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Obama Celebrates in Montana

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-mt.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Butte, Mont. (Campaign Photo)

BUTTE, Mont.– Ralph Maxwell, a former attorney and judge in North Dakota, nearly shook with anger. Wearing his World War II uniform, which he hadn’t taken out of the closet since he came home to restart his life in 1945, he’d just been asked to comment on recent articles and reports where people questioned the patriotism of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.

“That’s bullshit!” Maxwell, 88, said. “That’s bullshit! I am so outraged at that thought. It’s despicable!”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Niceties be damned.

It was early on the afternoon of July 3, and Obama had just delivered a speech outside a children’s museum in Fargo, N.D., where he addressed the concerns of veterans both old and young. Obama was well into his third day of demonstrating his patriotic cred.

During a speech in Independence, Mo., earlier in the week, Obama told the folk from Harry S. Truman’s hometown: “Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised; it is what propelled me into public service; it is why I am running for president. And yet, at certain times over the last 16 months, I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged – at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for.”

“For me,” Obama later said at that speech in Missouri, “patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America’s ideals -– ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend or give their last full measure of devotion.”

Now in Fargo, Obama sought to continue that narrative he had established. In many ways it was the ideal American setting, as he stood among poplar trees in a scene that looked much like a Midwestern farm. He was not speaking in an urban center, like New York or Chicago, but in the heart of the West, where generations of pioneers had journeyed, propelled by their hopes and aspirations for a better life. It’s a place that resonates for Americans in our story as a nation, because it represents all of our beliefs about what we can accomplish starting from nothing. It is where we come to find and, more important, define ourselves and our core beliefs as Americans.

As much as the West is the place where the concept of rugged individualism is mythologized, it is also a place long dependent on government help and government support. Beginning with the transcontinental railroad, the federal government has always been there to serve the public need — to provide roads so ranchers can homestead, to deliver things like water, and then electricity, and other basic necessities of life.

Thus Obama and his ideas about expanding the reach of government don’t necessarily seem out of place here. Because it’s these ideas that allowed Fargo and Independence and Butte, Mont., to exist in the first place. What better place for Obama—who now regularly wears an American flag lapel pin– to make clear his patriotic ideals?

“You’re in a state right here, where we depend heavily on the federal government,” said Bismarck resident Ross Horner, just before the Fargo event. “It’s the No. 1 economic factor here.”

While one expected, at a speech meant for veterans, to see the audience choked with former military personnel, the American legion hats were far and few between. Still, Obama continued to make his case for, well, his Americanness. He spoke of his grandfather, who served during the second war to end all wars, how he had used the G.I. Bill to go to college and build a new life in Hawaii. He spoke of his admiration of those fighting in Iraq, and the need to improve care for soldiers once they came home.

When speaking about his Republican rival’s stand against talking to Iran, Obama stood firm on the need to reach out to the country’s enemies as well as its friends.

“It’s irresponsible,” Obama said of Sen. John McCain’s resistance to talking to Iran. “It’s unpatriotic.”

Leaning on a cane following the event was Bill Anderson, the man who introduced Obama to the crowd. During his own service in Vietnam, Anderson had suffered severe retinal damage—a reaction to the anti-malaria drugs he and his fellow soldiers were given. Today, he is still unable to read.

“There is more to patriotism than a lapel pin or an American legion cap on your head,” Anderson said. “Patriotism is holding onto and advancing the ideals of liberty and justice. Just because you didn’t serve in the military doesn’t mean you’re not a patriot. And just because you did serve doesn’t make you a patriot.”

What’s become apparent in recent weeks is that we are very much a nation struggling with the idea of what it means to serve. Our founders — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin — never picked up a musket in the service of their nascent country. Yet here we are today, measuring our patriotic ideals and ability to lead by whether a candidate had experienced the act of being in war.

Nearly 50 years have passed since John F. Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to give back — then created the Peace Corps as a new way to serve one’s country and the world. While much has been made of the comparisons to Kennedy, because of Obama’s age and eloquence and ability to move the young, one truly understands Obama as a Kennedy disciple because of what he chose to do and how he chose to serve. He was a community organizer in an underserved section of the most segregated city in America by choice. Yet, still, that effort somehow seems to count less.

Arriving in Butte that evening, it became clear that this was a town in desperate need of service. Once the center of the copper boom, where union battles waged and robber barons prospered, the city itself lies in a kind of stasis. Driving around town, one sees pawnshops and little casinos where you can play electronic keno or poker all night long. At night men with cowboy hats walk with open bottles of beer. The low-rise 60s-style housing set against the mountain vista fills one’s heart with a new sense of dread.

Yet Obama chose to come here. This is a state, with only three electoral votes, that even Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t carry. It has only gone Democratic in modern times for Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964, and Bill Clinton, in 1992 — when Ross Perot took 30 percent of the vote. Yet here, where so many dreams were born and eventually died, seemed a perfect venue for the Obama campaign. Butte is a place where the undying faith in country still underlies so many people’s day-to-day existence.

Today, waiting for the July 4 parade to begin, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer — himself a Democrat and the first of his party to hold the post since 1989 — stood in the sweltering heat. Wearing his hallmark bolo tie, that he would later give to Michelle Obama, he laughed easily as he threw a Frisbee with his border collie Jag. That is until the subject of patriotism came up.

“My grand parents came here in 1909,” Schweitzer, a bear of a man, said, “and all they had were the clothes on their back and their dreams and hope. I’ll be damned if I will allow people to decide who is patriotic and who is not.”

The parade, with all of its traditional trappings began soon enough. You know the scene: trolley cars and dance schools, cheerleaders and martial arts students. Earlier that morning, former Sen. Jesse Helms had died — seemingly taking the last remnants of the Jim Crow era with him.

And here was Obama, seated in temporary bleachers with his wife and two daughters — the older of whom was turning 10. As the floats passed by they became almost indistinguishable — an American family on this most American day.

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