LEBANON, Ohio -- If a day can be a year in politics, then Friday, August 29, when John McCain introduced his running mate in Dayton, is one such. The following Wednesday, when Sarah Palin delivered her wowzer of an acceptance speech in St. Paul, is another. It hasn't been a week since that Minnesota evening, and already Denver seems like a political lifetime ago. When I heard Sarah Palin speak in Dayton, I knew from her self-confidence and liveliness that she would go on to do well at the Republican Convention. I thought that Republicans in general, beyond the social conservatives at the invitation-only Dayton audience, would take to her. But I had no idea that Sarah Palin would change the dynamic of the election, to the extent that three thousand Palin enthusiasts wait in the rain here Tuesday to see her (and McCain), and a thousand more crowd the rally barricades of the small town.
Ohioans begin lining up for the McCain-Palin event in Lebanon at 4 A.M. This dedication, more than anything, shows how John McCain's fortunes have shifted. At 6 A.M., as I walk the line, the sun has not yet risen. But it is clear, from the multiples of campaign buttons many people sport, that this is a very pro-Palin crowd. Less than sixty days out from Election Day, opinions and attitudes are crystallizing. It's harder and harder to find an Inquirer, as I've termed the independent voter, or a merely curious supporter from the other side.
These Palin enthusiasts are happy to talk. "What do I like about Sarah Palin?" Jessica, a forty-something, says. "She's a go-getter. She doesn't care who she butts heads with. In Washington, she'll do what makes the most sense. She's not a people-pleaser." Further down the line, Liz, like many in Lebanon this morning, says that she's always been anti-Obama, but until Palin came along, she hadn't had anybody to be for. Jim underlines the implicit lack of enthusiasm for John McCain. "I've always been yes, but as far as McCain is concerned. But I have two daughters. I know what it's like being in a household of women. Of course, they can." Palin "sealed the deal" for thirty year-old Amy. "I was going to vote for McCain only be default," says Stacey, who had driven from Cincinnati at 3 A.M. to see Palin. "It was going to be the lesser of two evils."
Former Ohio congressman Rob Portman came up with the plan to hold a Lebanon street rally in front of The Golden Lamb, Ohio's oldest hotel, not incidentally graced over the years by the presence of twelve American presidents. Despite the rain, or perhaps enhanced by it and the umbrellas, the scene is classic Americana. From the bunting-draped upper porches of the three-story brick hotel, spectators peer over the railings down at the packed crowd below. Lebanon is one of those quaint towns that host an autumn Apple Fest, the better to bring in the weekend shoppers to the Antiques Mall and the soaps and ice cream shoppes along the old main street. Many of the many very nice townsfolk wear white tee shirts printed in red and blue "Welcome John McCain and Sarah Palin to Lebanon, Ohio September 9, 2008."
Lebanon's sudden enthusiasm for the McCain-Palin ticket is bound up with small-town nostalgia, real and imagined. When I look for interest in Obama's education policy address in nearby Riverside, taking place at the same time as the McCain-Palin street rally, people say, "This is southwest Ohio! That's Dayton!"--as if Dayton were a thousand miles and not a half-hour away. Ohio State football somehow weaves into the mix with electioneering when the local politicians speak, when the Lebanon High School band, resplendent in that distinctive shade of maroon, pumps up the volume. Anthony Munoz, the NFL Hall of Famer, calls Sarah Palin "a reformer who shares our heartland values." She hunts! say people who've never cleaned a rifle or bought a deer license. She's a Mom! everybody says, stating the obvious. She's a person of faith!--as if Biden, McCain and Obama weren't.
The speakers--including McCain and Palin--only glance at the deeper heartland values, as if they were delicate woodland trillium easily bruised by scrutiny and contact. Senator Obama comes under fire for his vote against a ban on partial birth abortion--and that's about it. With prospective First Dude Todd Palin, wearing his comfortable smile, at her side, Sarah Palin, wearing her hair in a jaunty ponytail, delivers a condensed version of her St. Paul speech. The crowd doesn't seem to care that they've heard these lines before. It's a thrill, apparently, to hear them on a damp morning in person. And maybe Sarah Palin can put more flavor and texture into verbs than any politician since Winston Churchill. Shake and shake up are a whole new sensory experience Palin-style. To say exactly who, what, why and how McCain and she are going to shake up would spoil the moment, ruin the illusion, however.
Charitably, one might say that Lebanon's unquestioning adoration of Sarah Palin is the way this group of Americans has found to deal with the reality that our country has serious problems that are going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, for any president to solve. This instinct, like the urge some people have to shop when they are faced with the monthly bills, feeds the Palin popularity surge. What's revealing, if less open to a charitable view, is Palin's continuing to deliver lines that have been partly discredited by the press since her debut, when it would be so easy for her to re-shape them gracefully. Take her assertion about the gubernatorial airplane: "I put it on Ebay." It would be simple for Palin to amend or expand: "Ebay's a great American success story, you know--even though my plane listing didn't work out, and we had to dispose of the jet another way."
The possible and worrying significances of her using the same lines a week after St. Paul are many. She appears on initial inspection to harbor a stubborn incuriousness that makes George Bush look like Marcus Aurelius. Her lack of adaptation to circumstance may be a neophyte's stiffness, for back in Alaska she adapted often if not always well; she may just need time to roll with the stump speech. However, her Lebanon remarks, which repeat not only the Ebay assertion but also the "bridge to nowhere" meme, display contempt both for her audience and herself. What do we care, in the end, for the facts? It's enough that I'm here with you.
McCain calls Palin and himself "a team of mavericks," as if he were reliving the glorious days of yesteryear in Tucson. The Lebanon crowd chants USA! USA! USA! Often McCain is cogent and vigorous on the stump, but Tuesday he can barely string the usual sentences together. Perhaps he is succumbing to the temptation to kick back and let Palin do the heavy lifting. When McCain utters one of his favorite accusations against Obama--"he has never reached across the aisle"--the crowd roars Sarah! Sarah! Sarah! In Sarah worship, any sentence from the book of old chestnuts will do.
At this moment, Lebanon, like many towns, is McCainalin, both a geography and a state of mind. McCainalin is like a proud city in Eastern Europe a hundred years ago, aware of its connection to history and culture dating back to the Middle Ages but oblivious of the forces beyond its borders coalescing to bring great change. In McCainalin, almost everybody is white and Christian. Looking out at the distant countryside, McCainalin sees the problems on the horizon through the lens of a century past, through the prisms of stale debates, waning controversies, spent wars. The very nice people who gather in McCainalin, whether in St. Paul or Lebanon, do not notice how the old geography has shrunk. McCainalin does not seem to see the new expansive landscape, more and more vibrantly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, attuned to a new set of tasks for a new century. Ironically, Lebanon is not only McCainalin but also the Hollywood idea of an American small town, a place where the windows bloom with red geraniums but the downtown looks staged and airless, where the pretend inhabitants work in middle class jobs but live in the pristine, decorated playhouses only the wealthy can afford. Of course, the real Lebanon is not some Hollywood version, even as the McCainalin state of mind yearns for its deceptions and so just for a morning, while the Republicans speak, the town seems to be so.
Before dawn, I know, despite the dark country roads, that I am headed in the right direction for Lebanon because every couple of miles two sheriff's cars wait like sleeping cats in the hedgerows. All summer, and now into fall, the Ohio countryside is dotted with nineteenth-century farmhouses draped in red, white and blue bunting. Is this a state tradition, or will the custom end in November? I've never had time to stop and ask. Even in the dark, I spot the bunting, as well as several farmhouses with every window to the road set with a single burning taper. Are these candles in honor of McCain and Palin? Likely, I will never know. After the street rally in Lebanon, driving back to Columbus, I pass a barn painted with a Confederate flag, the flag itself flying from a nearby flagpole. Across the highway is another of those Victorian farmhouses wearing the bunting. Here in miniature is the historical and geographical complexity that makes Ohio a presidential battleground state. Today in Lebanon, hearing many very nice people say that until Sarah Palin they had been thinking "it's as much about keeping someone out as anything," I see for the first time since I've been writing about Ohio the small-minded meanness of race consciousness here. Getting a coffee in the motel lobby before setting out for Lebanon, I gape at the TV ad, paid for by a Black Republicans PAC, in which an unseen narrator intones that Obama, looking like a tin pot despot, is the only presidential candidate to endorse infanticide. The baby in the picture is, of course, very white. Nastiness is rising to the surface in the beautiful battleground state of Ohio.