Huffington Post, April 11, 2008
When I began following the Obama Campaign through Pennsylvania, the place was new to me -- as apparently it was to Senator Obama, since his Road to Change bus tour was heralded as the candidate's introduction to the Keystone State. Now the Senator has moved on to Indiana for a spell, but I'm back in PA, thinking about Obama's and my experiences of the people here.
Pennsylvanians are as friendly as Iowans-- and that's a huge compliment. (I love you Texas, but you get up on the wrong side of the bed a lot, or at least you did during the weeks before the primaries.) These Pennsylvanians are patriotic. On several occasions, they've awarded Barack Obama a standing ovation for his promise to restore the Constitution. Clearly, Quaker Staters feel a connection to the part their state played in the making of the Constitution; they see themselves in America's larger history.
At two town hall meetings in Pennsylvania, Senator Obama drew plenty of remarks about patriotism. In Harrisburg two weeks ago, one person called on by Obama chose not to ask a question. Instead a man who introduced himself as only Dennis told Obama, "Make a speech on patriotism because the Republican Party does not own the flag." In Wilkes-Barre a few days later, Obama fielded a similar comment from a man who said, "I believe that this nation now has dangerously low levels of patriotism and national pride.... My question to you is How are we going to reestablish America's reputation to Americans?" After leaving Pennsylvania and stopping over in Montana on his way to California, Senator Obama must have had these Pennsylvania questioners on his mind, because in Butte and Missoula he talked a bit about patriotism, introducing the subject as a theme we'll likely will be hearing more from him in the future, perhaps in a major speech at some appropriately historic date and time. Barack Obama and the rest of us will owe that to Pennsylvanians.
Another thing about Quaker Staters. The ravages of mining and old-style manufacturing have been unable, after all, to break the bond Pennsylvanians have with the natural world. Driving through the western part of the state, I thought again and again what great deer hunting country it is, and how my dad, a hunter in his younger days, would love it. Clipping a poem from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Jeff O'Brien, a citizen of Upper Turkeyfoot, Somerset County, I imagined Turkeyfoot's "ice hard in the cavities of the derelict woods/the long dark coming in the magnesium shifts of twilight" as I drove through and determined to order O'Brien's poetry collection from Amazon. I've wondered about Pennsylvania and its citizens in other times and seasons, and I would like to stay longer here to see.
In the midst of this harsh pastoral, Pennsylvanians are scrappy survivors. They complain (particularly about their governor and Clinton surrogate Ed Rendell, who doesn't seem as popular as the media make him out to be), but they endure. They refuse to be bound to the broken temples of commerce and manufacturing, the vacant Beaux Arts hotels, the rotting nineteenth-century row houses, the abandoned sidings and once-grand railway stations that inscribe Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and diminish Pittsburgh and Lancaster. Pennsylvanians are remarkably chipper. In the end, the material world that once gave them prosperity has not defined them. On the contrary, Pennsylvania unfolds in an interlocking chain of Turkeyfoots and Allentowns, held separately and together by a sense of shared community, of humor, of history, and of abiding faith.
These qualities of hospitality, patriotism and endurance are exactly what Californians need to hear about Pennsylvanians. And when he spoke to a group of his wealthier Golden State backers at a San Francisco fund-raiser last Sunday, Barack Obama took a shot at explaining the yawning cultural gap that separates a Turkeyfoot from a Marin County. "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience. He described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia.
I'm not sure this is what at least this lot of Californians needed to hear about Pennsylvanians. Such phrases can reinforce negative stereotypes among Californians, who are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known. (Of course, this is a generalization, and as such does not fit everyone; but as a state characteristic I stand by it.) Californians might be better served by hearing that Pennsylvanians have a strong sense of their place in American history, for here California is wanting. California needs to hear that other Americans have gone through hard times and survived, humor intact. Since Barack Obama sees himself as the candidate best able to unify the country, these are the messages he needs to carry and his frank words about Pennsylvania may not have translated very clearly.
To give Obama his due, he spoke about working class Pennsylvanians likely because he had been thinking about them a great deal. And he spoke, as he often does away from large rallies, in a calm, even, matter-of-fact way. Every town hall meeting I've observed, from California to Iowa, Nevada to Texas, has showcased Senator Obama's core decency and high measure of regard for each individual.
It's curious, then, that he often has such a hard time making a connection with many working class Americans. With plenty of time for people to get to know him, like in southern Illinois before his first state legislature race and in Iowa before the caucuses, Obama has forged that connection. People get comfortable with the way his mind works. Obama is the man with the big picture; he jumps quickly from the particular to the general and back again, for he makes sense of the world in a synchronic rather than a linear way. For all his soaring rhetoric, there is a dispassion about him. And yet he blends rationcinative intelligence with empathetic understanding. This is a rare combination, and for many people, this aspect of Obama takes some getting used to. His Puritanical streak, moreover, while amusing to the press can be off-putting to everybody else.
Wednesday in Levittown, Obama told his audience, "We can find areas of common ground." But if we are going to move from divisiveness to comity, then Obama must show that he can lead us to see one another at our best and to measure one another at our highest worth. "I'm going to have a big table and will invite everybody," Obama often says. These were his exact words to Johnstown March 29. "I'll have the biggest chair, because I'll be President," he added.
One of the roles of host is making introductions. Just as Californians need to learn a few things from Pennsylvanians, the reverse is also true. California is the, most racially tolerant and ethnicity-tolerant state in the Union. California has found a way to bring strict environmental standards to prosperity's table. Californians celebrate entrepreneurship, open-mindedness and creativity.
In answer to the Wilkes-Barre gentleman's question about low levels of national pride, Senator Obama said, in part, that a new generation needs to move into government service, for there is "something big and noble and exciting and important about serving the country." First, however, Senator Obama-- and also Senators Clinton and McCain-- must see us and talk about us in such a way that sets the bar high. A leader will hold us to that standard. "Californians and Pennsylvanians," our next president must say, "find your best selves in one another."