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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Hometown Advantage

Posted By on Tue, Mar 11, 2008 at 9:15 AM

Got an interesting e-mail from the Clinton campaign yesterday, one which probably will set the tone for much of the campaign rhetoric we'll be hearing for the next month.  

"For Hillary Clinton, Pennsylvania is as much a homecoming as a stop on the presidential campaign trail," the statement explains. "Hillary has deep family roots in Pennsylvania -- and lifelong memories of her time spent there as a child."

The e-mail lets us know that the Senator's grandparents settled in Scranton "more than a century ago." And her father "went on to play football for the Penn State Nittany Lions" in the 1930s.

When your family's Penn State football legacy predates that of the Paterno clan, it's fair to say you have some Keystone roots. Still, there's something a wee bit cloying about the way the campaign tells us (for example) that Senator's Clinton family "remained connected to Pennsylvania even after her father had to jump a railroad car and leave the state to find work in Chicago."

There's no word on whether he played a harmonica during that time, or whether he conversed with colorful but down-on-their-luck hobos who shared with him their melancholy wisdom while crouched over a campfire. But we do learn that "every summer of her childhood, Hillary, her parents, and her brothers loaded up the family car and drove east to ... the family cabin on Lake Winola [near Scranton], which they still own today."

Interestingly, the statement leaves out a part of the story where young Hillary learned to shoot a rifle on vacation, a bit of biography she's noted in her book, Living History. I can only assume that Senator Clinton will not forget to bring up this portion of her background during campaign stops.

In any case, the same day Clinton issued her statement, the New York Times ran a profile of her family's eastern Pennsylvania connections. And for the most part, the locals are happy to claim her.

"She's tough," explains Scranton's mayor, who then invokes the area's coal-mining past: "That's a real Scranton trait. That's an anthracite trait." You know, unlike those wussies in western Pennsylvania where they mine bituminous coal.

It's no surprise that a candidate would tout such connections, both to an important state and to an important demographic -- blue-collar folks trying to sort out their place in a deindustrializing America. As the Times itself observes, Clinton's "supporters here hope that her local roots will help her do something she rarely does on the stump: connect the dots between [her] policies and her life." And as this space has noted previously, class issues do go a long way toward explaining Clinton's edge in Pennsylvania.

The result of such coverage, though, usually makes me feel like the reporters are listening for banjos playing in the distance. Sure enough, the Times also quotes a Scranton radio personality observing that the locals "are bound by 'tribalism'." And the mayor says that in anthracite country, "we take it day to day. We watch our pocketbook. We care about small-town things." Whereas in larger cities, presumably, no one cares how much they spend.

I guess this is the inevitable result of being in a state whose primary actually matters. For years, we've been hearing about the small-town pocketbook-watching habits of Iowans and New Hampshirelings. We've been told how folks there like to meet their presidential candidates all up-close and personal-like. As if anyone else in the United States wouldn't like to have a future president in the living room, so we could yell at him.

For better and worse, over the next couple weeks things that are basic human nature -- caring for your family and community, for example -- will be treated as some sort of quaint local folkway. And out here in "KD Country," we'll eat it right up. It flatters our own nativist prejudicies, after all ... our belief that our ordinariness is somehow extraordinary. The same rhetoric applies whether you live in DuBois or Des Moines, of course, but that's all the more reason for a politician to embrace it.

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