On the Road with Obama and Romney - Part VI

By James Pogue


Photos by Liz Gorman

In Virginia, Mitt Romney's traveling press secretary told us that we'd be welcome, if we could make it, to attend what he said would be a major foreign policy address in Lexington. This was a while ago. We spent a long time in Virginia. It's a baffling state. But, because of the latest debate, last week will probably end up being the only one of the campaign to be any more than cursorily concerned with foreign policy—so the delay might have turned out to be convenient.

First an anecdote: We stayed in Bristol, Virginia for a night, off a stretch of the old Robert E. Lee Highway where, like everywhere in the upper south, most of the motels are owned by South Asians. We still hadn't managed to keep to or even try out our plan of saving money by sleeping in my truck, but the Reds were playing and it was cold and we needed a spot to write and edit photos. As we went along the highway, we began to notice that every third or fourth motel had a notation, below their vacancy sign: "American Owned."

I said that it was my personal preference to stop at one of those. Liz asked how on Earth I could possibly care. I allowed that I didn't have a very good reason, that it was just a preference. "So you're just racist," Liz concluded.

We stopped at an American-owned motel and it was full, so we crossed the highway to a non-American owned place. In the office there was a very skinny and slightly phantasmal woman in a blue headscarf, sitting on a plastic folding chair, holding a kitten. She asked me to wait while she petted the kitten. She gave it seven very slow strokes. Liz came in. She asked where we were from, and it turned out that she understood the geography of the United States entirely in terms of the interstate, the same way some truckers do. I said I was from Cincinnati: "Oh, yes, a good place where 75 and 71 meet." Liz said she was from DC. "I love Washington. What exit are you from?" We checked in and left. I realized that I had forgotten to specify, when I asked for a room for two people, that it ought to be a room with two separate beds. I went back in. "Of course," she said. I gave you two beds. I knew that you needed two beds."

Look. This was a pleasant and mystical interaction, and it's only in rare moments that I can summon an actual preference for an American-owned motel over any other kind of motel. But I'm blasting across the southeastern mountains—the place where I was born and bred to feel comfortable and at home—in my cranberry-red American-made V6 pickup, with my Sherrod Brown: Senator for Ohio and Mountain Community Radio: "The Voices of the Hillbilly Nation" bumper stickers on the back, and I just wanted to relate the kind of quotidian interaction that can make a basically conservative soul like mine feel like he's—these souls tend to be hes—lost his grounding, that the country is getting complex and disorganized and unpredictable, that global forces are being brought to bear right here in Bristol fucking Virginia.

This is the seed of the feeling that was so well manipulated into support for war in the last decade. Americans, broadly speaking, don't like to feel like we're being acted upon.

And it's fascinating to me that liberal politicians have such a hard time understanding how to manipulate this sentiment to their own benefit. There's a recurring story you'll hear, if you talk to people in the semi-rural south about immigration, changing landscapes, foreign motels, things like that: It's about the guy who used to own the gun shop on main street in town. Wal-Mart came in and opened a gun counter in their store outside town. The gun shop on Main Street went out of business. The owner of the closed gun shop applied for a job at the Wal-Mart, and, naturally, they hired him and put him to work at the gun counter. I've been hearing this story, with small variations, for years.

Left-wing writers tend to have trouble with the idea that motels owned by immigrants and the gun shop owner working at Wal-Mart are politically connected, both in how they affect a white, native-born, and tradition-bred guy's experience of his surroundings and in how they reflect forces far beyond that guy's ability to control or even influence. Our room was endearingly shabby, and there was a small smear of blood on the mini-fridge.

I actually did read Mitt Romney's campaign book. It's called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The subtitle is rhetorically ridiculous—no presidential candidate has ever made any other case—but revealing. In the book Romney talks very little about "our way of life," or "American values," as these things play out at home. Much less than you'd expect. Instead, he talks a lot about American greatness abroad, America's place in the world, and America facing down impudent tyrants like Vladimir Putin. The case for American greatness, in the book, is in large part a case for greatness as judged against external actors, not that job-creation and prosperity are themselves independent goods. I found this a surprising line of argument.

So we left Bristol and drove to Lexington to hear Romney articulate an international vision that had, until then, mostly been left on the pages of the book. The speech was at the Virginia Military Institute, West Point's southern step-cousin. The audience was to be what looked like a small group of donors and a much larger group of cadets who, as future officers, were bound by nearly the same rules as the studio audience at a televised debate. Candidates are always picking military audiences when they need to achieve the impression of gravity. There wouldn't be any applause lines.

We were late, as usual, and the sheriff’s deputies checking in the press were stereotypically unfriendly about it: "If you want us to be polite then come on time, guys." The Romney press aide didn't look at our credentials, which was good, because VICE still hadn't sent any. I was still using my pink and polyurethaned pass I'd printed up to get in to see Michelle Obama, and Liz didn't have anything at all. We looked around for my campaign-trail buddy, the disheveled and chain-smoking Robert Stacy McCain, because I'd been told that he was once, or maybe still is, a member of the League of the South and that he'd had a long association with William White, the neo-Nazi, and I was curious to hear what his personal white-guy reactions might have been to my thoughts on dislocation. But all the reporters here were dressed as crisp as the cadets, who all wore white and looked amazingly childish in their uniforms. It was hard to imagine that, if they'd enlisted directly, these kids with braces and acne and teenage body odor would be uniformed fighters by now.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte—who you may know for his efforts to create a national identification system for farm animals, complete with radio chips in cattle—came up and led a prayer. "Lord, We thank you that we can gather here," he paused for effect, "safely." Bob McDonnell, Virginia's governor, came up and said some unremarkable words.

And then—polite applause, a collective look up from the laptop by the assembled reporters—Romney came on. Even without a crowd to back him, he was clearly as full of political energy as the man could possibly bring himself to be. He opened the speech with an appeal less to national security—Goodlatte's prayer had seemed out of place, revenant from the Bush years—than to national dignity:

The attacks against us in Libya were not an isolated incident. They were accompanied by anti-American riots in nearly two-dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Asia. Our embassies have been attacked. Our flag has been burned. Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs, shouting “Death to America.” These mobs hoisted the black banner of Islamic extremism over American embassies on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

He talked, perhaps too long—the cadets were scratching themselves and glancing around by the end—and then ended on the theme of the book: "The 21st century can and must be an American century. It began with terror, war, and economic calamity. It is our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace, and prosperity. "

The killing of an ambassador is a special affront to a nation. I may be gullible, but I think it's possible that Romney truly believes this, and that the attacks in Libya seemed to him something more than just an issue he could jump on. It's at least possible. In the last debate the Obama people had a prepared frame for Romney's foreign policy, that it was "all over the map." Which is only really true in the details. Romney is thematically probably the most consistent presidential candidate we've seen in a long time. He's against affronts to our national dignity and for whatever maintains the perception of American leadership in the world. He quoted George Marshall, who is VMI's easiest-to remember graduate—next in line is Stonewall Jackson—"The only way to win a war is to prevent it." Romney's vision is, essentially, peace through respect. Or peace through fear, if you want to put it that way—there's probably not much of a difference.

We left the auditorium and had cigarettes with a young reporter for Deutsche Welle. He said that this had been the first speech in a while he'd been able to get into. "I can't even get the Obama campaign to return my calls," he said. "They say 'no foreign press,' they are always saying 'no foreign press.' Even senators! 'No foreign press.'"

We left and drove to Charlottesville, where both campaigns have their Central Virginia headquarters. The Dalai Lama came to town and caused a traffic jam. Liz made friends with a seven-piece old-time band that we'd seen busking downtown. They invited us to a show, at a UVA undergrad party. The party turned out to be hosted by a campus acappella group. Campus acappella groups from all around the southeast had come. I was asked, repeatedly, whether or not I thought UVA girls were easy. Liz was popular. I was the weird old dude at the campus party. The band was wild and called Love Banshee, out of Kitchener, Ontario, and they got drunk and had the kids in polos dancing to a string band. A Duke student I'd been talking to, who'd come from India to Boston when he was a kid, remarked that he hated old-time music. "They act like this is America. We were here first." A UVA student asked what the hell he meant. "Us! New Englanders! We're the real Americans! Not this country shit. America is cosmopolitan." The UVA student countered with Roanoke and Jamestown and said that Virginians were the first Americans and that Love Banshee was playing music that at least resembled music what had been here for hundreds of years and that this was his heritage and that the New Englander didn't know what the fuck he was talking about. The New Englander said that was a fair point about Roanoke, "but I don't get the rest. Isn't this band Canadian?"

We left and went to a friend's house on Smith Mountain Lake, a pleasure-boating sort of retreat created in the 1930s when Appalachian Electric Power came in and dammed the Roanoke River, in an area that's otherwise about as rural as it's possible to find east of the Appalachians. Paul Ryan came to Lynchburg, but I refused to go. Liz, feeling fairly that she was both being underpaid and that we weren't actually doing much reporting, went home.

The odd thing about the American drive for preeminience in the world—seen at least, from Moneta, Viginia— is that all the things the candidates refer to when they talk about maintaining it—investments in research and support for innovators and improved weapons systems and new energy exploration and clean coal and all of it— are essentially disruptive, in the long term. In the sense that they contribute to the feelings of dislocation described up above. There actually isn't anything at all conservative about Romney's domestic corporatism, either, quite the opposite. His entire fortune and life story are based on his ability to embrace disruptive new ideas, to accept disruption as a path to prosperity—"I like to be able to fire people." His great business success was bringing us Staples. This is how we stay number one, by never resting. Observers have been surprised at Barack Obama's ability to compete with the Romney-Ryan ticket among what they gently call "white working class males," especially in Ohio. But watch just a few of the ads the Obama people have been running on Ohio. It's not a complicated message: These people don't give a fuck about disrupting your life. Over and over, on issue after issue.

Europe has mostly given up its pretentions to preeminence, and it's been interesting to watch how the traditionally left-wing even the old revolutionary parties have become the conservatives; the right wing parties have become, as Sarkozy had it, the parties of rupture and dynamisme. And the ones playing at past glory—and pressuring Barack Obama into coming along—in Libya.  

I ate every meal for four days at a place called the Mayberry Diner, which is a pink little restaurant in the middle of a hayfield where a portrait of Richard Nixon hung over my booth and the waitresses were helpful in getting my iPad hooked up to the wifi. I read the Roanoke papers every morning. Packs of feral dogs were killing cattle in the area. The business of building vacation homes in the Smith Mountain area was expected to be better next year.

I left Virginia and went to North Carolina. The day the Romney campaign decided the state was safe they started moving paid staffers to Ohio and Virginia. So I went fishing, on the Qualla Cherokee reservation, in the North Carolina Smokies. It's a major destination for the kind of southern roadtripper who likes bait-fishing and Indian casinos and campsites with RV hookups, but the streams are beautiful and the Indians stock them with fat trout. I caught a little rainbow. There were confederate flags everywhere. I heard about this reservation once, I can't be totally sure it's true. But most of the Eastern Cherokee supported the Confederacy, and supposedly, after Lee had surrendered at Appomatox, a Union general led a force up into the mountains to tell the Indians to stand down. The Cherokee fighters observed the general's approach and surrounded his forces and, with their own force half the size, they supposedly came out of the woods yelling and painted and terrifying. The Union troops who had come to subdue the Cherokees ended up surrendering to the Cherokees themselves. The Cherokee who told me this story said it was the last recorded Confederate victory. There's a Shell station across from the casino in what they call downtown Cherokee. It had a scrolling sign, below the gas prices: "American Owned. Native American Managed."

PreviouslyPart V 

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