Hours after sitting under the sun in Invesco Field, and listening to Barack Obama's stirring acceptance speech, I relaxed in the dim light of the restaurant/bar of my Denver hotel talking with four men. One was a self-described "conservative Democrat" from Texas; one was a naturalized American originally from Tobago, an Obama-supporting Republican; and the other two were French Canadian journalists from Montreal covering the Democratic National Convention and reluctantly on their way to St. Paul. When I finally left the restaurant, I walked toward the elevators in the lobby and saw a lone figure, in a red shirt, standing there, waiting for an elevator door to open. I immediately recognized him. He was Barney Smith of Grant County, Indiana, a Republican who is voting for Obama, one of the American citizens who shared his story with millions of Americans during the DNC program at Invesco. (Grant County, by the way, is the home and gravesite of the legendary film actor, James Dean.) Barney, whose company moved to China leaving him and his co-workers without jobs, brought the throng at Invesco to their feet with cheers, when he said he wanted a government that looked out for "Barney Smith, not Smith Barney."
"Barney!" I said, as if we were old friends. He turned around, looking a bit surprised and smiled. I thanked him for sharing his story with the nation and congratulated him, adding that it took courage to stand up like that and tell what had happened to him.
"That didn't take courage," he said, "I'll tell you what took courage -- it took courage to be out of work for thirteen months and not know if I was going to find another job."
The elevator came and we both entered, still talking. Coincidentally, we were staying on the same floor, so even after we exited the elevator, we continued our conversation in the hall. Barney told me that there was more to his story than he'd had time to talk about during his presentation. He described to me exactly when and where he first learned that his employer, RCA, was closing shop and shipping out. For thirty-one years, he had worked as a mechanic and pipe-fitter for RCA, which means, like so many others in his community, he'd spent most of his adult life working for RCA and expected to be there until he retired with a pension. One day, he drove to work for his regular shift, as he'd always done. As he approached the gate, a female co-worker came up to him and said, "They've closed -- we don't have jobs anymore." Wanting to find out for himself whether or not this was true, Barney decided to go into the plant and told his colleague to come with him. As he came closer to the entrance, he saw another colleague, a male co-worker who moved the side of his hand across his neck as if he were cutting his throat. Barney proceeded into the RCA factory and, once inside, learned that it was true -- their company was outsourcing, the plant was closed, their jobs were going to the Chinese. They were told that they could stay, talk with their friends and colleagues, but that they could not and should not work -- because they were no longer employees of RCA.
While we were talking, Barney's wife called him on his cell phone to find out what was taking him so long. "Tell her you're talking to one of your fans," I said.
He laughed. "I'm in the hall," Barney told her, "talking to one of my fans."
"I didn't bring this up when I was on stage tonight, "Barney said when we resumed our conversation, "but that job -- my job, well, my father had that job before me. I took over for him -- so when I had to pack everything up and send it overseas, I was packing up equipment my father had used..." He described how RCA had been a part of his life from the day he was born. The people who worked there were his extended family. They'd grown up together, knew one another's parents, spouses and children and celebrated one another's graduations, marriages and the births of one another's kids. When Barney and his co-workers at RCA packed-up the equipment they'd worked with, they were packing up a community's way of life.
Fed up with the Republicans' economic policies and the devastating impact on average Americans, working Americans, Barney -- who had been a lifelong Republican -- strongly supports Obama. "Obama's so genuine," Barney said, "I met him and he really understands and cares about what we're going through. I had a chance to talk to Senator Biden, too," he said, "And he's really genuine and smart, too -- and could step in and be President in a minute if he had to."
The morning after my conversation with Barney, I decided to write about it, but didn't want to publish the article without his permission. Fortunately, I ran into Barney and his wife, Carla, in the hotel lobby later where they were talking with Captain Wes Moore, one of the military officers who, also, was featured in the DNC program and we four chatted for a while. When I told Barney I wanted to write and publish an article about him, he gave me his permission. He expressed his admiration for Captain Moore and the other military officers who had participated in the program and the other "average American citizens" who shared their stories at Invesco. He especially appreciated the woman who -- rather than blindly accept the malicious, mendacious viral e-mails spreading lies about Obama on the Internet -- did her own fact-finding and learned the truth for herself. Barney's wife, Carla, described to me how, whenever she receives one of the vicious e-mails, she signs her husband's name and returns it to the sender.
Barney and Carla Smith represent millions of Americans who are working hard to have a decent life. Carla described to me how, during the thirteen months when Barney was unemployed, he would talk in his sleep, saying, "I gotta find a job, gotta find a job." By sharing his experience with a national audience, Barney put a face on the struggles Americans are dealing with; he is their voice. Americans who don't trust politicians, can trust Barney because he is one of them. By expressing his support for Obama and Biden, Barney makes it easier for Republicans who are disgusted with the policies of the last eight years and know that John McCain will continue on the same disastrous path to vote Democratic.
Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention reminded me of a junior high school girl's speech when she's running for Student Council. Having nothing substantial to offer and representing nothing more than her own ambitions, she could make only snide and rather hateful remarks about her opponent. If this is what passes as "a great speech," this country is indeed in deep trouble.
Sarah Palin is neither the face nor the voice of middle class Americans and their struggles.
Barney Smith of Grant County, Indiana, is the face -- and voice - -of the American middle class.