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America's mood of contentment

On the eve of July 4, people from Oregon to Maine are optimistic, with

Sure, there are things to gripe about, says Jon Tudor, playing with his young son here in southern Oregon on a sunny, summer day along a cool creek, with an ice cream shop beckoning just across the footbridge. But "most of the time, I feel proud to be an American," he says.

"I think the country's heading in the right direction," says Jimmy Taylor, a mechanic in the tiny farm town of Andice, Texas, wiping grease on his jeans after repairing his son's bicycle. "But what do I know? I'm just your average Joe."

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As the country prepares to celebrate the penultimate Independence Day of what's been called "the American century" - in which the United States has risen to economic and military predominance on the world stage - a quiet feeling of contentment seems to be running across much of the country.

It is not to be confused with any smug sense of cultural superiority, economic dominance, or chest-thumping nationalism. Many Americans have some misgivings about the state of the country's civic affairs, but these concerns are tempered by the highest levels of optimism in years.

Mr. Taylor's view is a common one: There's a little too much violence on TV for his taste. Other than that, things are quite manageable, thank you.

The Pew Research Center reported last month that "overall, Americans are increasingly satisfied with where they live." About two-thirds of those surveyed say their community is an "excellent or very good place to live," up from 56 percent two years ago. In addition, 35 percent say that "people like themselves can have a big impact on making their community a better place to live," an increase from 25 percent.

Earlier this year, the Pew organization reported that "Americans express high levels of satisfaction with various aspects of their own lives and continued optimism about their financial futures."

This tracks closely with recent surveys by the Gallup polling organization showing that most Americans are "satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time." Expressions of satisfaction are even higher when the question relates to "the way things are going in [their] own personal life."

"I'm deliriously happy in terms of my personal life," says Cathy Shaw, the mayor of Ashland, Ore., a post that's paid $500 a year since the early 1900s. "I'm the leader of a community that knows where it wants to go. I have a great job, two wonderful kids, and a fabulous husband who's doing important work [as a teacher in the Ashland Middle School]."

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There's that golden economy

Americans are feeling better about the US economy than they have in the past eight years, according to the Gallup organization. And in the wake of the war in Kosovo, Gallup reported last week, Americans remain "decidedly internationalist."

"Most Americans, 61 percent, continue to say the US should maintain an active role in world affairs rather than stay out of world affairs," Gallup reported. "An even higher share of the public favors US participation in multinational peacekeeping forces, including 69 percent who approve of US troops serving under NATO command. Two-thirds also believe the US should continue to respond to international human rights atrocities with military force."

To be sure, not everyone is waving star-spangled banners over the state of civic affairs in the country.

"Moral values aren't what they should be," says Sheldon Davis, a rail-thin rancher, as he feeds a dozen twitching Hereford cattle on the outskirts of Andice, a tiny Texas farm town. "When I was raised up, people went to church. Now they're only interested in making money, not working."

"I'm very patriotic, but I don't feel like the country's going in the right direction," says Jan Cartier, a young mother in Andice who left Austin and then the suburbs in favor of rural living. In Andice, at least, "everybody knows everybody else."

As they do in much of the country, folks in Whitefield, Maine, feel a mixture of satisfaction and concern this Fourth of July.

"I'm very optimistic about this particular mix of capitalism and democracy that, through technology, we're able to demonstrate to the rest of the world," says retired teacher David Chase.

A bit of Norman Rockwell in Maine

A winding green expanse of evergreens and farmland, Whitefield is a town of 2,000 people and no traffic lights. More and more, rather than working the land, the residents commute either to the state capital, Augusta, or drive an hour south to the Bath Iron Works, the largest private employer in Maine.

"Every year, it seems like you've got to work harder to stay where you are," says Austin Moore, who's been farming for 30 years. "I can't complain for myself, though. I've got paradise right in front of me."

He's not so sanguine about the rest of the country's prospects though. "We're not focusing on the things that need to be focused on," he says. "There's a terrible imbalance of priorities as well as wealth.... Money has become the ruling factor, rather than morality or ethics or religion."

"I wish that we could have more honest, straightforward leadership at all levels," says painting contractor Jon Tudor, a self-described libertarian who feels "cynicism mixed with hope."

What that means, says Ashland Mayor Shaw, is "leaders who stand up to the moneyed interests and work for what's right for the next generation."

Up the street from the park here, just past the band shell where an actor from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival traditionally kicks off the town's July 4th gathering by reciting the Declaration of Independence (to great cheers and mighty "huzzahs"), Dan Kraft and Charles Meek, two World War II vets volunteering in the town's information booth, are generally optimistic about what they see happening in the community and in churches.

"Neighborhoods are pulling themselves back together, people are coming back to church," says Mr. Meek, a retired engineer.

Mr. Kraft worries about the economic stresses his grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be facing. But especially in this era of school shootings and other social traumas involving teenagers, he wants to go on record in support of young people. Noting that kids in the Methodist Church he attends recently returned from community work in Brazil, he says: "We always hear about the bad things young people do and not the good things they do, and that kind of rubs me the wrong way."

"Society has a way of correcting itself," says Meek. "Every place I go, I see things are getting better than they were in the past."

Despite the recent national soul-searching over offensive entertainment (movies, television, and video games) as well as the proliferation of guns, some experts in civic life and public policy agree with Meek's grass-roots assessment.

"I think that we are living through a remarkable period in American economic and social history, where very many things are going right simultaneously," says Francis Fukuyama, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., whose most recent book is titled "The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order." In an Internet discussion the other day, Dr. Fukuyama asserted that people "by nature like limits, order, and connection to other people in communities."

In many places, this reaction to the social "disruptions" of the 1960s and '70s described in Fukuyama's book takes the form of improving civic life. Taking a break from watering her vegetable garden, Mayor Shaw says whatever problems American society may be having these days, the answers "really come down to recreating communities."

Community spirit in Oregon

Here in Ashland, a town of some 17,000 people, 150 volunteers are on city boards and commissions, retired men and women patrol the streets and parks as part of a low-key police-assistance team, citizens raised money to build a skating rink and skateboard park, and how to expand the old Andrew Carnegie library has become one of the hottest issues in town.

This Sunday, folks from miles around - including towns to the south in California - will come for a funny, funky, heart-warming parade and rockets-red-glare fireworks show. As usual, a flyover by an Air Force F-15 will set off the annual argument in the letters section of the Ashland Daily Tidings over whether such displays are "the sound of freedom" or a crass display of militarism that scares the dogs.

*Staff writers Scott Baldauf and Yvonne Zipp contributed to this story.

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