A president shall be forged in the loins of the nation's breadbasket

by

comment

In Ohio, a town square
  • Kevin Long
  • In Ohio, a "town square"
In the last presidential election, Sarah Palin provided the strongest suggestion of local "color." John McCain had his backstory (Vietnam) and Barack Obama had his (Muslim); Joe Biden was your east-coast everyman, and Palin took it upon herself to rep a different kind of backwoods style than Washington generally sees, at least at the level of executive power. The southern accent is a standard political dialect; here was someone out of Fargo, not so much hiding her ignorance as boasting it, and justifying the whole Alaskan-hillbilly act as a gesture of cultural difference—a way in which she, Sarah Palin, could transcend all the elitism and speak a certain kind of truth to politics.

That Palin was ever taken seriously points up the ways that rural America is fetishized, to just about everybody's detriment, by electoral politics and by the media that report on it. So it was heartening earlier this week to see Walter Kirn's salvo about Ohio on the New Republic website; Kirn's been covering the campaign for TNR, and an earlier filing, a memoir of the author's time as a Mormon, is still one of the loveliest and most thoughtful things I've read about (at least tangentially related to) the presidential race this year. In that essay Kirn was nostalgic for Mormonism; this week he is not nostalgic for Ohio, where he's from. Why is it Ohioans who decide the presidency? Kirn wonders, with just a touch of forgivable hyperbole.

There's the demography: "It's a state with a lot of rednecks that also has plenty of poor urban minorities balanced by a certain magic number of college-educated professionals," he writes. Like Indiana or Michigan, in other words, but more politically fickle; and with its stereotype-ready populations, it provides better optics (as they say) to hang your campaign on.

Or your feature story. Like Halliburton, I'll find a way to profit from a natural disaster, and when the Times lowered its paywall during Hurricane Sandy I took the opportunity to catch up with Dan Barry's buzzed-about five-part series on a diner in Elyria, Ohio—nearly 14,000 words that the Times dropped last month in a very self-conscious, let's-take-the-temperature-of-the-nation sort of way.

As you might imagine of a piece about a diner in Elyria, Ohio, it's a collection of good stories buried under a snowdrift of cliches and purple prose. Near the very beginning, "the fresh aroma of coffee face-slaps the air." ("Tit-slaps" would've offended the Times's stylebook.) The orders of diner regulars are noted in parentheses. Trains pass in an "aching thrum." The phrase "the human condition" is invoked—in fact the diner is "humming with the flow" of it. Over its five parts, the Elyria series spotlights a cast of small-towners—the most affecting installment, about race, focuses on a black former high school football player who, after personal tragedy, now wanders the streets talking to himself. But the story never loses sight of the fact of itself, and I found it frustrating reading.

But color me defensive! I'm from the rural reaches of the upper midwest, and while I have a more positive appraisal of Michigan than Kirn seems to of Ohio ("the only extraordinary individuals who rush toward Ohio, and not away from it, are presidential candidates," he writes), in these electoral cycles you come to notice the media aligning its narratives with Republican stereotypes of the hinterlands—areas of the country that are not more real, nor are they more sincere or honest, than anyplace else. Weirdly, reporter Barry told the Times's public editor that that's not what he was doing. "This was not going to be 'here's another dying Rust Belt city," he said, though that's pretty much what the story was, and later in the interview he reverts back to the register of condescension: "The spirit of the people, their great pride—I was just enchanted."

Today those people take that pride to the polls! And then we shall never hear from them again, at least not for another three and a half years.

Add a comment