Getting Appalachians

webb Not so long ago, in the days when the country's financial system was not falling down a cliff, Barack Obama was said to have a problem with white Appalachians. He couldn't connect with them; he didn't speak their language; he had denigrated them. Why? Some writers had speculated about the reasons. Yet Peter Boyer of The New Yorker must be one of the few reporters who has done in-depth reporting on the issue. And his latest story deserves a wide audience, not least for its emphasis on the importance of religion to Appalachians, especially those who live in the swing state of Virginia.

Perhaps the story's chief virtue are the quotes that Boyer got from his interview subjects. Here is David ("Mudcat") Saunders, a Democratic strategist, about the hurdles that Obama faces this November:

If Obama loses Virginia, Saunders says, it will be because he didn't succeed in breaking down cultural barriers. Obama's famous remark, made at a fund-raiser in San Francisco, that rural voters are bitter, which causes them to cling to religion and guns, lingers in the heartland. "I don't pray because of resentment--I pray because it makes my life better," Saunders says. "I don't have a gun because of resentment--I've got a gun because I've always had one. I don't ever remember not having a gun of some kind."

Although Saunders worked for John Edwards in the primary, his on-the-record quote was candid for a Democratic strategist, especially a few months before a presidential election. Boyer did a good job not only identifying Saunders as a fine interview subject, but also letting his subject speak.

Another virtue of the story were Boyer's summaries of Appalachian life. Sprinkled throughout the story are interesting references to religion; Boyer notes, for example, that most of the original Scotch-Irish settlers were Calvinists. I have read several long magazine articles (for example, this one ain't bad) about the Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish, yet this was the first time that I have read a writer note their religious denomination.

To take another example, Boyer nicely summarized Sen. Jim Webb's depiction of his people:

Webb has been thinking and writing about such people for forty years. When he turned to writing after serving as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, he became obsessed with the American cultural divide, and the fact that his people, the Scots-Irish, stood so firmly on one side. The descendants of the Ulster warrior clans that settled the Appalachian frontier were a proud, ornery lot, deeply patriotic and always ready for a fight. They invented country music, fostered the form of democracy named for their kinsman Andrew Jackson, and supplied generals on both sides of the Civil War. In "Born Fighting," his 2004 book about the Scots-Irish influence in American life, Webb summarized the culture's core ethos: Fight. Sing. Drink. Pray.

The story had only two real errors in my view. One was nominal (and not related to religion). Virginia Polytechnic University, the school that former Gov. Mark Warner helped persuade the Atlantic Coast Conference to admit in its conference, is better known as Virginia Tech University. The other was an omission of fact: John McCain is Scots-Irish on his dad's side. Might not that fact contribute to Obama's problem? (Admittedly, Obama fared poorly against Hillary Clinton with this group of voters.)

But that is a quibble. This story got religion.

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