Hillary Clinton said she was no Tammy Wynette in 1992. She learned her lesson, the same one Barack Obama learned this week.
In an effort to explain, and for some reason justify, rural people to well-educated urban elites, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama seems to have fallen into the same vat of cookie dough that stuck to his opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton more than 10 years ago.
Obama’s now widely-reported remarks about how the flagging rural economy has driven its denizens to guns, religion and “antipathy to people who aren’t like them”¦” showed a gaping gulch in Obama’s knowledge of rural culture. Guns and religion have been very much a part of the rural experience, regardless of the state of the economy. And antipathy to people who are different isn’t exactly a rural monopoly.
It’s a recurring misstep that happens when leaders and visionaries, themselves extraordinary, talk too much about where they’re going and don’t think enough about the people they expect to follow them.
It’s not that Hillary Clinton didn’t make a similar stumble.
Early in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill and Hillary Clinton ran as a new kind of egalitarian First Couple. Bill Clinton cheerfully characterized them as “two for the price of one.” The Clintons looked like the future: young, brainy, articulate and funny. They were students at Yale Law School together, politically active peers. But on the big stage of a national political race, the boundaries of a new kind of presidency, built on a new kind of marriage, seized up and contracted. The two-for-one idea was doused by two buckets of cold water: public opinion that Hillary had overstepped her role and the very provincial problem of Clinton’s alleged sexual dalliances with Gennifer Flowers.
The Clinton campaign sputtered until Hillary gambled that a defiant show of support for her husband would silence his detractors. The two appeared on a now-famous CBS-News 60 Minutes segment, holding hands and denying the charges. Hillary’s powerful defense was credited with saving the Clinton campaign. That same day, though, Hillary evidenced a tin ear for millions of American women when she distinguished herself from those who stayed home with the kids, baked cookies, served tea and loved the songs of Tammy Wynette.
Thousands of country music fans, rural women in general and Tammy Wynette in particular repulsed the stereotype. Hillary was not able to talk about public policy until she established her kitchen cred by beating Republican First Lady Barbara Bush in a Family Circle magazine cookie bake-off.
Obama’s floundering talk about rural people and the rural experience have that same feel.
Obama is the son of a Kenyan and a white Kansan. He was born in Honolulu, schooled in Indonesia and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Journal. Obama’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural background holds out the promise that answers to the exhausting racial divisions that have scarred our country can arise from Obama’s personal experience of living intimately and intelligently in the white and black worlds.
A generation earlier, Hillary was the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley, the first female partner of her law firm and the first First Lady who had earned a graduate degree. Her experience likewise held a light for the future of equality for men and women.
Neither Hillary nor Barack is much like the person behind you in the Kroger checkout line. They are phenomenally intelligent, impossibly articulate and insanely driven.
Neither will convince rural people that he or she is “just like us.”
But to earn the votes of rural people, they both must prove they understand those of us who are the sons and daughters of miners, hillside farmers, tanners and truck drivers.
It’s a perplexing dilemma for leaders: to epitomize the aspirations of people without arrogance. It’s a puzzle not easily solved.
Maybe the best solution is suggested by the ancient Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was a king-god who epitomized everything his people valued. Gilgamesh was an ideal leader in an ideal city, and yet eventually his people became tired of his superiority and conceit. In similar ancient myths, the superhuman hero is killed and his people grieve the loss of their ideal.
The Mesopotamians have a wonderful variation of the story: Gilgamesh goes into the wilderness and finds a rural counterpart. Together they join as equals in adventure, glory and defeat. The rural experience has a moderating and humanizing influence on Gilgamesh.
He returns to his kingdom, not immortal and godlike, but humbled by experience and ready to lead with compassion and insight.
It is not as if Obama’s gaffe cannot be redeemed, but it might help if he went to some little town and proved to the locals that he knows how to bake a batch of cookies.
Judy Owens is a Kentucky writer.