Attack Geography

Hey, buddy, who do you think you’re calling “bucolic”?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Republicans have had a talent for geographical chauvinism since Nixon’s southern strategy. Wherever a Democratic candidate happens to be from, that place turns out to be isolated and unrepresentative and not part of the real America. They are having a good time at the moment dissing Vermont, home of former Gov. Howard Dean. It’s way up there in the Northeast somewhere. (Yeah, not too far south of the Bush family hangout in Maine.) It doesn’t have any black people. Its best-known product is some hippie ice cream. Worst of all, it’s (gasp!) “bucolic.”

Odd, but I don’t recall these points being made by any politician, Republican or Democrat, about New Hampshire, which is adjacent to Vermont. In the next few months, as always in election years, we will be hearing repeatedly about what a wonderful place New Hampshire is. Second only to Iowa. But, Vermont—now, that’s a different story.

In 1988, Republicans painted Massachusetts as a foreign country and Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as an elitist, compared with that po’ boy from Texas, the elder George Bush. Massachusetts, to its credit, is a bit south of Vermont. On the other hand, it is full of universities. Need we say more?

When Bill Clinton emerged as Democratic front-runner in 1992, Republicans went to work denigrating Arkansas. “A failed governor of a small state,” was the sound bite summary. “Failed” was disputable, and disputed. “Small” was beyond dispute. But so what? “Mine is bigger than yours” is the subtext of a lot that goes on in politics, but getting all puffed up about the size of your state seems especially ridiculous. Should mothers in small states go back to their children and say, “Sorry, I was wrong. You can’t grow up to be president. Our state’s too small”?

The semiserious notion here is that the governor of a small state hasn’t done as much raw governing as the governor of a large state. If we’re measuring governorship by the inch, though, we had better note that George W. Bush was governor for six years, whereas Dean was governor for 11 years—almost twice as long. So, measuring a governorship in population years, Bush of Texas (population at the last census: 20.85 million) scores 125 million, whereas Dean of Vermont (population: 609,000) scores, um, 6.7 million. Well, OK, but measuring in square-mile years of governorship, Bush of Texas (268,000 square miles) scores 1.6 million, whereas Dean of Vermont (9,600 square miles) scores … gosh, it really is a small state, isn’t it?

Bush ought to sympathize with Dean a bit, though, because Dean is now getting the same grief that Bush got four years ago for the effrontery of being a governor at all. Governors have no foreign policy experience, it is said. How can they run for president when they’ve never been to Botswana? Senators, by contrast, know Washington. They know NATO. They may even know Botswana. But do they know how to run anything larger than their own offices? Even the state of Vermont is bigger than most congressional staffs, probably.

The experience of being president surely is more like the experience of running Vermont than it is like being, say, a member of the U.S. Senate. Senators, like journalists, enjoy jobs with a wonderful ratio of respectability to responsibility. There’s a lot of the first, not much of the second. You can huff and puff all day, people are inclined to take you seriously, but if you’re talking nonsense, no one gets hurt. Usually. A governor or a president, by contrast, makes decisions, and things tend to happen as a result. Usually. This can be disorienting and dangerous to a novice.

When they were going after Clinton, they portrayed Arkansas as the last place you would want your president from. Why? Well, it’s in the South—out of the American mainstream. It’s full of poor people. Everyone’s married to his cousin. They eat horrible, fatty lower-class foods. My dear, it’s Hicksville, plain and simple. Read your Faulkner—these people are sicko. But now Vermont is in last place. Why? It’s in New England—out of the American mainstream. There aren’t enough poor people there. Everyone’s married to her girlfriend—or will be soon. They eat horrible, fatty upper-class cheese. And, of course, that hoity-toity ice cream. Man, it’s Snotsville. Read your Cheever or your John O’Hara—the guy really comes from Park Avenue after all. These people are wacko.

Dean does hail from New York City and state, which were still fairly large at the most recent census. But in the attack geography game, multiple locations are a subtractive process. Having experienced two places makes Dean doubly isolated from his country. The GOP will be making meat out of Dean’s New York background, too. They will have a harder time of it since they have chosen to hold their convention in New York next summer. This was a cynical decision, intended to provide a backdrop for yet one more presidential victory lap in the war on terrorism. The cynicism may have been premature. But does anyone remember 1992? (Answer: No, of course not. I proceed anyway.) In that year there was a lot of Republican sneeriness over the Democrats’ decision to hold their convention in New York. New York, it seemed, was not the real America. Urban. Ethnic. Noisy, crowded, dirty. The real America was … was … perhaps the word they were searching for back then was “bucolic.” Like Vermont. The Republicans went to Houston that year. Now, I ask you.

The appropriate sentiment at this point is that we all live in the real America and share … something. What a generation of attack geography actually demonstrates is that none of us live in the real America. There is no part of the country that cannot be portrayed, with some accuracy, as a sealed society out of touch with the rest of the country. In fact, attack geography depends on this very ignorance and disdain wherever it decrees the Real America to be in this election cycle.

But whoever thought “bucolic” would be a fighting word?