This story is over 5 years old.


On the Road with Obama and Romney - Part 4

The first Obama-Romney debate dirtied the robes of majesty. That, I think, was the great loss for the president in it. He spoke with Romney as though the machine of power really was something they could just tune up, and that has never really been this...

Photographs by Liz Gorman.

It's been a week of small defeats. We've been on the road now for eight days, and I've been blowing my deadlines for these dispatches and getting attacked for the ones I've turned in by various conservative practitioners of controversy. My Cincinnati Reds have been eliminated from the playoffs, one of a very small group of teams in baseball history to lose a postseason series after going up two games to none. I had been planning to use their run to the World Series as a thread in this narrative. Barack Obama has lost a debate. I busted a ball joint on my new truck, and I've had to spend nearly all the money I've made on this jaunt to get it fixed. But now there's another debate to talk about, and luck has put us in a position to nail this one.


We left Cincinnati last Friday, following U.S. 52 along the right bank of the Ohio River, and we turned south at Maysville, Kentucky, operating on my personal theory that coalfield Appalachia was the kind of place where we might see the elemental forces of American politics operating bare and exposed.

Past Morehead, once you get into the Daniel Boone National Forest, the southern mountains can become a bit possessive. It's a long way on small roads across the Cumberlands to Interstate 81, and Liz, the photographer on our crack two-person campaign team, was worried that we'd spend too much time dicking around in the hills, that there were only a few weeks left in this campaign and that we were setting ourselves up to be missing the action.

Which is the essence of the problem, if you're trying to write about an event like a televised debate. Because a presidential campaign in this country operates simultaneously at the very high level of the national game and at very low what-can-you-do-for-me local considerations, and the job of any campaign reporter is to try to describe the interplay between the national and the parochial. And it's structurally beyond anyone to do both well.

But the rumbling force of this election (and of the last midterm, and of the Tea Party, and of Occupy Wall Street) has come from a sense of common powerlessness over the economic and governmental forces shaping the country, and so in many ways it's become about how it's possible within the frame of the presidency to respond at all to the what-can-you-do-for-me questions. The basic analytical aid used in the last one of these dispatches was a metaphor comparing the interplay of the devices of American power to a machine that can really only be steered—like a Prius—not broken down, comprehended, and improved upon—like, say, a catapult. The conclusion from this was something we've always known but that we've in large part pretended away in this election, which is that the president is an officer of the gut, both in how he governs and how he's chosen. And the coalfields are a place both where people have been feeling powerless in the face of money and government long before the protests and marches of 2010-11 and where both candidates in this election have been working especially hard to convince the populace that they care a great deal about their parochial concerns.


We came down at evening through Hazard and from Whitesburg, in Letcher County, I called an old friend of my dad's and asked if we could stay on his property on a mountain above Cumberland, across the line in Harlan County. It was a chilly night and I doubted Liz's willingness to sleep in the back of my truck. I had been a little concerned that even if she was willing the obvious expectation on the part of some portion of the Vice directorshipthat we would end up fucking would contribute to a liaison that no one was excited about except for its narrative possibilities, a liaison that would take place in the bed of a pickup. Which is starting to seem like the kind of thing I'm a little old for.

Jack, we'll call him, because in this political moment it's probably safer not to name him, lives in what was until he came to it a derelict resort, abandoned in the fifties. He has a long white beard, and he's well-known around this part of Appalachia for a poem he wrote about trying to hitchhike into West Virginia with long hair and a long beard, back before the beard was white and when it was still a thing to be a longhair. He's been burned out of his house four times in ten years—insane determination, on both sides—all of them likely small acts in the long war over the future of coal in this part of the country. And, in an odd way, he's someone who's figured out how to have some play in the presidential machine, and I wanted to see him in that context.


We had meant to bring him beer, but we waited too long. Letcher County is dry and, though you can buy booze in Cumberland—what they call a "puddle" in otherwise dry Harlan—it was a Friday night in the mountains in October, which means drunk high-school football crowds, hell-raisers, and moist foggy roads, and it would have been only at extreme risk to our lives and my truck that we might try getting over the hill.

Jack was disappointed but not ungracious. He only had three beers left, and if he'd known that we weren't bringing any he would have gone down himself to get some, before the danger set in. "I don't usually get caught like this."

But now it was too late and there wasn't anything we could do and we opened our solitary beers and he took us off-roading in his jeep, in the dark, his four dogs matching the pace.

We came through the woods to a trailer, where a big guy and his wife were sitting by a fire. Liz began taking pictures. We asked for beer. "I'm actually just killing my Cruzan rum, " he said, and he didn't offer to share. "Why don't you go on a little b-double-e-double-r-u-n?"

"Harlan is playing football on the other side of the hill," Jack reminded him.

"Oh," he said. "Yeah, you probably don't want to drive tonight. So stick around a while. I'll build up the fire."

"Why are we going to stick around if you don't have any beer?"

"You don't need beer to have a good time, Jack."


We left. Jack had some of what Kentuckians will quickly describe to you as their number-one-cash-crop—"It ain't tobacco, not anymore…" We got high and talked about Larry Gibson, who had been one of the early, legendary, anti-mountaintop removal activists. Jack knew him well, and I can remember sitting, when I was twelve or thirteen, on his plastic-coated couches and watching him smoke cigarettes while we waited for the blasting to start again, above the hollow where he was nearly the last to leave. "One day they'll actually hit this house with a boulder," he said. "I know they're trying."

Larry engaged, and Jack engages, in the loud sort of politics that liberals have never performed very well in this country. The kind of politics that make the machine responsive, incidentally. They have rallies, storm meetings, make videos—Jack told me he'd like to build a solar-powered trailer with a megaphone, to run down the mountain and go campaigning through the streets of Harlan.

And this area happens to be a jumble of state lines—the southern seaboard states mostly all have their western borders somewhere in the Blue Ridge or the Cumberlands—so that, for the purposes of creating a political climate, it doesn't really matter that Jack lives in Eastern Kentucky and that Larry lived in West Virginia, because what happens here ends up influencing what happens over the hill in Virginia; what happens in West Virginia influences what happens over the river in Ohio.


In response there's been a massive public misinformation campaign on the part of the coal companies, the state Republican and Democratic parties of West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky, and on the part of the national Republican party.

Even before this election it was impossible to drive through this area without noticing the billboards: "Coal Keeps the Lights On," "Kentucky Coal: Kentucky Jobs," "NO BAMA YES COAL." etc, etc. Over in West Virginia the annual WVU-Marshall football game has been renamed the "Friends of Coal Bowl." But in the last four years the number of new surface-mining—the preferred euphemism for strip mining or mountaintop removal—leases has fallen by half, under a president who's nearly entirely dependent for his reelection hopes on two states with significant coal-producing regions. But this is how power politics works. It would bite him more to be seen not doing anything at all.

We took my new truck back up to a cabin Jack had laid out for us, and I nearly destroyed my suspension driving it off a ridge and into a sand pit, where we spent an hour, high, digging it out. Our cabin had never been hooked up for water, and when we went down to see Jack for breakfast it turned out a pipe hooking him up to the well had busted. "It's going to be a long week," he said. "You never miss your water until you have to buy it by the gallon." He asked us where we were headed and I said Virginia, and I noticed that he had a sticker for the retiring Virginia Senator Jim Webb, stuck on his fridge. "I was surprised when he said he was going to quit," he said. "Seeing how so few of them are of any account anyway. But then maybe that's why he's quitting."


We left and went to Cumberland, where there was a county fair on. I bought some apple butter, and we passed an hour watching a black preacher sing and talk to a packed white audience. We tend to forget how diverse our red states can be—Harlan County actually contains the town of Lynch, Kentucky, which was originally set up as an all-black coal camp. To this day the biggest building in town is the home of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, a fraternal sort of organization for black mountaineers. The Friends of Coal had set up a booth, and I hung around looking for confrontation, but no one ever came to staff it.

We crossed over Black Mountain, which for now is still the highest point in Kentucky; Arch Coal, out of St. Louis, has for years now been planning to blow it up. From the very top of it, actually, you can look out onto a bare valley that used to be a mountain nearly as high. The Virginia line runs right over this point of vantage and we passed into Wise County and back into an area that's going to matter statistically to this election.

We stopped for gas in Appalachia, Virginia, where there were two major stories in the day's edition of the localCoalfield Progress: The first was that the Norfolk Southern was offering a reward for the capture of an unidentified man who'd assaulted one of its employees by night in the local railyard. The police, who had no good leads, suspected that the assailant wasn't from the area. It's historically quite common for labor and environmental activists to be framed up in this region for unsolved crimes blamed on outsiders—Black Mountain, in fact, used to be famous as a place where coal companies and their stooges in the local and state police would take kids like Liz and I, beat them, and leave them to die or crawl their way back down.


The second was that there was to be a "United for Coal" rally organized (so it was claimed) by a concerned miner's wife. Her plan was to hold a hundreds mile-long rally along Route 23, the U.S. highway that for many years has carried miners and their families out of this region and north to factory jobs. There was to be a prayer rally in Big Stone Gap Virginia, and the hope was that there enough (lower-case, this time) friends of coal would show up along the highway that they could hold hands from the Tennessee line clear up into Ohio. Liz wanted to stay for a week and see it, that it would be unbelievable to photograph. I said absolutely fucking not, that we would probably get beaten up or framed for something and that anyway that kind of fake spontaneous protest always turns out to be a dud.

The strange success of the pro-coal forces in this region has, incidentally, been exactly the same as the main success of the Romney-Ryan campaign so far, which is that they've been able to convince people that the availability of jobs is the first and main concern of people trying to preserve a way of life. In the country at large the Romney campaign has managed to make this a gut issue: the American middle-class dream starts slipping away for everyone at 8% unemployment. In coal country the appeal is a little more direct: there's no palatable alternative to coal-mining as a major employer (in Harlan County the other pillar of the economy is the production and/or sale of meth, marijuana, and prescription pills), and so the entire region risks economic calamity and depopulation if Obama and his EPA, who listen to men like Jack, who in turn are finding an ever-bigger audience up here, gets in another four years. Which is the kind of fear that leads to Jack's house getting burned and nosy kids like me and Liz getting beaten up.


But. Here's a quote about West Virginia to illustrate the problem : "When coal began to die some fifteen years ago, West Virginia began to die with it. Technology helped kill coal; as gas and fuel oil became the predominant source of American energy, coal's portion of America's energy supply dropped from 51% to 23%. American industry and railways no longer need coal for energy—gas, hydroelectric power, fuel oils, are more efficient energy sources. Only steel, requiring soft coal for coking, and the electric-generating industry still sustain the stricken industry."

Those words were written in 1961, by Theodore H. White, in his (beautiful, and almost unbelievably prescient, from this age and vantage) account of The Making of the President: 1960. And the trend has continued—now China and Russia produce coal on a global market, and the American operators have to compete. In general what that means is that American operators run at very small margins and simply can't afford to do anything but surface mining, and surface mines, only take a few men with bulldozers and explosives to operate. This shift has nearly destroyed the United Mine Workers union, and has made coal mining an irregular, ill-paid job, more dangerous and hardly more lucrative than managing at a Wal-Mart. Everyone is destroying coal jobs, it's just easier to blame the EPA than it is the coal companies. I remember reading a count in 2009, before any Obama policy could have possibly had an effect, that said that per county Kentucky only had 141 coal miners working. That number's never going to rise, and a lot of people around here know it. The problem is that we don't know what comes next.


White was writing then about the last time this area had an opportunity to decide the political future of the nation, when JFK was running against Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia Democratic primary. Humphrey—this was before Vietnam and 1968 destroyed his memory for us—was the candidate of the common man, the guy who talked about jobs and the farm problem, who could come into a state, analyze the problems of the day, and try modestly to offer solutions. But he had a great failing. This is Thoedore H. White again: "He could talk on almost any subject under the sun—to farmers, to workers, to university intellectuals. And when he finished there were no mysteries left; nor was he a mystery either. He was someone just like the listeners. There was no distance about him, no separation of intrigue, none of the majesty that must surround a king." Kennedy won in a state that at the time was ninety-five percent Protestant and where he'd arrived, a month before the vote, losing in his own internal polling 60-40. Because he could summon that majesty.

And I suspect that Barack Obama has been able to worry the Romney-Ryan ticket in this region because he, too, can sometimes summon the majesty. Here, where the populace has been bullied into placing a losing bet on coal, the figure of a decent, intelligent man who's still somehow beyond you and your neighbors is a powerful thing. I remember knowing for absolute certain that he'd win in 2008 when Ralph Stanley, did a radio spot for him in this part of Virginia: "Howdy, Friends, this is Ralph Stanley." The line I remember was just "I know Barack is a good man," as though Dr. Ralph Stanley really could know that. But it didn't seem false.


The first Obama-Romney debate dirtied the robes of majesty. That, I think, was the great loss for the president in it. He spoke with Romney as though the machine of power really was something they could just tune up, and that has never really been this president's game. He was bound to lose.

So I was thinking about 1960 before Vice Presidential debates, and before they started I watched several hours of old video from that election, trying to place Biden. Rockefeller, Symington, Stevenson, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, more. And the inescapable fact is that in this debate Biden really did resemble Kennedy. It's not just that they're both eastern Catholics. They have the same mannerisms, the same way of playing a laugh along with the crowd, the same essential inability to lose an exchange.

But what he did was combine the affect of Kennedy with the spirit of Humphrey. His his closing line, "this is what it's all about," was pure Hubert. It wouldn't have worked in a presidential debate: Bill Clinton had the aspect of a Humphrey with the spirit of a Kennedy. He was president. But you imagine that it must have helped his boss brush himself off, to take over from Biden, the mechanic, and get back to saying how he's going to steer this thing.

We stopped in Abingdon, Virginia, where on October 8th, Mitt Romney came and held a strangely obtuse rally dedicated entirely to coal. Robert Stacy McCain— a reporter who I've seen once before on this trail—wrote it up for the American Spectator as though Abingdon wasn't a tourist town and its entire economy had ever depended on mining:

 "Nearly four thousand people turned out Friday in Abingdon, Virginia, to hear Mitt Romney declare his support of the coal industry, which has been besieged for more than three years by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency. A giant sign behind the Republican candidate proclaimed 'Coal Country Stands With Mitt,' and many in the audience wore caps or T-Shirts calling for an end to 'Obama's War on Coal,' a war that has escaped the notice of most Americans outside coal-producing regions like southwest Virginia." This war is still mostly being fought by men like my dad's friend Jack, not by the EPA or Barack Obama. But my argument here is that it takes a bit of majesty to convince people we're moving, even when there's no obvious way forward.

My truck wasn't doing well. We decided to head east to rest and get it fixed, and we decided to skip the shots of the miners holding hands on Route 23. Liz was pissed. "If I'm supposed to take pictures you have to let us go places where things are happening." But this is a war that should have been over a long time ago, and I was tired of looking at it.

All over that southwestern Virginia we saw planes pulling banners that said "Tim Kaine Betrayed Coal," a reference to the former governor, now running for senate. The billboards were overwhelming. Liz started a conversation to a girl still in high school, who wanted someday to go to the University of Virginia. "But you have a better chance if you took a foreign language, and I didn't, so I don't know." I asked her about coal. "I don't really even know if that's going to be around forever. I mean, there's other things that are good about this region."

Photographs by Liz Gorman. @liz_gorman