frank, citing impressive but plain leaders like
    Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole. "But it's also this weird kind of
    averageness," he added. "It's definitely the place where
    test-marketers go, but it's not a normal kind of averageness; it's
    almost an outraged 'averageness,' an exceptionally determined will to
    be 'average.' "

    It's a trait, Mr. Frank said, that winds up undermining any argument
    that Kansas is an accurate barometer of the country as a whole,
    because the stereotypical "average" that Kansans pursue is likely to
    be a good distance to the right of the national average. "It's a myth
    of the red staters," Mr. Frank said, adding that many Kansans have "a
    visceral dislike" of liberal politics.

    Some of that, mind you, might just be a reaction to the nasty little
    remarks that outsiders sometimes direct at the Sunflower State - even
    fictional ones like the James Bond movie villain Blofeld, who,
    learning that his orbiting death ray was currently over Kansas, said,
    "Well, if we blow up Kansas, the world may not hear of it for years."

    One coming Hollywood biography may not help. "Capote" is set in the
    time of the state's most infamous murder case, the slaughter of a
    family in Holcomb in 1959, which was the subject of Truman Capote's
    classic study, "In Cold Blood."

    It won't be the last Kansas murder movie. Film treatments for the
    B.T.K. case, with its elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the police
    and the killer, are surely making the Hollywood rounds already. And
    Mr. Rader's trial, with all its televised trimmings, is scheduled to
    begin later this year.

    Until then, though, many Kansans say they'll be quite content to stay
    out of the public eye for a while, thank you very much.

    "Between the killer and the abortion case, it's like we're Sin City
    down here," said Jane Luellen, a former history teacher and lifelong
    Wichitan. "But it's just because it's all coming to light at the same
    time. Everything that happens here happens everywhere else."

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