By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008
WEST PLAINS, Mo. -- The billboard towers on private land above Route 63, but it essentially acts as the public welcome sign for this city of about 10,000 nestled in the Ozarks. Raised on a hill that guards the town's main entrance, it depicts a cartoonlike drawing of Barack Obama wearing a turban above a message that has shaped many visitors' impressions of West Plains.
"Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations."
Since it was erected by a local conservative about a month ago, the billboard has been criticized by political Web sites, media outlets and travelers passing through West Plains as racist, factually inaccurate and small-minded. More telling, though, has been the reaction -- or lack of it -- in the town itself.
A few teachers wrote to the local newspaper to complain about the sign and ask that it be taken down, but dozens of other residents overruled them. Just in case the billboard's message needed reinforcing, an antiques shop a few miles farther down Route 63 constructed an anti-Obama sign of its own.
"To a lot of us, the sign is just a step in the right direction," said Kevin Collins, 38, who wrote to the local newspaper in support of the sign. "I'm like a pit bull, and believe some things are worth fighting for. We can't just sit back and let him become president."
Collins's letter to the editor -- "what honor would it be to have him as president . . .? -- added to a storm of vitriol: shredded Obama lawn signs; slanderous graffiti; false rumors distributed on fliers.
Presidents used to come from places like West Plains, and those who didn't offered small-town sensibilities like Bill Clinton's or conservative Christian values like George W. Bush's. But in Obama, West Plains sees a candidate with whom it shares little in common. He is black, liberal, erudite and metropolitan -- the antithesis of West Plains. His candidacy is the latest evidence, many residents said, that places such as this have been pushed from America's core to its fringes, and forced to fight for scraps.
"It makes me sad to say this, because I have 10 grandchildren, but I believe I already experienced the best years this country is ever going to have," said Dale Adrian, 59, a car salesman who has lived near West Plains his entire life. "We've seen things keep getting worse -- we're losing our values and forgetting what we stand for. And I believe Obama is the next step in that slide."
"I don't think Obama understands our ideas about religion, about gun control, about abortion, about same-sex marriage," Collins said. "These are bad times, and the truth is, I'm starting to think it might get a lot worse. How can somebody like him take charge of a place like this?"
Like many people in West Plains, Collins had complaints long before Obama declared his candidacy. The bucolic town Collins remembers from his youth now suffers from rising unemployment and crime. His family makes do without vacations or health insurance. The manufacturing plant where he works the graveyard shift for $13.40 an hour threatens to send his job to Mexico.
"I know firsthand that this country didn't used to be like this," Collins said.
He grew up "poorer than dirt," he said, but poverty felt different back then. His family bought 35 quiet acres for less than $15,000, and Collins's father, Leon, started his own logging business. Leon invested in a few donkeys to haul the wood, and Collins and his three siblings helped work the land. It was simple, country living -- but it was their life, entirely self-sufficient. They canned the vegetables in the garden, drank milk from their cows and hunted deer on their land. Government and big corporations had little stake in their lives, and they liked it that way.
By the time Collins had finished high school, a big company called Herrman Lumber had pushed Leon out of business. Collins moved into town, became a mechanic, married, divorced and lost an 11-year-old son to cerebral palsy. He started drinking and using crystal meth but quit in 2001 and became a Baptist preacher. Determined to recreate his childhood, Collins returned to his dad's old farm and asked the new owner whether he would sell it. Sure, the owner agreed. For $450,000.
Collins took a job at Regal Beloit, a manufacturer of electronics and mechanics, where he works the night shift because it pays an extra 35 cents an hour. He bought a trailer for $15,000 -- about the same original price as the old farm -- and agreed to manage the mobile home park for a little extra cash.
The worst of it, Collins said, is that he is a man of great faith with little hope that his circumstances will improve. He says he has no hopes for retirement, no alternative career options and nothing but fear about the prospect of an Obama presidency.
"There was a time not long ago where somebody like Obama would have tried to become president, and they would have run him out on a rail," Collins said. "That's back when this country had backbone. Now, we say, 'Okay. He might be different than what we're used to, but maybe we can use a change.' But wait a minute now. What was wrong with the way things were?"
One recent morning after his graveyard shift -- after another night spent listening to rumors about jobs moving to Mexico -- Collins ended up at a local diner with friends from work: Robert and Tammy Welty who have started working second jobs after they get off graveyard to support their three kids, but who Tammy says still "live practically like the Amish"; Charles Selfors, 30, who sold his truck because he couldn't afford to pay for gas; and Norman Carte, 61, who continues to receive bills for the triple-bypass surgery his wife underwent four years ago.
Here in West Plains, most people long ago gave up on the idea that Washington could fix their problems. Collins has consistently voted Republican in elections for social issues, he said, but he remembers Ronald Reagan as the last decent president. Since then, every politician has been "nothing but a liar," he said.
But no candidate has ever engendered loathing in West Plains as Obama has, the breakfast group agreed. There is a small Democratic Party presence here, and a group of liberals in nearby Rolla printed thousands of bumper stickers that proclaim, "Rednecks for Obama." But few people in town have heard many complaints about the controversial Obama sign.
Darryl Etheridge, a 67-year-old Obama supporter who owns a printing shop across the street from the sign, said people have stopped at his parking lot to take pictures and to ask for him to print T-shirts of the billboard. "It's freedom of speech, and it's pretty true to the conservative thought down here," Etheridge said. "[Obama] has got enough things different, you know, his name, his color, his religion, that people don't know what to make of him. I'd say at least 60 percent of people here agree with what the signs says."
At Collins's table in the diner, the sign had 100 percent support. "I say, good for us for speaking truth despite all of this political correctness," Carte said.
All five said they trust gossip and e-mails from friends over missives from politicians, which is why they spent breakfast trading misinformation about Obama. They think Obama will raise their taxes and legalize same-sex marriage, even though he has said explicitly that he will do neither. Obama is a practicing Christian who routinely talks about his "love of country." But, at Collins's table, Obama is better known as a man of African heritage and Muslim roots whose patriotism to the United States remains suspect.
"He needs to be 100 percent American, like we are," Tammy said.
"Yeah, and the truth is he's just not," Selfors said. "I can't trust him."
"At least with McCain, you've got somebody who served the country, was a prisoner of war and understands what people like us stand for," Carte said. "Obama scares me."
The group has already resigned itself to the likelihood of Obama winning the election. If Obama wins, this election will become another reminder of their increasing powerlessness, Selfors said -- the latest in a long series of losses for West Plains.
"I don't understand where this country is going, but I've got a feeling it's going with him," Selfors said.
"Yep," said Carte, "and we'll get left behind."