December 2008 – January 2009

Essays

Don Watson

Once upon a time in America

Barack Obama at campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Image: TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia
Getting elected in Zanesville, Ohio

Each day in Zanesville, Ohio, a coal train headed for the local power station rounds the bend in the line at the bottom of Main Street and grinds towards the rusted rail bridge across the Muskingum River. It makes the turn at tortoise pace, and the symphonic, transfixing howl of the wheels could be a kind of tone poem for the decline of Zanesville. The rail bridge stands parallel to the road bridge: the locally famous Y Bridge that spans the Muskingum's confluence with the Licking River. The left arm of the bridge runs into ruin - a gas station, an abandoned car yard, vacant lots - the right arm, into buildings little less desolating to the eye, if not to the spirit. In the grey, polluted water below, every day two or three black men are fishing. A sulphurous odour wafts from the old and blackened ‘egg products' factory half a mile upstream. Three blocks back up Main Street, in the heart of downtown Zanesville, you can pick up a four-storey Victorian store in good condition for $90,000. The streets are empty, abandoned. Commerce is a ghost. And nothing can dim the suspicion that this place might be a fair measure of the country's future.

The people who built the interstate highways in the 1950s might have done worse to Zanesville: they might have put it right through the centre of town. They could have knocked over the magnificent old four-storey courthouse and straddled the spires of the churches. They could have run the pylons right down Main Street and the Y Bridge and, who knows, they might have if the hills on either side of the rivers had been differently aligned. Instead, they built Interstate 70 four blocks north of Main Street, along the fringe of downtown, past the Art Deco John McIntire library (a bequest of Andrew Carnegie) and 2000-seat Art Deco Secrest Auditorium (a bequest of the New Deal), so motorists heading west to Columbus or east to Wheeling, West Virginia, needed only veer a little to land themselves in the middle of the town. The road builders leapt the Muskingum and the railway line, chopped the end off Maple Avenue, cut Linden Avenue in half and created two Zanesvilles: North, which leans Republican, and South, which prefers the Democrats. Downtown Zanesville, a noble grid of mainly red-brick commercial buildings and improbably handsome churches, lies sad and vacant in between, the lights at the street corners changing all day and night, imposing imaginary order on largely imaginary traffic.

As he steers his Buick under the roaring highway and past the cluster of motels and chain restaurants, Mayor Howard ‘Butch' Zwelling explains that Interstate 70 makes Zanesville an ideal distribution centre and he points to the Pepsi establishment right by Exit 154. We drive out to the East Point Industrial Park where, on old farmland sites, amid glowing remnants of the Appalachian forest, Dollar General has a massive warehouse, Avon is building an even bigger one and, in a whopping dun-coloured monolith, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the fast-food chain Wendy's makes a few hundred million hamburger buns a year.

The Zwellings have been in Zanesville for a century. Butch Zwelling is a graduate of the town's schools and Muskingum College; he was an attorney there, for more than 20 years an elected judge, and mayor since 2005. He remembers the days when the streets of downtown Zanesville were thronged, when those stately buildings housed thriving local businesses, when the famous potteries were just about the backbone of the town's economy, when a couple of passenger trains and dozens of freights came in every day, the skating rink and Tom's Ice Cream Bowl were buzzing, the old churches were full on Sundays and three synagogues served the city's 160 or so Jewish families, of which the Zwellings were one. In those days Maple Avenue was lined with maple trees so resplendent that the scene appeared on postcards. One national magazine declared Zanesville pre-eminent among model American cities. These days the avenue is a perfect (treeless) example of the gruesome shopping strips that became the new model for American cities in the last half of the twentieth century. Early in October this year Forbes magazine declared Zanesville the seventh-most vulnerable town in the United States.

Naturally enough, Butch is having none of it. Forbes quoted the figures: 8.9% unemployment; 16.2% below the poverty line; only 18% with an associate's degree or higher. But Butch quotes the record enrolments at Zanesville's higher-education centres, and the new corporate investment the city is attracting. A Time Warner call centre is about to open. The city has a great airport with a classy lounge for the business traveller. And he's hoping to announce a new $28-million development built around a state-of-the-art theatre just south of the I-70.

And some great shows are coming to the Secrest, including, on Friday night, Celebrate America - with Johnny Cash's niece Kellye, who was Miss America 1987, and Karissa Martin, who is Miss Ohio 2008. The same Miss Ohio is singing at the new Primrose assisted-living community's Open Day. She is a slightly built brunette and she sings sweetly enough to please a crowd of budding retirees invited to consider the limitless comforts on offer. Dave Joseph, a local tenor, is also at both functions, and at both he sings ‘The Star Spangled Banner' - and then an Elvis song.

There's a bar, a branch of Tom's Ice Cream Bowl and even a cinema, playing Casablanca, with a popcorn machine and a Republican girl from Illinois serving the stuff. True, Zanesville might never recover the glory days of half a century ago, but sitting in his office with a photo of his Romanian grandfather in an American World War II military uniform on the wall, and a Bill Clinton talking doll on the bureau behind him, Butch says Zanesville has a great future - and he's such a charmer, you find yourself nodding and saying "Gee" and "Wow", even though you're not convinced and wondering how much good can come to a city forced to play a zero-sum game with giant corporations, how much wealth and energy can accrue from the low wages they pay and the minimal benefits they provide their workers, how the fabled entrepreneurship of Americans can take back an economy in their grip. Or take a measure that really counts: American TV markets are rated 1 to 210. New York is a 1. Zanesville is a 203. Butch presses the button and the Clinton doll says, "I never had sex with that woman"; and then, "It depends what your definition of ‘is' is."

In a crude sort of way, politically speaking, as Zanesville goes so goes the country. Like Ohio itself, roughly equal numbers reside either side of the political divide. Butch Zwelling is a Democrat, and in New Concord, a few miles east, the ace pilot, astronaut and 1984 Democratic presidential candidate and former senator John Glenn has lived most of his life. Drive the suburban streets and the Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin signs populate lawns in about equal proportion, sharing the turf as they must with prospective senators, sheriffs, judges and the like, and various ‘propositions', all to be determined on the same day as the vote for president takes place.

Like Zanesville in reverse, Ohio divides between Democrat Cleveland in the north and Republican Cincinnati in the south. Columbus, a sort of sampling of the nation itself, is the undecided middle. Zanesville is south-eastern Ohio, which begins and ends roughly where the glaciers of the last Ice Age ended. The dividing line between the ice and the moraine is easy to see 20 or so miles west of the city, even when barrelling along the I-70. Zanesville's hills are the moraine. It is west Appalachian by geography, and in many essential ways by culture and temperament. "Gripped with an ungentle sense of religion and fate," Susan Orlean wrote about the south-east of her home state. In truth it belongs in West Virginia, she says, and belonging there - even in a good year like 2006 or this one - makes Zanesville and the county of Muskingum hard going for modern Democrats.

Depending on how you look at it, Zanesville is a city chronically divided, or a near miracle of unity and healing. In the Weasel Boy bar, a scientist from New Concord tells me the region is curious for hosting species overlapping at their most southern and northern extremes. As in nature, so in Zanesville: part southern and part northern; part Appalachian and part, almost, mid-western. And all those churches testify to godliness and vice in equal proportion. Likewise, to unyielding faith and intellectual enlightenment: the signs of glaciation might be obvious to the scientific mind, but not to those enrolled in Zanesville's creationist schools.

Pre-Civil War, one side of the bridge was pro-slavery and the other, centred round the Presbyterian church of Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother, William Beecher, was abolitionist: the town was part of the Underground Railroad, a haven for runaway slaves. The slavery side had been settled from what became West Virginia, whence came Zane Grey's ancestor Ebenezer Zane, in 1797; the abolitionist side - called Putnam - by people from Connecticut. The story goes that resentment between the two towns sometimes led to violent confrontations on the bridge.

This strand of Zanesville's history still has a way to run. The Ku Klux Klan rallied in the town less than a decade ago, and people say there is still an active local chapter. Officially, segregation no longer exists, but in certain real ways the old story continues. The great majority of black residents of Zanesville live in one ward, the third. Another community, a local lawyer explains, lives on the fringe of town in a place called Coal Run Road. For decades these people asked to be connected to the town's water supply, but the water stopped where the black folk started. Too expensive, they were told. Not enough pressure. But 200 yards up the hill, white residents had town water. Water was finally connected in 2004 and, after the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found the people of Coal Run Road had suffered racial discrimination, they were awarded $11 million in compensation. The past is not always visible to the present. When the Lind skating rink opened in Linden Avenue, in 1948, it was decided Mondays - and only Mondays - would be the day for black residents to enjoy the facility. Tom's Ice Cream Bowl started up a few doors away the same year. Not wanting black people coming from the rink to his parlour, on Mondays Tom shut up shop. The Bowl moved round the corner, Tom's long gone and the Civil Rights Bill was signed almost half a century ago, but one half of the tradition continues: Tom's Ice Cream Bowl is still closed Mondays.


Two weeks before the election, the national Poll of Polls had Obama five or six points in the lead. The debates were over. Obama had won them all, the last resoundingly. Colin Powell had just given him an eloquent endorsement to add to Oprah Winfrey's. McCain had made a mess of the financial meltdown, in the course of it offending David Letterman, and Letterman had given him a terrible drubbing. Palin had made a fool of herself on television. McCain had been obliged to reprimand his own supporters. Everything was breaking Obama's way.

For about a week after the Republican convention, McCain had seemed comfortable enough; but in the debates he had looked cranky, resentful and, strangest of all for an old campaigner, confected. He looked like a man out of his skin, which only made Obama look even more at home in his. McCain looked hot; Obama, cool. McCain looked jerky; Obama, fluid. McCain sounded snide; Obama, gracious in proportion. McCain had Palin running for him - but just as often, it seemed, for herself and the pagan fertility cult she had brought from Alaska. Earth mother, wolf-hunter, mystic, maverick: whatever she was, she touched something in the groin of the country and made it OK to be stupid again - or, as the pundits put it, she energised the Republican base. The problem for McCain was that the more she energised, the more he fossilised. All she could find to say about him was that - like a lot of folks' grandpas - he had been a hero a long whiles back, before you was born. And, by the way, he knew "how to win a war". Which war, we wondered? Joe Biden was not half as raunchy or attention-grabbing - but then, he wasn't running for president.

Obama had Michelle, whose skin might have disturbed racists even more than her husband did, but in everything she was gracious, whole, undisturbed. McCain had Cindy: David Foster Wallace watched her during McCain's run in 2000, "brittlely composed and smiling at the air in front of her and thinking about God knows what". Eight years later nothing had changed, except that she looked much older than her 54 years and less composed than masking a desire for vengeance.

One was in the prime of life; the other was on the way to assisted living. It showed up in the media. Plugging away in the McCain corner, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, the always-alarming Charles Krauthammer and the rest of the faded Fox News gang resembled ducks as lame as the president they had cheered for so long. They were unwitting parodies of right-wing zealots. But the liberals they scorned were real, as real as their parodies of the zealots. And though it might have been a flight of fancy, it did seem that Jon Stewart and David Colbert on Comedy Central, Tina Fey and the satirists of Saturday Night Live and, above all, the almost gung-ho lefties on MSNBC were not only younger and funnier and cleverer than the Fox crew, but more influential. It was like a dream, some nights - America was liberal again.

But nothing Obama did for himself, and nothing the media did for him, was half as good for his campaign as the financial crisis. The financial crisis gave him purchase: it proved his case and disproved McCain's. There was Alan Greenspan telling the House of Representatives Oversight Committee that this "once-in-a-century credit tsunami" had forced him to recognise there had been a "flaw" in his thinking or, as he put it, in "the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works". Was he saying that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" was prone to mischief? That capitalism itself was "flawed"? He looked like Moses might have in his one-hundred-and-twentieth year and, hearing him utter these words, Henry Waxman, the committee's chairman, could not have looked more surprised if the walls of the House had cracked and the ceiling fallen in. The "ideology" had not been "accurate", Greenspan said, which suggested that his sociology might be as flawed as his economics.

Obama did not have to engage his academic mind, of course. The word ‘greed' did well enough for him. In a country where the minimum wage is $6.55 an hour and tens of millions have no health insurance, the spectacle on Wall Street gave his message of change what every message needs - concrete meaning. It is the strangest thing to an outsider: how optimism is almost a necessary condition of US citizenship. You can spell out the deficiencies of the society, the statistics pointing unmistakably to decline, and they won't question them - but they will say they're optimistic. Probably it was this reflex that led McCain to say the fundamentals of the economy were sound; and when he realised they weren't, to say that he had faith in the American worker. American workers didn't need his faith, they needed help - and things were such that at last some of them were prepared to admit it.

But a black man? With a black wife? And black children running round the White House? And the middle name Hussein? They still needed persuading.

The financial crisis should have decided the issue and, in retrospect, it probably did. But two weeks out, that wasn't obvious in Ohio. In Ohio, just one or two points separated the candidates. That was the disconcerting thing: with the country going down the drain, and McCain's campaign a patent mess, by what perverse reasoning were 47 or 48% of voters determined to vote Republican?


The Obama campaign headquarters set up on the abolitionist side of the river, in Putnam. A philanthropist - the executive director of the Muskingum County Community Foundation - made the building available, and in doing so confirmed the suspicions of Zanesville's Republican elites. It's a splendid location by the river, beneath Putnam Hill all cloaked in the colours of the fall, and beside Muddy Misers, Zanesville's best restaurant ("You could be in Connecticut," one patron said), which is owned and managed by a Republican with an absolute mania about his parking spaces. People say they have pulled down mansions in Zanesville because some bigwig couldn't get a park outside the bank.

Obama's people first decided which states were battlegrounds. Then they broke those states into precincts, and the precincts into neighbourhoods, and to each neighbourhood they appointed a leader. Ohio was broken into 1231 neighbourhoods. Where John Kerry had five organisers in a county, Obama had more like 25. Where Kerry had 20 organisers in a state, Obama had more than 200. Kerry, as the saying goes, hunted where the ducks are. Obama hunted for undiscovered ducks, timorous ducks, ducks that did not know, or could not admit, that they were ducks. The first task was to register voters - Democrat voters. The second task was to make sure they voted - Democrat. It meant knocking on doors and phoning everyone in the neighbourhood, not just once but several times, right up to election day. It meant braving abuse and menaces and dogs; having doors slammed in your face, phones slammed in your ear. It meant organising teams to drive people who could not drive themselves to the polling booths; and teams of lawyers from all over the country to attend these polling booths and make sure no dirty tricks were played and every vote was counted.

A young woman from Iowa - a Harvard graduate - has been sent to Zanesville as field organiser. Another young woman has been sent in to be her deputy. They have organised several hundred volunteers: from women in their eighties to teenagers; trade unionists, artists, lawyers, mailmen, musicians, students, teachers, people from California and New York, black and white, Christians, Jews, patriots and sceptics. Some of them say this is the best thing they have ever done.

Sending leaders from outside was a good idea, not only because it assured a coherent and consistent message, good management and leadership; but also, it seems likely, because it kept to a minimum the inevitable yammering in an organisation whose members were drawn from every corner and every layer of the community and every reach of local history. Volunteers they are, but this is not to be confused with a Sunday working bee or a church fete. The mood is sombre, driven: as if there was no choice about it, as if they were building levees to save the city from a flood.

"I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," Obama wrote. Not entirely blank, surely: change; hope; belief; cool, single-minded resolve - for his followers, Obama projects half a dozen qualities that add up to ‘Yes, we can'. But the big message is unity, binding a divided nation with a sense of common purpose. A blank screen he may wish to be, but there is no denying that he is also a saviour, not a preacher; a figure to believe in and around whom the sad and angry can congregate. People talk about how his campaign has revitalised not only democracy in America, but communities as well. You also get the feeling that, for the duration of the campaign at least, he is revitalising lives, souls.

In the Weasel Boy bar, Tim, a 100-kilogram mailman with no hair and a black T-shirt that says, "I didn't come here to lose," drinks beer with a lawyer whose Republican friends think Obama is a socialist and that to vote for him is close to un-American.  The campaign has shone a pale light on the town's dark side. The mailman knows how to handle dogs, which is useful for a political canvasser. What he's not so used to are the opinions of some of the people whose mail he has delivered for years. Canvassing for Obama, he's discovered bigots where he thought there were reasonable people. At this time of the year, people go out into the woods to hunt deer with bows and arrows. Tim goes not to hunt but to watch the deer, the bald eagles, the minks and the beavers from his kayak on the river. He was sitting there in the dark before dawn one time when a blue heron landed on him by mistake. On election night, he says, he intends to paddle his kayak across the ponds where the old open-cut mine used to be and sleep out under the stars.

It must take a bit of courage to knock on doors in a city like Zanesville and a county like Muskingum. Among those doing it is a man from Brooklyn, a writer, 60 years old. He grew up in one of Zanesville's old Jewish households, and left 40 years ago. He could have watched this campaign from Brooklyn with all his liberal friends, but succumbed to a great notion that he should come back to his hometown, where he might make a difference. He's been knocking on doors for three weeks.

The Jacksons are also canvassing for Obama. They moved to Zanesville from Cleveland around 1970. He was a star basketball player. She was an academic. They tried to rent a home in a middle-class district, but the owners or agents always found a way to deny them. When at last they managed to buy a house, they found one of their dogs with its head cut off. Then the other one was shot. They had two ponies. Both were shot. A neighbour warned them that a petition was going round demanding that they be forced to leave. The neighbour urged them to stay. They did, and now they both teach and live what seems to be a very comfortable life. They are restoring the home of a runaway slave who started a business and prospered in Zanesville. Zanesville, they say, has always been a place to take in the outcasts of society.

If racism is the first of the prejudices Obama provokes in places like Zanesville, religion is the second. Muskingum County has something in the order of 130 different religious congregations, 40% of them mainstream Protestant. The next biggest group are the evangelicals, who easily outnumber the Catholics, despite the two huge Catholic churches separated by a block downtown. Zanesville, I heard someone say, is "evangelical ground zero". Not all of them will think he is a Muslim, a terrorist, a child-killer or the Antichrist - but some will. And then there are the super-patriots and Second Amendment fanatics. The county is home to at least two militias, or ‘patriot groups': the Ohio Defense Force and the Ohio Defense Force Home Guard - and some kind of neo-Nazi organisation is also rumoured to exist. There are a lot of guns in town, and doubtless even more in the hills. They are not all in the hands of sociopaths - the decent, the amusing, the civilised, the sane, even liberals own guns in America - multiple guns. But there are plenty who think Obama is determined to take their guns away; and that, they think, is tyranny. The NRA doesn't help: its magazine, American Rifleman, says Obama will be "the most anti-gun president in American history". And that Sarah Palin will be nothing less than "a stellar new voice for gun owners in Washington".

A scale replica of Washington DC's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is travelling the United States this year. In Zanesville, they set up in a big car park between the I-70 and the Secrest, a power station to the side. It was not beautiful, and not a lot of people gathered under the marquee to hear Butch Zwelling speak of the sadness the wall inspires. Dave Joseph sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner' again; a baritone country singer wearing black jeans and a black moustache sang ‘We Made it to Arlington': "Dust to dust / Don't cry for us / We made it to Arlington." And together they sang ‘Proud to be an American': "I'm proud to be an American / Where at least I know I'm free."

Before three uniformed buglers played ‘Taps', a quiet, articulate man on a cane stepped to the microphone. His name was Jim Warner, and he had been a POW in North Vietnam with John McCain. He told the story, related by Livy, of the man who for love of his country allowed his captors to burn off his hand. John McCain was that sort of man. And Warner wanted us to know that it had not been in vain. The Vietnam War, he said, had "exhausted worldwide communism", and it remained for "Pope Jean-Paul, Lady Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to come along and push it off the cliff".


John McCain came to Zanesville two Sundays before the election. Determined to not hand the day to him, in the morning two-dozen Democrats and the local media gathered by the school. They stood there with their placards while the lieutenant governor of Ohio told them that, being a swing city in the swing state that decided the last election for the most powerful office in the world, no other city in the world was more important than Zanesville was just now. What the people of Zanesville decide might decide the future of the planet.

It was easy enough to get a ticket for McCain from the Republican headquarters, on Maple Street. Butch Zwelling was not invited and, waiting outside the school gymnasium where McCain was due to speak, you could hear the mayor a couple of blocks away mowing his lawn. State troopers patrolled the surrounds. A man rode up on his bicycle; in his early fifties and an Obama voter, he was a long-distance runner with no fewer than a hundred marathons under his belt. He was the odd man out, the one person in Zanesville who was not optimistic about the future of the United States. He thought the country was in terminal decline. The mayor and a couple of other people had expressed the hope that Obama might come to Zanesville before election day; this man said it would never happen, not so close to the election - Zanesville was too dangerous.

As the afternoon began to fade, we saw the flickering lights on the motorbikes as they roared down Blue Avenue, powering up to the intersections where two would stop, while half a dozen more rode on. It was an American show, a mesmerising stage routine. The big black SUVs followed the bikes; then came the great brown bus - the Straight Talk Express - with blacked-out windows, but you could see a little light burning at a table inside: so it was both a bus and a log cabin on wheels. Then the van with the security men, all its windows open, including the back ones; armed men inside in darks suits, their heads swivelling all around, scanning the parks and the big grey Faith Methodist Church opposite the school, but seeing only the troopers in their brown uniforms and the little family gathered to watch in their charity-store clothes, the mother in a camouflage jacket, about 60, blowing big pink bubblegum bubbles and waving as the candidate passed.

There were 2000 people inside and they'd been waiting for two or three hours. Now they were being warmed up with some heavy metal, and when the McCains came on the roar was visceral. Cindy spoke first. She said that between the McCains and the Palins, they had five young men serving abroad. This the crowd also approved. Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina and McCain's devoted friend, introduced the candidate, but not before saying Cindy was "classy, one heck of a mother, a devoted wife and a great businesswoman", and she would make "a heck of a First Lady". The crowd may not have looked like they had a heck of a lot in common with a classy businesswoman, but they went for it. When he got to McCain, Graham stuck to the military script: "For a navy guy, this is as good as it gets," he said. "A beautiful wife who owns a beer distributorship; four children, two in the military." He whipped up the passions with a story about General Petraeus - suddenly the unimpeachable hero of the patriotic American - over in Iraq, winning the war, looking after our troops, and liberals at home were undermining him, and Obama had "hid in the Democratic cloakroom rather than defend General Petraeus". They were outraged.

"Forty-one years ago today, John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam," Graham said. "And 41 years later, he's still fighting! When it comes to our enemies out there, John McCain is watching for you." Enemies? Which enemies? It didn't matter; they waved those little flags.

And McCain walked on in the tumult, thrusting his arms forward because his captors left him unable to raise them above his head. Jim Warner was right to quote Livy: there was something Roman about it. No doubt McCain knew his audience, and the patrician in him thought it pointless to give them more than would satisfy their basic instincts. But even by the generally lamentable standards of a stump speech, this one was miserable. McCain is more than a military hero; he is an original wit. Watch him in other contexts and you see how he is attracted to the comic in things, that he can't resist the confrontational thought. In another life he could do stand-up. Not here, however. The speech was typical of his whole campaign: the man did not look or sound like John McCain - or anybody else, for that matter.

Joe the Plumber had been useful for a week or so, but something about him seemed to please McCain's whimsy long after he had worn out his welcome. He seemed to find the comedy irresistible. Saturday Night Live portrayed Joe as John's little friend, the imaginary one he kept in a box and talked to whenever he was lonely. If you closed your eyes as McCain talked about him in Zanesville, you could have sworn you were hearing the same sketch.

He had only a couple of points to make. First, Obama wanted to "spread the wealth". Every day he said this, several times in each of anything up to five speeches; and each time he made the quotes with his fingers. Mimicking the gesture became part of Jon Stewart's daily comic routine. Stewart got laughs. McCain got equally satisfying boos. "Boo!" they went in Zanesville. "Boo!" And John McCain grinned and behind him Cindy allowed herself a sphinx's smile. So long as this and other benighted camo-wearing crowds - many of them on welfare, many relying on schools and charities to feed and clothe their kids, all relying on Walmart - somehow contrived to think that spreading wealth was bad, the man with seven homes and 13 cars would say it was. "I want to strengthen our defences and lower taxes," he shouted, and they roared and shook their flags, maddened at the paltry $611-billion defence budget, incensed that marauding tax collectors were stifling entrepreneurial spirit in the forests of Appalachia.

"We've got to drill offshore! We've got to drill now!" And that, along with 45 new nuclear-power plants, was the energy problem taken care of. They cheered.

Then he talked about "Joe the Biden", who had warned that America's enemies would test Obama in the first six months of his presidency. Why vote for the untested when he, John McCain, had "already been tested"? For all the cheering, thereafter the speech ground along like a Leopard tank in low gear. "I want to bring our troops home in victory and honour," he said, and with that jab at the old Vietnam nerve, shamelessly leveraged his war record. "I have the scars of war ... I'm not afraid of the fight. I'm ready for it ... I will fight for you, my friends ... I've never been the kind to back down." And so on. They were words to inspire frenzies in this and similar gymnasiums all over the country. But they also seemed beneath him. He walked off pumping his arms forward the familiar way, as the band played ‘Johnny B Goode'. He'd convinced them, but he must have known they didn't need convincing. Outside a man selling McCain-Palin-Joe the Plumber badges was calling out, "Handmade by Americans, laser-printed, not made in China."

In the end, Obama didn't come to Zanesville. The next Sunday, he appeared in beautiful sunshine outside the State House in Columbus. Sixty thousand people showed up. The queue to get through security snaked back through the streets for a mile or more - until the square was packed and they told people to simply mill on the fringes. Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin boomed over the loudspeakers. Security guards stalked the tops of the buildings with rifles and binoculars. Michelle Obama introduced her husband. The audience was charged. Obama had only to light the fuse. But here, as everywhere in the campaign, he stopped short of that. I heard only one King-like line - a "righteous wind of change" was blowing at their backs: it was hardly enough to suggest that this was an angry black man running for president. He was cool: so cool and so determined to cover the policy ground that the audience fell into strangely extended silences. When his criticisms of McCain provoked booing, he said, "Don't boo - just vote." It was a masterful little routine, and every night on TV you could see him using it somewhere. 

The sum effect was an improbable calm. He had kept passion simmering, but seemed much more intent on keeping their minds clear, on reminding his audience that the reasons for voting in Barack Obama were not merely emotional, but logical. He would not take them to euphoria. As stump speeches go, it was unusual for having many of the qualities of a lecture, and just enough of a sermon. The congregation went home feeling, I suspected, rather like footballers who have been told by their coach to take things one week at a time.


In Fourth Street, between the offices of the Zanesville Times Recorder and the Zanesville Police Department, DJ serves espresso and good sandwiches and bagels at Ditty's Downtown Deli. A sort of glowing ember in the ashes of downtown, from 7.00 am the tiny shop fills up with policemen, plumbers, journalists, the mayor ... it's what the town once was. DJ is a prince: a Democrat, very likely the biggest elected member of Zanesville's city council and the only one with a ponytail. He loves music and guns, and so do his wife and 12-year-old daughter. He talks about the depression people felt after the 2004 election. They could not believe the result - literally. They felt sure they had been cheated.

The day before the election, it preys on everybody's minds. Two weeks earlier, on Obama's turf in Chicago, a black bookseller told me he was sure "they" wouldn't let Obama win. "They" would find a way to cheat him out of it. A taxi driver the next day said the same thing: they would rig the vote and come up with a scare tactic to make people - the "stoopidest people on Earth" - vote against their own best interests. Now, the polls still show something close to an Obama landslide. They show a win in Ohio. At an elementary school just beyond the city limits, a dozen ten-year-olds say what makes the United States great is freedom. People in other places are not free. In England, for instance, the king cuts your head off if he doesn't like you. With an axe. It's the same in France, but it's sharper. Eleven of the 12 want Obama to win. (Gas prices, they say.) The odd one out who wants McCain reckons Obama has it in the bag. Grown-ups are nowhere near as sure - recent experience and the chaotic American voting system do not permit much confidence.


On the Monday evening, Joe Biden comes and delivers his last speech for the campaign. About 800 people walk up Putnam Hill to see him. In a red dress, his wife Jill performs the introduction with perfect ease and a charming smile. Oh, for American teeth! For Joe Biden's teeth! Joe the Biden wears a bright blue tie that makes his skin glow like the autumn leaves and when he flashes that smile, he seems to belong to one of those overlapping species. Joe's a master. He pulls every particle of focus, yet it feels like he's just another guy at the picnic. He praises Obama for his "steely nerve", his "composure" and his "wisdom". It's the last speech and the crowd is small, but he doesn't spare himself and for a long while afterwards he mingles, doling out kisses and handshakes and mock punches on manly jaws and poses for photographs that will sit on mantelpieces for a century. Before he leaves, he wanders over to the lookout alone and gazes down on Zanesville. At the door of the bus, Mayor Zwelling waits to get his ear.

Down at Obama headquarters, the volunteers are still on the phones, longs lists beside them. Are you going to vote tomorrow? Who will you be voting for? Can we help you get to the polling place? It is remarkable how people can train themselves to be resolute and cool and never take offence. Don't boo - just vote. The next night, in the same hall, they have their reward. Over dinner on the way there, a young waitress says "apparently" Obama's father was a terrorist. The "guys in the kitchen" told her. "It's scary," apparently. But Obama wins; Ohio goes Democrat; the Republicans win in Muskingum, but by only half as much as last time.

In hotel foyers, bars and airport lounges three days later, Fox News was still belting away, but surely only because they had been there as long as the curtains, and no one noticed them any more. It might have signalled the end of the Vietnam War, and not just for John McCain. Those people for whom Vietnam created an oedipal crisis that only Ronald Reagan could solve are now going grunting into retirement or jail; or, like George W Bush, to some barren corner of the country where they can commune with God and ghost their memoirs. The game is over. Their enemies, the baby-booming liberals, might crow for a while, but they must know their days are darkening too. Of all the pleasurable sensations Obama's victory and his glorious victory speech provoked - the blind will no longer lead the blind, sentences will be whole again and truth will reign in them, Butch is right and Zanesville will be born again - this was the best of them: we don't have to listen to the sounds of our own generation any more.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

Cover: December 2008 - January 2009

December 2008 – January 2009

From the front page

How you are when you leave

This must be how it feels to retire

Accused under privilege

NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong denounces a colleague

Image of Scott Morrison and the ScoMo Express

The ScoMo Express backfires

The PM’s farcical bus tour cements spin over substance as his brand

Illustration

APEC comes to PNG

Shipped-in Maseratis and single-use venues are a world away from real life in Port Moresby


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Alfred Deakin & John Bunyan

Feeling lucky

What drives economic optimism?

‘A Mercy’ by Toni Morrison

Tradition, truth & tomorrow


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Scott Morrison

Looking for Scott Morrison

The rise, duck and weave of Australia’s no-fault prime minister

Image of Nauru

I left the immigration department to speak out

An insider breaks ranks on offshore detention

Coloured transmission electron micrograph of a cross-section through a cancer cell

A new theory of cancer

After billions spent for little benefit, it’s time to look at the disease in a different way

Image of Nakkiah Lui

A golden age of popular Indigenous storytelling

Against the blinding whiteness on Australian stage and screens


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison and the ScoMo Express

The ScoMo Express backfires

The PM’s farcical bus tour cements spin over substance as his brand

Image from ‘Suspiria’

Twisted sisters: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’

Sentimentality ruins the magic of this otherwise unsettling and actively cruel film

Image from ‘The Other Side of the Wind’

Orson Welles’s ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and Morgan Neville’s ‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’

The auteur’s messy mockumentary and the documentary that seeks to explain it are imperfect but better together

Image of Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison’s foreign forays

The PM concluded a week of patchy diplomacy with his first major speech on foreign policy


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