With Sarah Palin's candidacy for vice president, it's open-season on "small towns." Are they bastions of virtue or backwaters of pathos? Go fish.">
The biggest catch I ever saw was a 15-pound catfish. Cousin Boojer Tweedy of Knickerbocker, Texas, pulled it out of the creek one summer about midnight. “Any fish’ll bite if you got good bait”¦.” This lunker took a live frog.
Which brings us to Sarah Palin. Just as Barack Obama seemed to have worked off his April blunder about helpless rural Americans who “cling” to guns and religion, the Alaska governor leaps into the campaign.
“I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA” Palin told the Republican convention, “because I wanted to make my kids' public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too. Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. “¨And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves”¦.”
Wooee, the Democratic catfish are hungry!
Palin’s acceptance speech was tantalizing. Its pit-bull pluck, mockery of Obama’s styrofoam colonnade, and jabs at the press drove the party faithful wild in St. Paul.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin sets the hook
at the GOP National Convention, St. Paul
Photo: Associated Press
"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities”¦”
For many outside the convention hall, Palin’s rhetoric was a frog-kick in the face, infuriating and appetizing both.
Roland S. Martin on CNN was apoplectic. He called Palin’s wisecrack an insult to his own parents, community organizers in Houston. Meanwhile, Gary McKee, a friend in rural Fayette County, Texas, had emailed us an Obama-maniacal quip already coursing through the Internet: “Jesus was a political organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
My hair-cutter, from the Texas Valley, said the Palin choice had turned him up from lukewarm to hot Obama-supporter. A Republican buddy, retired Dell executive, declared Palin had “knocked it out of the park.” She sure took a big swing.
“A writer observed: “˜We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’" Palin read. "I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. “¨I grew up with those people.”
The Governor of Alaska went on to limn the face of rural America, handsome and rugged: those “who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.”
From the bleacher seats here at Daily Yonder, Palin’s small-town swagger and the wrath it’s incurred have been fascinating to watch (as seeing a catfish skinned alive can be). James Joyner of outside the beltway admits he's “rather baffled that the “˜small town mayor’ meme is catching on so readily." I'm not. Palin’s rural upbringing and experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, have inspired something rare: a chance to look inside the many public prejudices ““ reverential and damning, both — about rural America.
For that’s really what Palin’s candidacy offers: live bait. It’s a way for some to suck on their fantasy of rural goodness, and for others to gnaw their rural bigotry down to the bone.
A good size gar
Here are just a few recent bites:
John Kass, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote after the acceptance speech, that Palin "pulled an old political trick, publicly reveling in what is considered a deficit—that she's from a tiny town, almost as far as geographically possible from the sophisticated salons of Washington. Electoral vote-rich Pennsylvania and Ohio don't have salons either, but they do have small towns.
Kass went on: "Expect Palin to knock squirrels out of trees across Ohio and Pennsylvania, along with other critters, fur and feathered. Unlike other candidates, she'll probably do her own shooting and skinning, and maybe roast them on sticks, with a pinch of salt, demanding reporters eat some, so they can say it tastes like chicken.””¨
Steve Berg, writing for Minnpost.com, goes deconstructionist, excavating “layers of comic deceit” within her candidacy. “One group of big-city elites (Republican) is playing small-town voters as pawns against another group of big-city elites (Democrat)," Berg writes. "It's a cynical ploy that many small-town voters never seem to recognize because — and this has become an important point — they lack a full sense of irony.”
Berg elaborates by pointing to the Daily Show’s mock-interviews with GOP delegates on the subject of “small-town values “ ““ which turn out to be principally same-sex marriage and “fishing" (natch).
Berg remarks that the Republicans on camera “seemed not to get the fact that their earnestness is both comic and tragic, coming as part of a script written by slick people in order to get their votes.”¨ “¨It's not that small-town people are dull-witted. It's just that their sense of humor fails to include the absurd.”
You can be sure the Washington Post has a sense of the absurd.
Post blogger Rosalind S. Helderman targeted an incumbent small-town mayor, Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, to ask whom he favors for president. Calvo hasn’t made up his mind, but who cares? Helderman’s real purpose is to tell us that Calvo “found himself in a national spotlight recently after a Prince George's County Sheriff's Office SWAT team shot and killed his two black Labradors during a drug raid on his home.”
Of course, “earnest” breast-beating rural advocates have been all over that frog, too.
“Urbanites assume the main attractions of suburban dwelling are our bigger lawns and two-car garage,” wrote Marianne Meed Ward for the Toronto Sun. “Truth is we come here to seek a return to the values Palin and Obama associate with their small town upbringing, and relief from the me-first, lightening pace, cutthroat environment that can typify a more urban locale.”
Then there's Pat Buchanan who, you may remember, made a couple of trawls for the presidency himself. “Palin is not resented for what she has done, but for who she is,” Buchanan writes, lambasting the Democrats for doubling back on their own standards of personal privacy (Hypocrite-gigging is very big this election season). Buchanan declares that Palin poses a threat because, unlike her running mate, who has been on the Daily Show, “she is one of us – and he (Obama, that is) is one of them. Barack Obama is Harvard Law. Palin is public schools and Idaho State. Obama was a Saul Alinsky social worker who rustled up food stamps. Palin kills her own food.”
See, it really does come down to your stand on hunting and/or gathering.
Yesterday, even guru Deepak Chopra, ordinarily meatless, rose to the bait. On his MySpace page, the spiritualist, healer, and frequent guest of Larry King, proposed that Sarah Palin is the Jungian “shadow” cast by Obama’s ascendant light.
“She is the reverse of Barack Obama,” Chopra writes, “deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. Look at what she stands for: Small town values — a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism….”
Watch out, Deepak! for the sake of herbal supplements and yogic bling. Many of those irony-deficient small-town people are older women, niche customers for your “Menopause Well-Being” and "Silver Chakra Necklace."
I’ll be intrigued to see how Palin’s candidacy and the game of small-town one-up-manship/put-down-manship unfolds. And I’d welcome a closer look from all four candidates at rural life today, the reality, I mean, that’s neither incorruptible nor dimwitted.
To their credit, the candidates do seem to be campaigning hard in “small-town America.” Tuesday, John McCain and Sarah Palin were in Lancaster, PA, and Lebanon, OH, Obama in Riverside, OH, and Lebanon, VA.
And, by the way, “that writer” Palin quoted extolling small-town virtues and Harry Truman was Minneapolis-born Westbook Pegler (1894-1969), an avowed opponent of labor unions and FDR. On another occasion, Pegler was not so complimentary of Truman, calling him “thin lipped, a hater, and not above offering you a hand to yank you off balance and work you over with a chair leg, a pool cue, or something out of his pocket” — a bullfrog, maybe, with a hook in it.