Four days before the presidential election, a woman at the counter at a diner in Hershey, Pa., said, ''I really believe George Bush is appointed by God to lead us at this time.''
Behind the counter, 23-year-old Jon Lister heard the comment and said politely, ''I don't think God is partisan.''
The woman, 50-year-old Gloria Marod of Grand Haven, Mich., who was in Hershey for a Christian conference, said politely back, ''There's no doubt about it in my mind. I think he's God's choice.''
Marod, her 52-year-old husband, Dave, and two friends of theirs, Ron and Marti Klein, 50 and 47, respectively, of Shelby, Mich., retreated to a table. I sat with the foursome for an hour. They said the Republican Bush was God's choice because he was more aligned with their antiabortion views than Democrat John Kerry.
They were an amalgam of the exit polls, saying they were concerned about abortion and gay marriage. But separate of those issues, and perhaps even more important, according to more detailed polling, they chose Bush because they thought the president and his wife, Laura, exuded far more personal character and leadership than Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. They thought the Kerry couple came off as far more elitist than the Bushes. The Marods and Kleins did not think the Iraq war was going well, but they trusted Bush more to support the troops and clean up the mess than Kerry.
Ron Klein, who makes carbide cutting tools, said, ''I just didn't see Kerry doing anything except tear down what Bush was doing.''
The Kleins and the Marods represented the politics that won this moment in American history. I went back to the counter to talk with a young man and woman who will shape the politics of tomorrow. Lister was still waiting tables, along with 20-year-old Lindsey Johnson. Lister supported Kerry. Johnson supported Bush.
''Bush represented the American person more,'' said Johnson, who is studying to become an elementary school teacher. ''Maybe he's not perfect, but he's been here (Bush visited Pennsylvania more than any other state in his failed bid to wrest it from the Democrats) so much, that you get a real feel that he cared about us.''
Lister, who wants to enter a masters program for writing and poetry, shot back, ''But how many times has Bush gone to Philadelphia? Bush is hitting the Republican parts of the state but I didn't see him go where people lost their jobs.''
That was about as heated as the two got, even though they were firmly in opposite camps. Unlike many older and often bitter ideologues on both sides, they took time between the clatter of dishes and the serving of monstrous slices of cake to offer thoughts that should be food for thought for both the Democrats and Republicans.
Lister said he was frustrated during the campaign by how his own candidate never offered a message that was clearly different than Bush. ''Kerry missed his opportunities,'' Lister said, foreshadowing much of the post-election analysis. ''I think he should have realized that he is rich like Bush, so he had to come up with something that said, 'I'm rich, but I care.'
''While I was watching the debates, it kind of drove me crazy that Kerry would start off as sounding very dynamic, but then all he would say is that he had a better plan than Bush. I remember saying to myself while watching the debates, 'Show us the plan! Show the plan!' I have to give Bush credit. He keeps everything on a simple focus. Kerry goes about it in a round-about way.''
Johnson said she supported Bush even though she wished the president had ''been more honest about Iraq'' and the weapons of mass destruction. She hopes that a second Bush administration would do a better job of working with the United Nations. She hoped that Bush would take healthcare seriously, saying she can get a 90-day order of one of her prescription drugs for $75 from Canada when it costs her the same money for only a 30-day order at home.
She also hoped Bush would ''get rid of'' No Child Left Behind, the president's program to reform public education that remains pitifully far from full funding. ''I'm student teaching in the first grade and I see a lot of children with special needs or children who don't all learn exactly the same way,'' Johnson said. ''You have kids coming from mixed-up families. It's not the kids' fault. There's a lot we can teach them if we're given the chance. I'm not sure that just testing them is the only way. It's so gratifying when you reach a child and the light bulb goes on and they start showing confidence in themselves. To do that you have to have the chance to teach them as individuals.''
Perhaps Lister and Johnson will one day harden into ideologues. It would be our good fortune if they do not. This election was decided with a bitterness that all but reached a point of Americans shouting, ''My God's better than yours.'' The waitress and the waiter offer the hope that tomorrow's elections can be decided on healthcare, education, and global cooperation. Their light bulbs are on, and only time will tell if they will dim with cynicism or brighten with optimism.
© 2004 Boston Globe