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Obama’s Historic Visit to Virginia — and the Media’s Obsession With Lipstick

Matt Bai’s long article on Sen. Barack Obama in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is already reverberating among news junkies. There’s plenty of political and racial points to debate.

One passage really caught my eye, because I attended the same small-town Obama event in southwestern Virginia that Bai describes. Pardon the long excerpt, but Bai does some great storytelling:

a town of about 3,200, the easiest way is to fly into the Tri-City Airport on the Tennessee side of the Appalachians, then drive about 45 minutes northeast through some of the most gorgeous hill country in America. The back road that leads to Lebanon High School is lined with trailer-size houses on the edge of collapse, their front porches buckling in the sun. But then, as you approach the school, you see a few neat rows of brand new town houses, with prices in the high $200,000s — the unmistakable landscape of the new economy. Lebanon is slowly becoming a symbol of hope for towns all over the region that dream of turning southwestern Virginia, with its abundant land and cheap labor, into the next high-tech hub. Local counties have raised up a half-dozen “shell buildings” — essentially empty warehouses already connected to sewers and broadband lines — to attract businesses looking for ready-made space. Inspired by the influx of tech jobs, officials in the area have started what they call the Return to Roots program, in which they aggressively seek out qualified graduates who have moved away for other jobs and try to lure them back home.

Barack Obama came to Lebanon High for a town-hall meeting with voters on the Tuesday after Labor Day, marking the first time any presidential candidate stepped foot in the area since Jimmy Carter came to nearby Castlewood in 1976. The campaign made tickets available to its local offices a few days before the event, and a lot of the roughly 2,400 attendees waited in line to get them. As a result, most of the voters in the school gymnasium seemed to be committed Obama backers already.

Obama7-256x300.jpg
Obama7-256x300.jpg

Sen. Barack Obama at a townhall meeting in Lebanon, Va. (flickr)

The program opened with the validators. This is a critical part of Obama’s small-town strategy — getting respected surrogates to stand up and say that Obama is a guy you can trust. The first person on stage was Ralph Stanley, the 81-year-old legendary bluegrass musician, who was born in nearby Stratton and makes his home in Dickenson County. He unfolded a piece of paper and read, in a shaky voice: “I want to endorse Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Thank you very much!” The gymnasium exploded. (When the candidate met Stanley backstage, Obama told him that he had some of Stanley’s banjo music on his iPod. Stanley nodded appreciatively, but a few minutes later he turned to a friend and asked, “What’s an iPod?”)

Stanley was followed by Cecil Roberts, the white-bearded president of the mineworkers’ union, who preached as if he were at a revival, putting Obama’s early years into a framework that southwestern Virginians could understand. “ was a community organizer!” Roberts thundered. “And yes, was a community organizer!” Then came Rick Boucher, the owlish congressman who represents Lebanon and its surrounding counties in Washington. “Senator Obama is a friend of coal and the thousands of jobs it brings to southwestern Virginia,” Boucher assured the crowd. In fact, he repeated this line — “Barack Obama is a friend of coal” — no less than five times in 10 minutes.

Obama finally bounded onstage to an ovation that rocked the bleachers. He delivered a newly sharpened version of his basic rally speech, pacing the stage as he spoke, his pitch rising as he punctuated each point in a long list of indictments against the Bush years and John McCain. He stressed his own American story — the mother on food stamps, the grandfather who fought in “Patton’s army,” the father-in-law who worked a shift job with multiple sclerosis and never missed a day. The speech wasn’t appreciably different from one he would have given at an arena packed with 20,000 people in Philadelphia or St. Louis.

It was only after the speech, prompted by questions from the audience, that Obama tried to reassure the crowd — without ever referring to the “bitter” comment, of course — that he was not some San Francisco liberal who pitied rural people for their religiosity and their pastimes. One man wanted to know what Obama thought of those who looked down on Sarah Palin because she was evangelical. No doubt thinking of the persistent rumors still flying around the Internet that say he is a closet Muslim, Obama reiterated, for about the seven millionth time this year, that he, too, is a practicing Christian. “This is a nation of believers,” he said, “and I’m one of them.”

A teenage girl asked Obama what he might do specifically for rural America. I found it odd that Obama had to be prompted to address this question, but he warmed to it immediately, ticking off a list of public investments that his administration could bring to the region: broadband lines, school financing, the development of biodiesel fuels. He talked about creating more jobs for local students, “so when they graduate from college those kids can stay here and live in Lebanon instead of having to go and work someplace else.”

Having finished that thought, Obama suddenly straightened up, as if something else important had just occurred to him. “One thing I want to make clear while we’re on this topic of rural America,” he said, looking around the gym. “There are a lot of folks who come up to me and say, ‘You know, Barack, I like your economic plan, and I’m tired of George Bush, but you know, I got my N.R.A. mailing, and I’m worried you’re gonna take my gun away.’ ” Obama likes to do this — to momentarily inhabit the mind of some composite character and act out his side of the conversation — and he was met with knowing chuckles.

“I just want to be absolutely clear, O.K.? I just don’t want any misunderstanding when you all go home and you talk with your buddies, and they say, ‘Oh, he wants to take my gun away.’ You heard it here, and I’m on television, so everybody knows. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your away.

“So if you want to find an excuse not to vote for me, don’t use that one!” Obama said, eliciting laughter and cheers from the crowd. “It just ain’t true!”

This truly captures Obama’s afternoon stop at that gym, and how the “validators” worked the red-state crowd. After you attend enough of these events, it’s challenging to figure out what’s distinct about them and then convey that in a meaningful way. I remember trying to quickly capture Lebanon in a piece that day, (Obama Tours ‘God’s Country,’ Va.), but Bai does it so much better and deeper. But I’m not flagging this just to give a writer props.

If you were following the news during the Lebanon event, you would not know a thing about all the details reported above. But you would have read headlines like this about Obama’s appearance:

JOHN MCCAIN, SARAH PALIN ARE LIKE LIPSTICK ON PIG – OBAMA

It was not a one-day story, of course. Over the following week, there were 723 news reports quoting Obama’s cliched reference to “lipstick on a pig,” (according to a Westlaw news search).

Now those articles seem even more out of touch, knowing the nation was weeks away from a grave financial crisis. Given the dispopriotionate attention on Joe the Plumber, however, it doesn’t seem like many campaign reporters have learned the lesson.

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