Politics & Government

Is Barack Obama a real American or a Harvard elitist?

Sen. John McCain supporters listen as singer Vikki Carr sings "America" before a McCain rally in Mesilla, N.M.,
Sen. John McCain supporters listen as singer Vikki Carr sings "America" before a McCain rally in Mesilla, N.M., Stephan Savoia / AP

DURANGO, Colo. — There's no question about it, John McCain's supporters said. We are the real Americans, and folks who support Barack Obama aren't.

If Obama wins, said Craig Jederlinic, an Albuquerque radio station programming director, "It wouldn't be God Bless America, but God help America."

At rally after rally, McCain's supporters chant "USA, USA, USA," wave bright blue "Country First" signs and shake little American flags high in the air. In the Durango High School bleachers, people made it clear that they're part of what GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin called "these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America."

"It means being normal, having a mom and pop making it in a business, paying their fair share of taxes," said Joyce Lipari, a Cortez real estate agent.

"A real American is the average person who works 9 to 5 for an average paycheck, and John McCain understands that," said Jan Gardner, a nurse from Dolores, Colo.. "When Barack Obama talks he seems to be talking down to us."

That kind of talk is as old as the republic is, and over 200 years it's been directed at, among others, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Native Americans, Chinese-Americans, Jewish-Americans, German-Americans, suspected Bolsheviks, Japanese-Americans, Communist fellow travelers, African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, nattering nabobs of negativism and pointy-headed liberal elitists.

This year, as in the past, change, uncertainty and fear are catalysts for classic American us versus them politics. The economy is sinking, jobs are disappearing overseas or being taken by illegal immigrants, Muslim terrorists have attacked New York and Washington and technology is advancing at baffling speed. For the elite, the world may be getting flatter, but to many Americans, it feels as if it's tilting against them.

"I suspect it's shorthand for a whole lot of cultural issues," said Ken Heineman, a professor of history at Ohio University.

For some Americans, Obama — young, biracial, the son of an African Muslim, educated briefly in Indonesia and then at Harvard Law School, community organizer, acquainted with a former domestic terrorist and a longtime congregant of a fiery black minister — symbolizes many of those issues, and he's been fighting back by preaching unity.

"We cannot afford to divide this country by class or region," he told a Miami audience last week.

"There are no real or fake parts of this country. We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this country — we all love this country, and raised by the example of U.S. soldiers who had died under the flag," he said.

However, Obama is up against legions of Americans who consider themselves the heart and soul of a country that they think long ago veered off course.

"A real American is the kind of person who lived in my old neighborhood," said Doris Waywell-Smith, a retiree who ran a beauty shop in Mt. Sparta, N.J. "They all did the same thing. They wanted to get their hair done on Saturday and go to dinner Saturday night. They were all ethnic and minority groups, and they just wanted to live a good middle class life."

When she looks at Obama, she sees someone who's "a Harvard elitist. He never grew up in a middle class environment. He understands Harvard elitists and movie stars."

Political analysts aren't surprised by such talk.

George Washington warned in his farewell address in 1796 that people should "guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism," and in the 1850s the Know-Nothing movement, angered at a wave of largely Irish Catholic immigration, said the influx threatened the American way. Democrats, the Know-Nothings charged, were too cozy with aliens.

More recently, much of the "real American" talk has highlighted regional differences, some of it stoked by a 1961comment by Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the modern conservative movement.

"Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea," said the Arizona senator, whose seat McCain now holds.

That comment, and subsequent political rhetoric, "helped feed the idea that the coasts are in the vanguard of a new global economy and tend to be socially liberal, unlike the heartland," said Heineman.

For the McCain campaign, appeals to heartland democracy have an immediate purpose: He needs to rev up voters in conservative, small town and rural.

Palin backed off her comments, but McCain last week said that western Pennsylvania "is the most patriotic, most God-loving, most patriotic part of America."

His supporters are spreading the same message. Nancy Pfotenhauer, a McCain adviser, said that the "real Virginia" would respond better to McCain's message than would northern Virginia, which she said was now "more Democratic."

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., maintained last week that, "Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish and achieve."

Such notions get traction quickly in today's age of instant communication. Walk around Durango High School, where the crowd was waiting for a McCain rally to start, and people spoke glowingly of the Vietnam hero's kinship with "real America."

"It's something Barack Obama can't possibly know, because he's not one of us. It's like the way (Richard) Nixon was able to talk to the hard hats," said Jim Wilson, a Cortez district attorney.

Reese Resnick, a Durango oil and gas industry salesman, grew up in a small Texas town, the only son in a family of seven.

"I had to work for everything I got. That's what I was taught, and Sarah Palin understands that," he said. "People like Obama, they get driven in vans all over Washington. Palin's a working mom."

Some in the crowds think that the appeal to country first is simply an appeal to patriotism and nothing more.

"These things are all a symbol of the country and its heritage, and the price it took to get where we are," said Bill Castle, a Golden, Colo. retiree.

Then again, he added, Obama just doesn't get it.

"He'll destroy the country," Castle said.


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