By Emily Langer
Sunday, August 31, 2008
John McCain didn't make his debut with running mate Sarah Palin in Dayton last Friday because Ohioans are his people, or because he thought that the Alaska governor would feel at ease there, almost 4,000 miles away from her home town of Wasilla, or because the local Big Boy restaurant is any better than all the other Big Boys in America. Everybody knows that as goes Ohio, so goes the nation -- so what better place for McCain to introduce the woman he hopes will be vice president?
Presidential elections mean high times for Midwesterners who grind along in their ordinary or extraordinary lives unnoticed until the campaigns roll through town -- folks like the people at Stahl's Farm Market in Ravenna, Ohio (population: 11,422), who got a visit several weeks ago from Barack Obama, who apparently had a hankering for their homegrown peaches and apple fritters. Of course, political flattery is as old as the dirt in the cornfields of Iowa. But the buttering up of heartland swing states every fourth year seems a little rich because -- let's be honest -- back in Washington, Midwesterners aren't exactly viewed as the cream of the national crop.
I grew up in Dayton, and it would be un-Midwestern to criticize. So I'll just say that some people on the East Coast are misinformed. More than a handful seem to imagine the swath of land from the Great Lakes to the Kansas prairie as a drab territory where everyone lives off the land and pollution-spewing factories, rarely getting out and never learning much. Never mind that the Dayton suburb of Kettering is named for a local man who invented the automobile self-starter, or that "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker was born in the coal-mining town of Nelsonville, or that billionaire Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once went under the knife at the Cleveland Clinic. And that's just Ohio.
I first got wind of this confusion in eighth grade, when my best friend moved from Dayton to Connecticut. What did her new classmates want to know about her? Whether she had lived near cows. (We encountered no heifers while rollerblading in her cul-de-sac.) When I arrived at Georgetown University from Ohio, several of my fellow freshmen remarked that I must have been "so glad to get out of there." One insinuated that she never would have expected someone from the Midwest to do well in Italian. (I wonder what she would have made of my high-school buddies who went to medical school.) By my sophomore year, I felt like lobbying the study-abroad office to supplement its programs in Paris, Cairo and Beijing with a junior year abroad in Columbus, Ohio's capital, which is also known as Cowtown.
Then again, I reminded myself, many of my classmates grew up just a subway ride away from Harvard Square or the Guggenheim or the Kennedy Center. Maybe it wasn't so ridiculous for them to fancy their comings-of-age superior to my upbringing in the flyover zone. Dayton has a fetching minor-league baseball stadium and an impressive art museum, but locals aren't exactly fighting tourists for parking spots. Even Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president known as the "butcher of the Balkans," was put out when my home town was selected as the site of the 1995 peace talks that ended the war in the former Yugoslavia. "What, are you going to keep me locked up in Dayton, Ohio?" he said. "I'm not a priest, you know."
My flashes of insecurity were snuffed out as soon as someone mentioned their parents' two-hour commutes or used the word "summer" as a verb. What I wonder now, two years out of college, is why so many people in Washington, the adopted home of nobodies from all over the country trying to make names for themselves, are so clueless about the Midwest. Take my boss. He's a smart guy who has traveled around the world. Yet despite all my jabbering about Ohio, he has asked me more than once about my family back in . . . Iowa.
Of course, I'm not the only Ohioan to have mixed up Brooklyn and the Bronx. But the tendency to write off Midwesterners as a bunch of simpletons strikes me as plain unfair. I recently met a man who drives through Ohio every year on the way from Washington to his summer house in Canada; when he heard where I'm from, he hopped up on his high horse and announced that Ohioans "don't take risks." So he hasn't run into any Evel Knievels there. That's surprising, I wanted to say, because the Wright Brothers were from Dayton, and it took some gumption -- now there's a word Midwesterners like -- to catapult themselves into the sky in their rickety contraptions. Another gutsy Ohioan: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. And another: Neil Armstrong.
"No, no dreamers in Ohio," I felt like replying. But my mother would have called that back-talk, so I let good old-fashioned Midwestern manners get the better of me and kept quiet.
Presidential candidates, in their efforts to look like regular folks, are among the chief purveyors of one of the most destructive stereotypes of Midwesterners: the working stiff who can't work, thanks to the Rust Belt hemorrhaging all those jobs. During a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry set up shop outside a boarded-up building so that photos and television footage would show the city's "ugly rump," as the New York Times wrote, rather than the new office building across the street. No hard feelings, senator. The voters of Youngstown understood: It was easier for you to show that Ohioans needed your help if you pretended that they couldn't help themselves.
Reporters do their part as well, stocking their dispatches from the Midwest with caricatures of down-at-the-heels factory workers and embittered waitresses. If you read enough of that prattle, you might start to wonder: Don't these people have anything better to do than sit around carping about NAFTA? Don't they know that McCain was just being honest when he said that some of Michigan's vanished jobs won't reappear? And by the way, don't they realize that anybody who thinks Obama hates America is a fool? The answer to all those questions is, yes, of course they do.
Forbes.com would also have you believe that there is no hope for the heartland and recently put eight Midwestern places, including Dayton, on a list of America's 10 fastest-dying cities. But they failed to factor into their questionable formulas and calculations the resilience of a population whose land used to be a frontier. Corn grown by Iowa farmers looks less quaint and more cutting-edge now that it's helping run cars. Illinois businesses are making good money exporting computers and electronics to China. And somehow, the Indianapolis 500 keeps putting butts in the seats.
I should note that I am two generations removed from the Midwesterners who are trying hardest to bounce back -- the ones called, with that special Washington blend of respect and condescension, the working class. My parents could afford to give me a good life in Ohio, then shell out a lot of money so that I could go to college in the nation's capital. People in Washington and in the Midwest would consider that a step up, and I can't deny that the East Coast has given me opportunities that are hard to come by in the heartland. But truthfully, at times I'd rather go home.
I miss Ohio most when I hear other transplanted Midwesterners belittle their parents for being intimidated by subways that they have no occasion to ride, or mock the suburbs that seemed pretty great when they were running through sprinklers in their big backyards, or dump on cornfields and cows, especially when most of them spent their childhoods not on tractors but in minivans. But of course, I too have sinned by leaving Ohio, and there are days when I feel downright traitorous for having done so.
But this is a comfort: Though I have no plans to ask for an advance on my inheritance, a modern-day parable of the Prodigal Son could definitely be set in a place like Dayton in a family like mine. My Midwestern parents are sophisticated enough to know that children have been venturing out on their own since the beginning of time, sometimes to look for someplace more exciting, other times because that's just how life unfolds, hardly ever to turn their backs on their families and almost always to make them proud. I hit pay dirt the day I was born in Ohio, and if I ever move back, I'll hit pay dirt again.
Emily Langer is the Outlook section's editorial aide.