Hours after the 2004 election came to an emotional end midday Wednesday, campaign placards still littered the landscape like muskets discarded on a battlefield. They hinted of passions still not cooled, scores unsettled.
On a winding road in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda, an official Bush-Cheney sign was shadowed on a neighbor's lawn by a hand-scrawled one supporting Kerry. "We love our neighbors," the Kerry sign explained, "but not their politics."
Across the great divide of the red and the blue, the polarized presidential race left Americans conflicted over their differences and uncertain about how to begin the healing.
"We're still divided," Jamel Shimpfky, 63, said as she waited for a flight at Reagan Washington National Airport in northern Virginia. As a New York psychiatrist, she has a distanced clinician's understanding of the toll taken by perpetual conflict. But as a Kerry supporter, she was in the dumps. "Maybe we have to fall before we get up."
From a pricey swath of the Atlanta suburbs to a campaign-weary ward in Columbus, Ohio, to a Republican stronghold in Issaquah, Wash., the common refrain seemed to be a yearning for softer voices and an urge toward common ground.
"I think we have to put all this stuff behind us and go forward as a country," said Bush supporter Jessica Davis, 35, as she loaded groceries into her car in Issaquah, east of Seattle. "Easy for me to say, on the winning side, but we can't go on like this. There has to be a way to disagree in a civil manner."
But even as a triumphant President Bush promised to "do all I can do to deserve your trust" and his defeated rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, urged his supporters to "bridge the partisan divide," there were divisions in both parties on how to proceed.
In a small Montana town near the border with Canada, Richard Ford, whose novels mine the depths of the American condition, wondered if "we need a new vocabulary."
In Malibu, Ted McAllister, a conservative scholar of public policy at Pepperdine University, despaired about "our rush to label people."
And a Virginian who preaches the art of cultural compromise worried aloud "whether we've given up trying to talk to each other."
"The problem is we're not even on the same wavelength; we're just talking past each other," said Dr. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center who has spent years traveling the country trying to forge consensus on hot-button issues. "And it seems like our leaders have a vested interest in keeping it that way."
Day After in Columbus
On Berrybush Drive in north Columbus, a stretch of Colonial-style homes known to Ohio voting officials as Ward 62, neighbors were taking one step at a time toward civility. The state capital, culturally conservative and wracked by job loss, had been one of the most hotly contested spots in the final weeks of the election -- both Bush and Kerry had swung through.
Uprooting the clusters of Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards signs was the first order of a return to normality, a little like shaving after a long weekend. By nightfall, dozens of signs that had sprouted for months like tiny billboards on lawn after lawn were suddenly gone, hefted into trash cans and garages.
Patrick Mildenberg, 34, a Bush supporter, had already begun stringing up his Christmas lights.
A former sergeant who spent 11 1/2 years in the Army, including a stint in the Persian Gulf War, Mildenberg said he had been stunned by "the way that our politics has become so harsh, so very divisive. It seems to me that both parties are forced to go to the extremes, and then you have to pick sides."
Despite voting for Bush, Mildenberg said, he had voted against the state's initiative banning same-sex marriage, which passed by a 62% to 38% margin. "I really believe that in 30 years, we'll look back and say, 'Wow, that was a stupid argument to have.' "
He had also spent months trying to stay civil with neighbor Anne Moc, 35, whose two preschool-age daughters often played with his two young sons. "We've basically said, 'So let's agree to disagree,' " Mildenberg said, "and let the kids play."
But Moc's Kerry lawn sign was still up by day's end. Civility would have to wait.
"I know I should, the election's over, but I just can't bring myself to do it," Moc said. She mused about leaving the sign "up for the next four years so people will know, hey, I didn't vote for what's happening."
In the Morningside section of Atlanta, Tania Herbert and Peter Roberts were so alienated by Bush's win that they weren't sure they could live in a neighborhood with so many Republicans. Herbert stayed in her car rather than chat with another soccer mom who she knew supported Bush. Her emotions, she admitted, were still raw.