Last month, I saw John McCain speak in a tiny town, nestled among the Appalachian coal hills of eastern Kentucky, called Inez. He was in the middle of his Time for Action Tour of America’s “forgotten places” (including Selma, Alabama; Youngstown, Ohio; and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans). It was a transparent effort to stay in the media eye and also to say, as his speechwriter Mark Salter later told me, “I’m not going to run an election like the last couple have been run, trying to grind out a narrow win by increasing the turnout of the base. I don’t want to run a campaign like that because I don’t want to be a President like that. I want to be your President even if you don’t vote for me.” As every new conservative book points out, the Bush-Rove realignment strategy would fail miserably this year, anyway. . . .
John Preston, who is the county’s circuit-court judge and also its amateur historian, Harvard-educated, with a flag pin on his lapel, said, “Obama is considered an élitist.” He added, “There’s a racial component, obviously, to it. Thousands of people won’t publicly say it, but they won’t vote for a black man—on both sides, Democrat and Republican. It won’t show up in the polls, because they won’t admit it. The elephant’s in the room, but nobody will say it. Sad to say it, but it’s true.” Later, I spoke with half a dozen men eating lunch at the Pigeon Roost Dairy Bar outside town, and none of them had any trouble saying it. They announced their refusal to vote for a black man, without hesitation or apology. “He’s a Muslim, isn’t he?” an aging mine electrician asked. “I won’t vote for a colored man. He’ll put too many coloreds in jobs. Colored are O.K.—they’ve done well, good for them, look where they came from. But radical coloreds, no—like that Farrakhan, or that senator from New York, Rangel. There’d be riots in the streets, like the sixties.” No speech, on race or élitism or anything else, would move them. Here was one part of the white working class—maybe not representative, but at least significant—and in an Obama-McCain race they would never be the swing vote. It is a brutal fact, and Obama probably shouldn’t even mention it.
McCain appeared to a warm reception. I had seen him in New Hampshire, where he gave off-the-cuff remarks with vigor; when he is stuck with a script, however, he is a terrible campaigner. Looking pallid, he sounded flat, and stumbled over his lines—and yet they were effective lines, ones that Obama would do well to study. “I can’t claim we come from the same background,” McCain began. “I’m not the son of a coal miner. I wasn’t raised by a family that made its living from the land or toiled in a mill or worked in the local schools or health clinic. I was raised in the United States Navy, and, after my own naval career, I became a politician. My work isn’t as hard as yours—it isn’t nearly as hard as yours. I had an easier start.” He paused and went on, “But you are my compatriots, my fellow-Americans, and that kinship means more to me than almost any other association.” . . .