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The best and worst of times in America

The two faces of the Midwestern life today are reflected in the stories the governors of Iowa and North Dakota brought to St. Louis last weekend for the National Governors' Association meeting. It really is the best and worst of times.

Here in Des Moines, the Register on Wednesday carried 11 solid pages of help wanted ads. But Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, stunned his colleagues in St. Louis by reading a letter he had received the week before from a farm woman whose name he declined to make public.

"Dear Governor Vilsack," she wrote, "I felt I needed to write to you about the farming situation in the United States. I live on a farm south of (a certain town). On Monday, July 26th, my husband killed himself because of the low grain prices, the mounting bills and the unavoidable bankruptcy we were facing this year. My husband lost money farming the last two years and could not face the third. It's a long story that involves the family farm which has been in the family for well over 100 years. It was where he was born, where he worked and lived, where he dreamed and died. It is the home where I now reside alone with our two young children, age 6 and age 3.

"I don't have the answers or my husband's senseless death would have never happened. I just feel there is not enough attention or action on this subject, and I don't want other farming families to have to go through what I am going through right now and will have to live with and deal with the rest of my life.

"I am convinced from evidence in our house that my husband listened to the grain markets on Monday at noon, as he usually did, heard them go lower again, and then committed suicide. I have enclosed a copy of the letter he left me. I only share it with you so you can perhaps in some way realize the desperation and suffering farmers are facing."

The suicide note, neatly printed with a steady hand, reads: "The only thing I will regret is leaving (the children) and you. This farming has brought me a lot of memories, some happy, but most of all grief. The grief has finally won out _ the low prices, bills piling up, just everything.

"The kids deserve better and so do you. I just don't know how to do it. This is all I know and it's just not good enough anymore. I'm just so tired of fighting this game, because it is a losing battle. Everything is gone, wore out or shot, just like me.

"All I ever wanted was to farm since I was a little kid, and especially this place. I know now that is never going to happen. I don't blame anybody but myself for sticking around farming for as long as I have. That's why you have to get away with the kids from this and me. I'm just a failure at everything, it seems like. They finally won."

That kind of rural desperation produced the Populist protest movement a century ago, a movement that took deeper root and lasted longer in North Dakota than perhaps any other state. But the governor of North Dakota, Republican Ed Schafer, has a different story to tell. His wheat farmers are struggling, too, but last week he announced that Northwest Airlines was opening a travel agency bookings office in Minot, N.D., part of a continuing trend of electronic commerce bringing economic opportunities to rural America. The travel office is expected to have 600 jobs.

"Our goal is to create new pioneers," Schafer told me. "The pioneers of the last century followed the railroads. The new ones can follow the Internet. For people fleeing congestion, traffic, bad schools and crime, North Dakota can be heaven. We had seven homicides all of last year. We know those people don't want to give up the amenities of city life. But with the Internet, we can provide virtual museums with world-class collections. Soon we can have a holographic concert by the New York Philharmonic in Watford City, N.D. People will be able to live where they want."

It is not just talk. North Dakota lost 50,000 people in the 1980s, but in this decade population has stabilized. The unemployment rate in Fargo is 1.2 percent, real income is rising faster than the national average and the state has launched Project Back Home, targeting 30- to 45-year-olds who moved away with the message that there are jobs waiting for them if they return.

None of this erases the grief of the letter to Vilsack. It just shows what a crossroads this nation has reached.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group