Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Operation Meet America
These are the places where Obama has lived his life in the U.S.
DAMN YANKEES. Yes, all Americans are American and every part of America is America, but the events of the past week have shown that there's a big part of our nation Senator Barack Obama knows precious little about. The above map illustrates the problem. Much of his childhood and youth was spent in Hawaii, outside the continental United States. After finishing his private schooling there, he went to exclusive Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years before transferring to Columbia University in New York City. He remained in New York for a while before moving to Chicago's South Side, which has been his home since, except for three years at the Harvard Law School and attendance at a handful of votes over the past four years in the U.S. Senate in DC.
It's obvious he's worked hard and thinks he knows a lot about America. It's also obvious that there are some gaps in both his knowledge and his life. For example, does this look like a man who knows anything about having fun?
He's smiling, sure, but he couldn't be more completely out of his element having to play a game he knows nothing about while everyone watches him making an ass of himself in a suit. He scored a 37. Now, lots of people are bad at bowling, but they at least know a few reliable tricks for getting out of bowling when their personal dignity is on the line. (Damn, guys, I'd love to but I jammed my finger in a skeet shooting accident yesterday...) It's this kind of utter ignorance of one's surroundings that landed Dukakis in that tank and John Kerry in the big bunny suit at NASA.
And it's even more dangerous now with the reign of YouTube. Obama's bowling has already been immortalized in less than flattering clips.
We want to help. It's entirely possible that Barack Obama could become president of the United States. He needs a crash course in ordinary American life as it is lived in what conservatives call the Heartland and what liberals call Flyover Country. His campaign has taken him to many destinations in this vast area between the coasts, but business trips are no way to learn anything about a place and its people. You're lost in a blur of planes and hotels and rushed meals and not much time for anything but endless handshakes, forced smiles, and hitting your appointments and the airport on time. It's even worse when you're the absolute center of attention, always expected to be the star performer at a dead run. No wonder he thinks the whole country is filled up with needy people who are all expecting the government to solve their problems.
There is a way to help him out before Inauguration Day (if that's what's in the cards). Time is clearly in short supply on the campaign trail, but the need is also great, which makes it worthwhile to run some risks. We propose that Obama employ Saddam's old stratagem of finding a double who can fill in for him on the campaign trail -- just on weekends, mind you -- and use those two precious days every week between now and January to make the acquaintance of his countrymen. We're sure there are talented actors who could handle the Saturday and Sunday appearances without arousing too much suspicion. (Who watches the TV news on weekends anyway?) For example, we're willing to bet the amazingly talented Don Cheadle would be willing to help.
Hollywood makeup magicians could "make up" the difference, don't you think?
Which would leave Obama free to become Barry the Everyman, footloose in America.
We also have some suggestions about what the 'course of study' might include:
Pennsylvania seems to be pretty much of a blank slate for him. A good place to start might be the state parks, where it turns out there are thousands of people enjoying the outdoors with their families in dozens of ways that don't all involve guns, including backpacking, canoeing, fishing, golf, rollerblading, wildlife watching, and picnicking. Of course, there is hunting, too, but there's also an educational family-appropriate activity in which guns play an important part but hurt no one -- like the Civil War Reenactment at Neshaminy State Park next weekend. Which reminds us that it might be worthwhile to take the tours and meet the embittered Americans who show up at Gettysburg and Valley Forge. Going to a Steelers game would be permissible (too urban perhaps), but it might not be quite as insightful as spending a leisurely spring evening at a minor league baseball park, say, the Reading Phillies, or better yet, the Little League World Series in Williamsport this summer. For a glimpse of how (un)friendly ordinary whitebread Pennsylvanians are to people who aren't just like them, Lancaster County is an excellent place to visit. Eager-beaver retailers and the Amish seem, oddly enough, to have developed a mutually profitable co-existence, and for city boys who have never seen horses used as everyday transportation, the experience can be transforming.
Obama lost Ohio, too, didn't he? And no doubt thinks they're as benighted as the Pennsylvania folks. But Ohio isn't all Cleveland and Akron and dying auto plants. There are all kinds of places in the state where one could discover towns full of optimistic and friendly people, but we'd suggest one in the beautiful Miami River Valley. Dayton's representative of so much. It's where the Wright Brothers came from, using their entrepreneurial talents to turn a bicycle shop into one of the most important and technologically advanced industries in human history. Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is named in part for them, and Obama might go there to see the moving exhibits at the Air Force Museum and perhaps take in the family-filled spectacle of an air show. And if he finds that too militaristic and noisy he can leave early and head for one of the great hot-air balloon events that dapple the Ohio skies with so much color.
What you can see from a balloon. More than shuttered factories.
If he's still anxious to leave Ohio -- and if he timed it right -- Obama could arrange to be in the town of Defiance on August 9 for the last day of the Longest Yard Sale, which runs 630 miles from Ohio to Alabama. It's a fine way to meet people and see capitalism at work with nary a regulator or bureaucrat in sight.
Truthfully, Obama could discover natural wonders, historical attractions, and abundant family activities of the sort described above in every state that isn't wall-to-wall with urban sprawl. If he'll bother to look, he'll find that it isn't just Ivy graduate students who go to museums, botanical gardens, open-air art festivals, and outdoor concerts featuring every kind of music. We've focused a little more attention on Pennsylvania and Ohio because they've been so rudely stereotyped as helpless losers in recent weeks. It's not true of them any more than it is for the residents of any other state. So we'd encourage the undercover Obama to visit as many flyover states as possible.
In the course of his visits he should try some simple things that can be done in just about any small town or hamlet:
Spend a couple of hours at Lowes or Home Depot or the local hardware store. Watch men and women buying tools, paint, parts, and fixtures for the unending home improvement project that so many Americans devote years to accomplishing.
Hang out at the local garden center this spring and observe the zeal with which families select perennials, trees, peat moss, and mulch for the beautification of their yards. When they leave, they're going home to get their hands dirty with the kind of work that can't help but make one ponder God and creation. If one asked politely, I'm sure a homeowner might let a city visitor experience the sensual delight of cutting the lawn and smelling that perfect green smell of fresh-cut grass.
Drive outside of town through some back country roads and discover the roadside stands where, depending on the season, there's asparagus, strawberries, corn, squash, tomatoes, peaches, and beans for sale next to a stash of plastic bags and a box with a slit in the top for you to put the money in. These are the original self-serve operations and they're still working.
Go to church. Not just the ones you know, or think you know, but others too. Attend a Jewish bar mitzvah. A Jewish wedding, a Polish wedding, an Italian wedding, a Methodist wedding, etc, etc, in the same town, and see how many of the guests you recognize from one of the others. Go to a Catholic christening and a Catholic funeral -- not the media kind where politicians show up because someone has been horribly murdered and the cameras are rolling, but just some parishioner who has died -- and listen to what the priest has to say on each occasion. Isn't this a kind of social gospel, too, without the ranting and the anger? Go to any event advertised on any church billboard -- supper, breakfast, chicken barbecue -- and see if you're not warmly welcomed and treated despite being an utter stranger.
Make sure to be in some small town anywhere on Independence Day and ask someone where the nearest fireworks and big-time celebration are being held. Go. Have a beer. Talk to people. Have fun.
Seek out the hobbies, amusements, obsessions, and avocations that live under the surface of flyover America. Hitch a ride on a Harley-Davidson poker tour. Go to a dog show. A county fair (and make sure you don't miss the 4H exhibits or the junior riders competition). Find a classic car show in any town's WalMart parking lot. Go fishing with some old guys in a bass boat on a cedar lake at dawn. Go to an antique auction in the country. Roll the dice and pick one of a hundred thousand small-town street fairs to wander through on a nice Saturday afternoon. Check out the local historical society. Go to a rodeo outside of Texas. Sit in the stands for a whole little league game. Seek out a Halloween hayride. At Christmas-time volunteer to go carolling with a local church group, sign up for the candlelight tour (whatever it consists of), or ask any stranger on the street the location of the "house with the most Christmas lights." And, uh, yeah. Go bowling. You'll be surprised how many people are willing to teach you. Same with darts, golf, shooting, motorcycling, and home carpentry.
Explore the universe of local charities and charitable acts. The AA meetings in all those church basements. The priests, ministers, rabbis, ordinary folks, and therapy dogs who visit the hospitals and nursing homes. The animal rescue organizations that run on a wing and a prayer. The small companies, churches, and local associations that gather up toys for the needy at Christmas or supplies for disaster victims at home and abroad. The volunteer fire departments and fire police in every single town, village, and hamlet in the whole country.
Do everything and go everywhere you can to acquaint yourself with the incredible richness, variety, vitality, curiosity, generosity, and optimism of life in these United States that isn't a function of some government program or agency. You'll find it's almost infinite. Of course you'll meet a jerk or two along the way and some diehard pessimists, but they won't be the rule. They'll be the exceptions who will probably want to bring up politics without being asked. Try not to let them ruin your day. Or your month or your year. Try very hard to remain focused on the challenge of reveling in the amazing kaleidoscope of American life.
Then come back, Mr. Obama, and tell us of your devout belief in bitterness and the overwhelming mandate of government to intercede in peoples' lives for their own good.
It's a tight schedule. But Obama really can't afford not to do it. And the country can't afford to elect him if he doesn't.
Could somebody get Don Cheadle on the phone...?