In this installment of VICE’s 2012 campaign series, writer James Pogue and photographer Liz Gorman split ways. James takes in his native Ohio on election night, and Liz photographs the president’s victory party in Chicago.
It's a little underwhelming, a re-election. We wake up and, give or take a few Senate seats, we're exactly where we were. Wednesday was a sunny day in Cincinnati, though I slept through most of it. I went out in the afternoon to buy the paper and pack of cigarettes. I had to drive, and on the talk radio they had on a guy named Richard, who seemed to be a regular caller. They had been talking about food stamps, and they asked him if there were a lot of people on food stamps out where he lived in Indian Hill, an old town-turned suburb that houses the mansions where for many years most of the important political decisions in Cincinnati have been made. “Well, no.” Richard said, “Maybe filet mignon stamps.”
They asked Richard how the election would impact him. “Well,” he said, “I'm still going to be rich. I can afford to pay new taxes. The question is can other people afford for me to be paying new taxes?” He said that he “made the decision in July. I looked at the policies and I decided that at the companies I control I'm going to lay off 300-400 workers." He said it again. “I'm still going to be rich.” They liked Richard. Cincinnati has always liked Richard, it should be said. But Hamilton County voted for Obama by 20,000 votes.
At our Kroger's I saw a guy named Buddy, who's been working there since my parents moved to the neighborhood, almost fifteen years ago. He has some sort of speech impediment that causes him to elongate words fantastically and he has a fanatical devotion to the Kroger Co., headquartered in downtown Cincinnati. It's a union store, if that's the sort of thing you like in your grocery stores, but it's still phenomenally depressing to get in your car on a nice day and drive to a supermarket to buy a pack of cigarettes and have to encounter a guy who has spent the best years of his life working in that air conditioning, under those florescent lights, wearing a polyester uniform and a name tag. I wanted a copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, as a keepsake, but they were already sold out. I noticed that they had begun selling the New York Times. You used to have to drive two miles down the hill to a Starbucks to get one.
To build the shopping center where the Starbucks is now they bulldozed the old Rancho Rankin hotel, where some large percentage of Cincinnati's bearded drunks and drifters used to pay by the week for Western-themed economy living. I remembered that motel and, having nothing better to do, I went to the Mount Washington Public Library and found an old postcard produced by the motel, featuring the eponymous Colonel Rankin Harrison: “Do Unto Others As If You Were The Others,” he said, “Lets Make This A Better World And Be Happy—Owning the Same City Block For 52 Happy Successful Years—Debt Free—My Memories Are Pleasant Ones, Hope That Yours Are Too.” It turns out that the Colonel, in his day, also owned a motel on the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which is the stretch of road leading from Harlan County, Kentucky into Wise County, Virginia and on into the Blue Ridge where I passed so much of this insane reporting trip.
He also, it turns out, sat on the board of regents at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Which is a nice thought, in a way, because the Colonel seems like he was a guy I could have got on with well. It would have been nice to have lived in a country where I could get on with a regent at Liberty University, but the more time I spend in the mountains and deep south I find that it’s increasingly hard to talk with the kinds of people who fill those positions and the people who form their constituencies of support. Which is to say the kinds of people I was brought up to think were my kind of people.
My friend Jack, mentioned in some of the earlier instances of these pieces, has a house on the road that becomes the Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I ran into him a second time on this trip, in New Market, Tennessee, and he talked about trying to connect politically with his neighbors in his part of the world. It used to be much easier, politics used to be much more local: “They hate Obama. And they hate anyone who doesn’t hate Obama. They buy these giant pickup trucks on loan and someone has really convinced them that Barack Obama is out there trying to take it all away.” On Wednesday night, on the talk radio, a guy called in: “I put a sign on my trailer before I went to bed last night, so that everyone would know how much trouble they got us in: Obama won. America lost.” The hosts produced grim noises from deep within their throats.
I had spent Election Day with my friend Taimur at a polling station in Over-the-Rhine, just across Central Parkway from the Kroger headquarters. “It's just ridiculous to see people live like this,” Taimur said at one point, “Literally in the shadow of the Kroger headquarters.” I told him that Cincinnati taxpayers, myself included, had paid for the Kroger Co. to build a parking garage on that site, a bribe to keep them from moving to the suburbs or Atlanta or wherever they'd threatened to go. We watched black people getting turned away for bullshit, and we watched the young white cohort that's moved into the neighborhood since my family left the area voting with great ease.
We watched one man in particular turn a disproportionate number of black voters away or talk them into voting provisionally, and we tried to link him definitively to one of the evil national voter suppression groups, but in the end we had to go on the word of the Obama campaign. But we may have spooked him, actually, and that felt good. In the hours between 1:00 and 3:30 PM, while we were off fucking around and eating and looking for thugs practicing overt voter intimidation, the precinct he was working had 63 voters talked into voting provisionally. I was later told that between 3:30 and 5:00 PM, after we’d come back and started asking questions and taking pictures, the election observers had only found four voters they were sure had ended up voting provisionally. This was probably due in large part to the work of the election observers themselves, but still it felt good. “I just can't believe it when I see shit like that here,” Taimur said. “It's like we're in Pakistan.” Taimur is Pakistani, so he can say that.
We went to get coffee and file stories. By the time we finished the polls had closed. We went to the Hamilton County Board of Elections, to watch the votes come in. This was slightly surreal. I’ve been away from Cincinnati for what feels like forever now, and it’s increasingly possible for me to come home and not run into a single person I knew from high school, or the anarchist scene, or from any of the little social networks that shape life in a big little town like Cincinnati.
But I knew damn near half this room, at least by name. There was Howard Wilkinson, formerly of the Enquirer (“Howard Wilkinson has been covering Cincinnati politics for years,” his bio went. “Don’t trust anyone else.”) They seem to have let him go; now he works for the local public radio station. There was Todd Portune, who in 2004 had become the first Democrat elected to be a Hamilton County commissioner in three decades, now walking with crutches, because of what I’m told are a series of debilitating tumors on his spine. The woman who had helped me correct an irregularity on my absentee ballot was still there working, and she gave an absolutely fantastic display of memory: “Hey! Mr. Pogue! So glad you came down and got it sorted out. Your vote’s probably being counted right now.”
There was Brewster Rhoads, who had been Governor Ted Strickland’s man in Southwest Ohio, before he lost in 2010. There was Judge Nadine Allen, who Taimur had met earlier in the week and who had become pretty clearly enamored of him. Girls I’d gone to high school with were running the campaigns of longtime Ohio State Reps. CNN was there; the BBC was there; the CBC was there. The room was packed and unaccountably hot.
The returns came up live, as they came in, on a projector at the front of the room. At 8:30 the Obama ticket was leading 89,000-69,000. I was standing next to a photographer for Reuters. “He won,” I said. The photographer shook his head sagely. “Those are just the votes from the city, because the city precincts are closest to this building. That margin won’t hold.” By 9:00 we were at 119,000-99,000. “Yeah. He won,” the photographer said. “If he can run ahead by a single vote in Hamilton County then he’s going to win Ohio, and, well…” We were all tired of saying and hearing how important Ohio was.
My high school girlfriend showed up. I called my editor to tell him that we should go ahead and call things for Obama. “It’s over! I have these numbers before they make it into the CNN office. He’s going to win Ohio! I see it on the screen.” My editor told me I should get myself a Twitter account.
We went as a group down to the bar where the Hamilton County Democrats were gathering to watch the returns. Most of us had been at the Board of Elections, and all of us knew how important the county numbers were, if only as an indicator of the national trend, and so we went with almost no apprehension. We were outside smoking. Here’s the lede from Taimur’s story:
When Barack Obama's picture and the word "re-elected" flashed on television screens at Cincy's bar in downtown Cincinnati well before midnight on Tuesday, there was silence. Then an eruption.
As people broke into a chant of "four more years!", Jimmie Link, a white steelworker, and Renee Baker, an African-American chemical plant manager, embraced in a long, spontaneous hug, with tears in their eyes.
"I don't know you," Mr Link said. "But congratulations."
I hugged Taimur, who said that he probably shouldn’t be seen celebrating. I hugged my ex-girlfriend. I hugged my ex-girlfriend’s brother, a union organizer who I remember as being one of the more intimidating people in my Cincinnati life. We drank. This was Cincinnati, so the party wound down early. Someone produced an SUV limousine. We packed in. Everyone around us had done much more than I had, and they were proud. Young men who didn’t know how to cut a cigar were smoking dried-up Cubans they’d been saving for months. We went to another bar. We got drunk. My ex-girlfriend said something that I think I believe: “The thing about this election, on the record, is that this is America deciding that we take care of each other. That we don’t look at the top and say ‘I want to be that guy, I want to look out for that guy because I’m going to be that guy someday.’ It’s us saying that we’re looking out for the people around us every day.”
I do believe certain things that you might fairly describe as being part of liberal conventional wisdom. I believe that this is a president who has appealed for the most part to our better natures. I believe that he’s made it exciting, possible, even, for a guy like me who grew up being reminded during the Bush years that I wasn’t a real American, to participate happily in the broader scheme of American political life. I remember watching him speak at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, when the 2008 primaries were raging I was twenty-one and working for a subcontractor for the evil Anglo-Australian mining concern Rio Tinto. I was in a hotel in a little Saharan mining town. It was 4 AM. It was live on CNN International, and I had to be up and working in three hours. I had never voted, and I wouldn’t even end up voting in 2008. But I stayed up to watch, and I remember thinking that if we really ended up electing this man I would sit down and reassess my own personal alienation from American life. I remember the owner of the hotel I was staying in, an Arab, saying to me “Les États-Unis vont jamais élire un négro. Jamais jamais jamais.” The U.S. will never elect a negro. Never never never. I remember thinking that us electing un négro would be far less surprising to me than the simple fact of electing someone smart and decent and hopeful, who would give me faith as much in the American electorate as he did in the man they’d elected.
Anyway, though, now we’re left with the right guy to lead us into the sunny new world of nimble small businesses, solar cells, and social networking. I still believe that the incredible, lockstep, animosity towards this president, at least among whites in the Deep South, the part of the country where I’ve spent most of the last two years, has more to do with a feeling that unthinking progress, the suburbanization and wiring-up of American life, and an influx of people who, if you’ve lived a certain way for a very long time, might reasonably be assumed to be disruptive of an older social order, than it does with the fact that everyone’s been brainwashed by Freedomworks or that they all simply hate the idea of a black president.
“No, you cannot have your country back,” Charles M. Blow wrote Wednesday on the Times website. “America is moving forward.” Which is just fucking ungenerous and blind to the true sentiments of these people. “You would think that the world came to an end Tuesday night. And depending on your worldview, it might have. If your idea of America’s power structure is rooted in a 1950s or even a 1920s sensibility, here’s an update: that America is no more. Republicans are trying to hold back a storm surge of demographic change with a white picket fence. Good luck with that.”
The sad thing is that the Republicans have been able to take the “1950s or even a 1920s sensibility” and wrap it into an absurd, ahistorical corporatist ideology that distorts what I tend to think of as a quite legitimate fear of rapid societal change into this awful talk of liberty and socialism that really has no place at all in our discourse. And then it really does become impossible to talk to these people. It becomes increasingly hard for a guy like me to live in the rural precincts of the South. Then Democrats talk as though they’re just all just natively insane.
And then it really does become all about demographics, as so much of the post-election analysis has pointed out. If voting blocs are largely unpersuadable and the voting blocs that make up the Democratic coalition are growing, then the white male shouting about socialism is going to keep losing, no matter how much money our billionaire patricians throw at their candidates. And he will grow more angry and isolated and cling ever more tightly to his billionaire patricians. I personally would feel a little lost and alienated in that America, too. But tonight I’m going to call in to the local talk radio and gloat.