Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from my grandmother in Appleton, Wisconsin. It began:
Thank you for the update on your primary. Yesterday we did listen to Obama's speech and were impressed. (Pretty good for two people who have mostly voted Republican)...We even think we might vote for him.
My grandmother's admission could only have been trumped by an announcement that she was converting to Islam with the blessing of my grandfather.
Suddenly, Obama's message of meaningful change seemed plausible. Springtime in Appleton, birthplace of Harry Houdini and Joseph McCarthy, had yielded a thaw. Nevertheless, my family's history of tumultuous political discourse left me no choice but to greet the news with several centrifuges of yellow salt. These were, after all, my wonderfully loving but undeniably conservative grandparents. This was, after all, the Midwest. A personal visit would be necessary.
The opportunity came this past weekend with my younger cousin's graduation from high school in Hudson, Wisconsin, on the Minnesota border. Representatives of the eclectic but generally progressive bunch that I'm proud to call my family converged on the booming northern town. The hours we spent there together provided me a glimpse into the mind of the older voter -- a glimpse that may signal yet more troublesome news to an already troubled regiment of Republican strategists: There is no guarantee that elderly conservatives are going to line up behind 72-year-old John McCain.
"He has his charm," said my 78-year old grandmother as we snacked on assorted dairy products following the graduation. "But as far as I'm concerned, Barack Obama is the next president of the United States."
I wasn't left with the impression that my grandmother was merely resigned to some electoral inevitability. Most telling was my grandfather's calm demeanor at the mention of Obama's name, a striking departure from the jarring rhetoric of 2004. Once again, my grandmother brought up the "impressive" March 18 speech on race.
In an e-mail that came a few days on the heels of the first but addressing a subject unrelated, she had told me that "young people in college get right into the heart of controversy...I could learn some lessons from that (if I'm not too old to change my habits)."
On the subject of the war in Iraq, my grandparents could not be more disgusted, a fact that was made all the more apparent in their reaction to the news that my best friend and roommate would be called up for a tour of duty this year.
"We had always hoped that you would not be called up before this awful war was ended," they wrote to him.
My grandfather put bread on the table working at US Steel in Gary, Indiana, and later Inland Steel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And if my observations are correct, he, my grandmother, and many older Midwesterners know rust when they see it.
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