Monday, April 14, 2008

Surprise! Small-town Pennsylvanians Say, "Yeah, We're Kinda Bitter."

As the Clinton and McCain campaigns have cranked out sound byte after sound byte over Barack Obama's "small-town Pennsylvanians are bitter" remarks made at the San Francisco fundraiser last week, journalists have been descending on small town in Pennsylvania and Ohio for their responses to the remarks. If Obama's poorly chosen words have done nothing else, they have created an opportunity for a segment of the population that has been all but overlooked since the Reagan era to actually have a voice in American politics for the first time.

And you know what they're saying?

They're saying they are kind of bitter, and thanks for caring enough to ask. Finally.

This report from the Patriot News, serving small towns outside of Philadelphia, quotes several residents in Steelton, Pennsylvania, as saying that, while Obama's choice of words was a little clumsy, they got what he meant, it wasn't far from their truth.

"It didn't offend me one bit," said Don Stepp of Lawnton. "I felt like I could relate to it."

"He told the truth," said Joyette Williams of Oberlin while relaxing at the Jazz on Front bar. "I wasn't offended."

"As a whole, I don't think we're bitter, but there definitely are people who are," said Chris Derr, 25.

A couple of the Steelton residents interviewed thought that Obama's mistake wasn't what he said, but that he limited it to small-town residents in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Steelton firefighter Tom Drebon was quoted in the Patriot News article as saying, "I don't think Pennsylvania is bitter. I think the United States in general is frustrated."

The fact is that between the corporate deregulating Reaganomics of the 80s, Clinton's deal with with Devil we like to call NAFTA, and Bush's tax cuts to the top 1% of the nation's wealthiest, it is places in the Ironbelt and in towns reliant on factory work that have suffered most and received the least care by politicians already in power. Two Pennsylvania mayors, Tom Leighton of Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton mayor Chris Doherty, both of whom had long ago endorsed Clinton, both leapt into journalists' laps to say they are offended by Obama's remarks. Though neither Wilkes-Barre nor Scranton are, technically, "small towns," their economies were largely reliant on industry and ironwork until the early 80s, when that work pretty much dried up for good. What the death of steelworking didn't ruin, NAFTA did.

In this article from Newsday, results were more mixed. Some people felt patronized, like Mike McGeever. McGeever, a Clinton backer from Pottsville, called Obama's comment "uninformed, rather than elitist.... To throw a blanket indictment out there against the people in this area, it is definitely patronizing." But even he didn't bandy about the word "elitist," the way John McCain and Hillary Clinton have. Said Susan Kamerdze, of Coatsville, "It's like we're not smart enough to understand what the politicians are saying. It's an insult to our intelligence."

But even in the Newsday article, there were many who concurred with the sentiments of Obama's statements, if not their precise syntax. Bob Bildheiser, a truck salesman from Pottsville, is still on the fence as to he's supporting, but is leaning toward Obama. He understands what the Illinois senator was trying to get across. "The people are bitter about the economy, about jobs, about the gas prices. It's terrible."

Mostly, though, it turns out that Pennsylvanians are really just fairly practical people, who don't give a rat's ass what Obama said or how McCain and Clinton are playing it up. In fact, they seem a bit bored by the entire issue. In the Newsday article, coffeehouse owner Mary Ann Price, who remains undecided as to who to vote for in Tuesday's primaries, says that Obama's remarks will have no impact. Newsday writes, "She said she is more concerned about U.S. standing in the international community. 'The whole world hates us, and with good reason,' she said."

In the Patriot News article, Paul Kruder from Oberlin, says he doesn't care what Obama said at a fundraiser in San Francisco. "I'm more wondering about what he's going to do when he's in office," he said.

Perhaps proving that small-town Pennsylvanians are a bit more politically savvy than most of the big-town politicians give them credit for, Coatsville native Armon Richardson, an Obama supporter, summed up the dust-up this way. "We're getting in the silly season. It's being overanalyzed."

The part of all of this that grates on me is that, even in their indignation, bloggers and journalists behave condescendingly toward the small-town Pennsylvanians they claim to be defending.

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