By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008
FINDLAY, Ohio -- On his corner of College Street, Jim Peterman stares at the four American flags planted in his front lawn and rubs his forehead. Peterman, 74, is a retired worker at Cooper Tire, a father of two, an Air Force veteran and a self-described patriot. He took one trip to Washington in 1989 -- best vacation of his life -- and bought a statue of the Washington Monument that he still displays in a glass case in his living room.
He believes a smart vote is an American's greatest responsibility. Which is why his confusion about Barack Obama continues to eat at him.
On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor's house, at his son's auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"It's like you're hearing about two different men with nothing in common," Peterman said. "It makes it impossible to figure out what's true, or what you can believe."
Here in Findlay, a Rust Belt town of 40,000, false rumors about Obama have built enough word-of-mouth credibility to harden into an alternative biography. Born on the Internet, the rumors now meander freely across the flatlands of northwest Ohio -- through bars and baseball fields, retirement homes and restaurants.
Faced with polling that shows about one in 10 Americans thinks Obama is Muslim, the candidate's campaign has launched an aggressive effort to discredit rumors and clarify Obama's past. It created a "Fight the Smears" Web site and a new television ad that reiterates Obama's Christian faith, patriotism and family background. Dozens of volunteers have been sent to Ohio five months in advance of the election so they can spend extra time educating voters.
But on Peterman's block in Findlay, the campaign's efforts may already be too late. A swing voter who entered this election leaning Democratic, Peterson faces a decision that is no longer so simple as a choice between Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, he said. First, he must pick the version of Obama on which he will stake his vote.
Does he choose to trust a TV commercial in which Obama talks about his "love of country"? Or his neighbor of 40 years, Don LeMaster, a Navy veteran who heard from a friend in Toledo that Obama refuses to wear an American-flag pin?
Does he trust a local newspaper article that details Obama's Christian faith? Or his friend Leroy Pollard, a devoted family man so convinced Obama is a radical Muslim that he threatened to stop talking to his daughter when he heard she might vote for him?
"I'll admit that I probably don't follow all of the election news like maybe I should," Peterman said. "I haven't read his books or studied up more than a little bit. But it's hard to ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it. These are good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong?"'Funny About Change'
Peterman bought his single-story house here in 1959, a few months after he left the Air Force and married. His wife, Mildred, had grown up in Findlay, and they never considered moving anywhere else. On College Street, the couple found all the hallmarks of America's heartland: a house for $9,000; a neighborhood where their two boys, one handicapped, could play outside after dark; a steady "pencil-pushing" job up the road for Jim at Cooper Tire headquarters.
The neighborhood built up around them. Leroy and Wanda Pollard came in 1962, drawn from southern Ohio by a booming auto industry that offered Leroy plenty of work as a mechanic. Mary Dunson bought the place next door in 1963. Don LeMaster, a police officer, moved in up the street with his wife, Margaret, in 1970.
Every newcomer to the block was white, working-class and Midwestern, and the neighborhood jelled easily. They babysat for one another. They complained to one another about their teenagers. They helped raise one another's grandkids. In all, seven different families have lived on the same block of College Street for at least 35 years.
"We all just found a great place at a great time," Leroy Pollard said.
Peterman hung the American flag on his porch first, in 1960, and the rest of College Street followed his example. By 1980, patriotic displays had grown into an unspoken contest of one-upmanship. Sixty flags planted in one yard on Memorial Day; a living-room window painted red, white and blue; a Buckeye tree decorated with Christmas ornaments celebrating Americana; a gigantic plastic unicorn perched on a front porch and draped in an American flag.
The entire block -- and, soon, the entire town -- shared in unabashed pride and gratefulness for the country that had given them this place. In 1968, a local congressman persuaded the House of Representatives to officially declare Findlay as Flag City, USA.
But with their pride came a nasty undercurrent, one that Obama's candidacy has exacerbated: On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change. As the years passed, Peterman and his neighbors approached one another to share in their skepticism about the unknown. What was the story behind the handful of African Americans who had moved into a town that is 93 percent white? Why were Japanese businessmen coming in to run the local manufacturing plants? Who in the world was this Obama character, running for president with that funny-sounding last name?
"People in Findlay are kind of funny about change," said Republican Mayor Pete Sehnert, a retired police officer who ran for the office on a whim last year. "They always want things the way they were, and any kind of development is always viewed as making things worse, a bad thing."
When people on College Street started hearing rumors about Obama -- who looked different from other politicians and often talked about change -- they easily believed the nasty stories about an outsider.
"I think Obama would be a disaster, and there's a lot of reasons," said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate from friends he goes camping with. "I understand he's from Africa, and that the first thing he's going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He's got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there's the Muslim thing. He's just not presidential material, if you ask me."
Said Don LeMaster: "He's a good speaker, but you've got to dig deeper than that for the truth. Politicians tell you anything. You have look beyond the surface, and then there are some real lies."
Said Jeanette Collins, a 77-year-old who lives across the street: "All I know for sure about Obama is that we're not ready for him."
Only one man on College Street remains open-minded, and recently even Peterman has started to sway. Like most of his neighbors, he dislikes McCain for his stance on the Iraq war and would like to cast his vote for a president who will bring the troops home. But on a recent visit to his son's auto shop, Peterman overheard misinformed customers talking again about a Muslim in the White House.
"I don't know. The whole thing just scares me," Peterman said. "I'm almost starting to feel like the best choice is not voting at all."The Truth Squad
So far, those who have pushed the truth in Findlay have been rewarded with little that resembles progress. Gerri Kish, a 66-year-old born in Hawaii, read both of Obama's autobiographies. She has close friends, she said, who still refuse to believe her when she swears Obama is Christian. Then she hands them the books, and they refuse to read them. "They just want to believe what they believe," she said. "Nothing gets through to them."
The new advertisement running in Findlay, in which Obama is pictured with his white mother and white grandparents as he talks about developing a "deep and abiding faith in the country I love" while growing up in the Kansas heartland, is dismissed by residents of College Street as the desperate lies of another dishonest Washington politician. And they say that Obama's moves to put distance between himself and the Muslim community, with his campaign declining invitations to visit mosques and Obama volunteers removing two women in head scarves from the camera range at a rally in Detroit earlier this month are just a too-late effort to disguise his true beliefs.
For the past month, two students from the University of Findlay have spent their Tuesday nights walking from door to door in the city to tell voters about Obama. Erik Cramer and Sarah Everly target Democrats and swing voters exclusively, but they've still experienced mixed results. Sometimes, at a front door, they mention their purpose only to have a dozen rumors thrown back at them and the door slammed. "People tell us that we're in the wrong town," Everly said.
Soon, on a Tuesday night, they'll walk down College Street -- past the American flags, past the LeMasters, past the Pollards -- and knock on Jim Peterman's front door. They will ask for two minutes of his time, and Peterman will give it to them. He will listen to their story, weighing facts against fiction. For a few minutes, he might even believe them.
Then he'll close his door and go inside, back to his life. Back to his grocery store, back to his son's auto shop, back to the gossip on College Street. Back to the rumors again.