Battlegrounds

THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/06/08:

For the last six months, several writers from around the country have filed occasional dispatches on the presidential primaries for the Op-Ed page. Well, the primaries are now over. Here, then, are final reports from our correspondents.

1) This Bud’s for the Candidates

By Whitney Terrell, the author of the novels The King of Kings County and The Huntsman.

When I heard the news last week that the Belgian company InBev wanted to buy Anheuser-Busch, I immediately called my bartender. From France.

“Who’ll save Budweiser?” I wanted to know. “McCain or Obama?”

“I haven’t heard either one give a position on that,” Moe said, a little groggily. It was, after all, still morning in Kansas City, Mo. “Besides, you drink High Life.”

“Moe, wake up!” I ranted. “It’s my right to hate Budweiser because it’s from St. Louis, not Belgium. Plus, I actually like the beer. I’ve probably downed more Bud than any other single fluid in my life.”

Moe responded to this claim with a concerned, professional silence.

“Besides water,” I added, quickly.

Like Moe, I and my fellow Missourians have spent the spring in a deep political slumber. Our primary, way back in February, was exciting. In retrospect, it seems that if Barack Obama hadn’t squeaked out a late-night, 1.4 percentage point victory in Missouri, he might not be the nominee. But since then, neither he nor John McCain has managed to find an issue, or even a jingle, that sticks.

No More No Child Left Behind? Universal Health Care for Almost Everybody? Stop the War Next Century? None of these have much of a ring.

Even the war protesters who picket along my jogging route in Kansas City seemed to lose steam, their numbers dwindling into single digits, their signs — No Blood for Oil! — weathered and aged.

Strange as it sounds, this Budweiser story may liven us up. Sure, Colorado’s Coors and Milwaukee’s Miller were swallowed up by foreign companies. But we’re talking the King of Beers here. The Bud Bowl. The Clydesdales. The Cardinals. And that classic jingle: “When you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all.”

Now, suddenly, it seems as if InBev can buy it all — and end Anheuser-Busch’s 148 years of independence — for a measly 43 euros or so a share. Of course, with the dollar near historic lows, those measly euros are worth about $65. This simple bit of math has crystallized the meaning of a year’s worth of cable news graphics: the “Week in War,” the “Housing Bubble,” the “Credit Crunch,” the “Oil Crisis” and the “Dollar’s Slide.” The result? America’s cheap.

My brief visit to France — where my wife, a French professor, is leading a student study-abroad program — made this abundantly clear. Want a Coke at a cafe? That’s $4.50. Four slices of ham? $5. Pair of Chuck Taylor high tops? Try $90.

Missourians may not care about the price of tennis shoes in France. But they do care about beer. So when the candidates focus on Missouri in the fall, we might be asking Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama some new questions. Like how they intend to strengthen the dollar. Or where Spuds MacKenzie went.

According to the stock analysts quoted in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Anheuser-Busch will likely be European-owned by then. “The deal was predictable,” one said. “They were ripe.”

To a beer drinker, that word “ripe” sounds a lot like skunked, no pleasant association for the inventor of the “born on date.” Still, talking to Moe made me thirsty, so I headed for the nearest brasserie and plunked down $7.50 for a Miller, no Bud available. Then, gingerly, with my wife’s help, I hung some new lyrics on an old, happy tune:

Quand tu dis Bud-wei-ser, tu a dit InBev.

Now there’s a jingle that Missouri voters won’t soon forget.

2) Will Hoosiers See Blue?

By Porter Shreve, the author of the forthcoming novel When the White House Was Ours.

Six and a half weeks have passed since Lake County turned in its votes and Tim Russert proclaimed: “We now know who the Democratic nominee will be.” Pundits have studied the exit polls trying to decipher why Senator Hillary Clinton won the primary here by a mere 2 percent. Some questions can’t be answered: What were the roles of race and gender? Did Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” swing the primary?

Two-thirds of Indiana voters said the biggest issue was the economy. In this state, where American flags fly on every block and the most popular politicians have made their reputations in foreign policy and national security, it’s surprising that only 20 percent of voters called Iraq their top concern. But more than 3,100 Hoosiers lost their jobs in April. A retired railroad worker I talked to from Southern Indiana said he used to be a Republican and a member of the National Rifle Association, but after eight years of George W. Bush he could no longer afford a hunting rifle. He backed Mr. Obama.

It seems he’s not the only “Obamican” I’ve met. A dairy farmer from north-central Indiana, told me before the primary: “I live in a very Republican county. I wonder, if more Democratic ballots are taken than Republican on Tuesday, will the dome fall off the courthouse?”

Well, the dome still stands in Fulton County, but Democratic ballots there outnumbered Republican by nearly three to one. Statewide, nearly 1.3 million Democrats voted in the primary — more voters than supported George W. Bush in 2000.

As an impoverished graduate student I used to think up gimmicky business schemes, like selling deeds to an inch of land in all 50 states, something akin to buying a star for your sweetheart. So I was struck last week when the Obama campaign announced its embrace of an equally improbable “50-state strategy.” Places like Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Virginia and even Indiana could become new battlegrounds.

The dairy farmer who worried about his courthouse roof might be right that the state isn’t likely to go blue for the first time in 44 years, but even so, Mr. Obama’s willingness to commit some of his war chest to operations here would help candidates from the top to the bottom of the Democratic ticket. Perhaps that 50-state idea isn’t a gimmick, after all.

3) Getting to the Grass Roots

By Donald Ray Pollock, the author of the story collection Knockemstiff.

Recently, on a hot, humid day in southern Ohio, I was on my back porch smoking a cigarette and feeling wrung-out after spending several hours in the attic writing about a fictional serial killer. It had rained the day before; my wife came to the screen door and mentioned that the grass needed cutting. While I sat half-heartedly considering her request, Tim, a neighbor, came through the back gate, a bottle of Gatorade in his hand. Besides working as a software developer and playing a mean guitar, Tim’s one of the best-read people I know. It was a relief to see him because, frankly, talking about books seemed a much better option that afternoon than doing yard work.

But to my surprise, Tim quickly steered the conversation to politics, a subject I’ve always avoided with him because, well, I like having him as a friend. You see, Tim’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat. I have a “Jack Kevorkian for White House Physician” bumper sticker on my car; I used to keep a daily count of the soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq in the back window of my old pickup. So, as you can imagine, my talking to a Republican about politics has always turned out badly. I was still reminding myself to keep my mouth shut when Tim announced that he planned to vote for Barack Obama.

Tim said he became a conservative in the ’70s after discovering the writings of William F. Buckley. He told me that while I was standing outside the local fairgrounds in 2004 protesting the Iraq war during a Bush rally, he was inside working as a volunteer. He stopped for a moment, took a swig of his Gatorade. “But I’m tired of being disappointed,” he confessed. “I guess you could say that Bush has finally turned me into a Democrat.”

“What about McCain?” I asked.

Tim shook his head. “No way,” he said. “If he gets elected, it’s just going to be the same old, same old. Nothing’s going to change with McCain, and though I still consider myself a conservative, I can see that there are some things that need to be straightened out before it’s too late.”

“But do you really think Obama can win?” I said. “I mean, a black man?” I figured that if he said yes, I’d gladly mow the grass.

Tim nodded and looked up at the sky. “Oh, yeah, he’ll win. Maybe not around here, but he’ll carry Ohio. And I’ll admit that I’ve got just enough ‘white guilt’ left in me to really want to see that happen. If nothing else, just to show the rest of the world we’re finally getting past all that stuff. And a black man with a Muslim name, what could be better than that?”

And with that said, Tim went home, and I got the mower out of the garage. Heck, I even weeded the flowerbeds.

4) Depleted in Dairyland

By Lauren Fox, the author of the novel Still Life With Husband.

A little while ago, just before Hillary Clinton finally conceded the race for the Democratic nomination, my 5-year-old daughter picked up the phone and announced, out of the blue (so to speak), “I’m calling Barack Obama.”

Now, normally I save the cute kid stories for the immediate family. But I think that my daughter’s outreach plan demonstrates that there is something in the air here in Wisconsin. After all, my husband and I are not the kind of people who subject our daughter to dinnertime discussions of fiscal policy or outfit the baby in “My Mama Loves Obama” onesies. We’re the kind of people who talk politics only after the children are in bed and we are drunk.

When people who can’t tie their shoes are suddenly civic-minded, when even kindergartners can effortlessly tune in to the country’s political frequency, I’m pretty sure we’ve hit the tipping point. Things are decidedly not so good in Wisconsin. General Motors has just announced that it will be closing its plant in Janesville, leaving 2,400 people jobless. Part of the town of Lake Delton, near the tourist area of the Wisconsin Dells, washed away in this month’s catastrophic floods. The proportion of the state’s children who live in poverty increased to 15 percent, from 12 percent, over six years.

And so, according to recent polls, Barack Obama is a shoo-in here, a no-brainer. In 2004, John Kerry won the state by less than one-half of one percent. But things have gone south since then, and we are poised for an Obama landslide.

I thought, after Mr. Obama clinched the nomination, that Wisconsinites would be all aquiver, that my friends and neighbors would share the thrill of this historical moment. For months, we’d been exchanging glances across the frozen tundra, wild-eyed, wondering whether all the infighting would spoil the race.

But now that it’s finally over, all the Hillary Clinton supporters I know have switched allegiances to Senator Obama, more or less happily, and there is quiet. My ear to the ground, I have heard almost no talk of politics since June 3, save for an occasional squeak. (“An Obama/Clinton ticket would be unbeatable,” one friend exclaimed in the heat of the moment, and then quickly revised his opinion.) We are, it seems, finally, irrefutably fried from constant talk of the Democratic race; we are overcooked; stick a fork in us, we’re done.

For Wisconsinites, this silence may be an exhalation, the breath of relief that for us, the race is basically over.

Or maybe it’s the hushed fear that for the rest of the country, it’s not.

5) A Political Shell Game

By Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College and the author of the memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted.

In Maine, the winter is never really over. Even on these lovely summer evenings, when the light lasts until 9 or 10 at night, and we sit on our porches eating lobsters and drinking white wine, the winter sits at the edges of our consciousness, reminding us that our pleasures never last. This much we know: we’ll soon be shoveling snow again, and the summer will just be a strange, outsized memory — like the Beatles, or Lyndon Johnson.

For us Democrats, the presidency has been something like the weather in Maine — even during the best days of the Clinton administration, in our hearts we felt the thing that Mainers feel on these perfect summer days: this cannot last.

We’ve learned, over the years, not to trust in warm weather. For almost 50 years, we’ve seen the leaders we believe in killed, compromised and impeached. So the appearance of Barack Obama, for Mainers, presents a philosophical dilemma. Do we dare put our belief into this charismatic, brilliant young man? Or, in doing so, will we just become the political equivalent of Charlie Brown, believing, like sweet, trusting chuckleheads, that this time the football won’t be snatched away from us at the last instant?

As my partner, Deirdre Finney, a social worker, says: “I’ve spent my adult life learning that most Americans don’t share my values about government and society. And so instead, I’ve learned to tend my own garden.” This, from the woman whose father was the national campaign manager for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and an adviser to Edmund Muskie in 1972.

Call it the impossibility of hope.

Even the Maine Republicans I know seem excited, in their begrudging, Yankee manner, about Mr. Obama’s accomplishment. The author (and lobsterwoman) Linda Greenlaw, about to depart on a book tour for her new mystery, admitted to me that Mr. Obama’s emergence as the Democratic nominee was a historic, awe-inspiring moment — not that she’s going to vote for him. (A former Mitt Romney supporter, she’s none too excited about John McCain, either, whom she finds “too moderate.” About what? “About everything.”)

It was the psychologist Abraham Maslow who said that to a man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and perhaps to people who live in Maine, everything looks like a lobster. It’s tempting to think of presidents, like lobsters, as being either “hard shell” or “soft shell” (what lobstermen call “shedders”). Traditionally, you’d think that we’d be better off with “hard shell” presidents, but then the last eight years have shown the downside of trusting the nation’s fortunes to a man impervious to anything. Including facts.

Would Mr. Obama be a “soft shell” president? More important, is that a problem? The last “shedder” in the Oval Office was probably Jimmy Carter, a man whose presidency suggests there’s such a thing as too soft a shell. And yet, the things that President Carter stood for — energy conservation, and the preference for diplomacy over force in the Middle East — somehow don’t seem as risible as they did in, say, 1980.

Democrats in Maine are feeling optimistic for the first time in my political lifetime, not only that they might win back the White House, but that Senator Obama himself might truly represent a turning point — not for just for the party, but for the nation.

And yet, we’re more than a little self-conscious about this feckless optimism, since the entirety of our political lives has taught us that idealism always fades, just as summers always give way to snow.

It was once said that the Red Sox were the embodiment of a Yankee sensibility: the inevitability of their collapse, their nearly mythical ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

But the Red Sox, like the Democrats, have been winning lately.

A place in which hopes are not always crushed? A presidency more like Maine summer than Maine winter?

Who knows? Maybe you can get there from here.