October 7, 2007

Where It All Began...

It's a common rhetorical tool in electoral politics--the appeal to one's home, the poetry of beginnings.

In The West Wing, Jed Bartlett orates on the movement that began as a Hanover, New Hampshire grassroots uprising when he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the final season of the show, Matt Santos declares his bid for the presidency at his boyhood home of Houston, Texas. It was also where he began his political life, as mayor of the energy industry boomtown.

Our current U.S. president, George W. Bush, rarely gave us a paragraph on the 2000 presidential trail without a few Texas-sized hints at his first political platform. But of course, he was actually born in Connecticut.

So, there is always room for fiction when the truth doesn't make for romantic rhetoric on the campaign trial. "Where it all began..." can depend on the day, week, or month according to what works politically. It seems to me that urban beginnings rarely make the grade on the presidential campaign trail. It's much easier to create a sweeping Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches, outsider versus establishment narrative when the candidate learned a hard day's work on a dairy farm or a citrus grove--somewhere reasonably close to amber waves of grain.

If a city is invoked, it's used as a whipping post. Rudy Guiliani talks about cleaning up the mean streets of New York City. Barack Obama talks about organizing on the mean streets of Chicago. I guess Hillary Clinton mentions Chicago sometimes, but I don't think it's a theme of the campaign. Martin O'Malley made cleaning up Baltimore an issue in his successful bid for the governorship of Maryland.

John Edwards gets the easy road to campaign biography, since his shot to the U.S. Senate and political stardom began in the small town of Seneca, South Carolina. When he was still very young, his family moved to the small mill town of Robbins, North Carolina. It's a great photo backdrop, fits into the grand, tragic narrative of the Rust Belt and probably even the Wal-Mart Effect. And his parents still live there, and his own family lives nearby in Orange County. It's the American Dream.

Lawton Chiles may have been born in Lakeland in 1930, a phosphate-citrus-railroad town in central Florida, but his path to political legend began in 1970 in a sawmill village on the Florida-Alabama border called Century. Though he never represented the area in the state legislature or the U.S. Congress, and had never been there before summer of 1970, he drove up there at his wife Rhea's urging to begin the thousand-mile walk across Florida that earned him a seat in the U.S. Senate. He returned to Century in later senatorial campaigns, to stay connected with the folks who gave him his start. In the governor years, when he reflected on "where it all began," he readily chatted up how the Walk changed his life. When he died, a gubernatorial funeral motorcade drove the Chiles Trail slowly from Route 4 in Century along US 90 to Tallahassee. At the procession's beginning in Century, an old lady who accompanied him in his 1982 re-election campaign walk returned to his side.

The first fellow that I saw I had to lure down off a power pole. He kept trying to get a word in and I kept talking to him about my running for the United States Senate and finally he got an opportunity to break in and tell me he was from Alabama. I just told him I sure hoped he had some Florida friends to pass the word on to.

And it was uphill from there, where it all began.

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