Presley, Palin and the Heartland
By ROGER COHEN
I never imagined that a Republican mayor from Bible-belt Missouri would revive my faith in American democracy, but Raeanne Presley did just that.
As a high-energy brunette running a small town, she’s been ribbed since Sarah Palin became her party’s nominee for vice president. “Guess you’ll be moving on to governor soon,” she gets told. “And up from there.”
But Presley’s not interested. She’s Midwestern practical to Palin’s rabble-rousing frontierswoman. Common sense interests her more than aw-shucks nonsense. She prefers balanced budgets to unbalanced attacks.
Presley — no relation to Elvis — runs the capital of the American heartland. Branson, population 7,500, is to country-western, country-first, evangelical culture what Haight-Ashbury once was to the hippie movement: its mother lode.
You won’t find gambling in wholesome Branson. Food gets deep-fried; Christmas gets celebrated from Nov, 1; churches get filled.
On the gridlocked “strip” — more theater seats than Broadway — nobody blows their horn. The featured speaker at veterans’ week in November will be Oliver North, the Reagan-era rogue of the Iran-contra scandal. He’ll get a cheer: this area of southern Missouri voted about 70 percent Bush in 2004.
What you do find on the strip are the 8 million tourists — more than a thousand times the population — who come here annually in search of religious, family and patriotic entertainment. Dream on, Wasilla.
(If the Branson population-tourist ratio applied in New York, the city would get upward of 8 billion tourists a year. It gets around 46 million.)
Entertainment includes country-western music, the “Dixie Stampede” rodeo show, old favorites like Andy Williams, Chinese acrobats, Irish tenors and a Veterans Memorial Museum. A Japanese violinist does country and Cajun.
“For skimpy costumes or harsh language,” Presley, 50, said, “you go to Vegas or New York. We’ve no rules against a racy show. You’re welcome to give it a shot. But we hope you don’t succeed.”
One thing Branson does not have is foreign tourists. Head-shaking Europeans bewildered by “the other America” should check it out. The town, with its more than 50 theaters (Broadway has 39), would be an education.
My own did not go according to plan. I came to Branson and its mayor with my liberal prejudices and was disarmed. Presley reminded me of my ex-mother-in-law, another brisk, pragmatic, funny, no-nonsense Republican Midwesterner with little tolerance for debt, delinquency, dumbness or dereliction of duty. She also reminded me of a great American virtue: getting on with it.
And it dawned on me that Palin, with her vile near-accusations of treason against Barack Obama, her cloying doggone hymns to small-town U.S.A., her with-us-or-against-us refrain, is really an impostor.
She’s the representative of a kind of last-gasp Republicanism, of an exhausted party, whose proud fiscal conservatism and patriotism have given away to scurrilous fear-mongering and ideological confusion.
It’s a party in need of a break from power after the Bush years in order to re-learn what Presley represents: the can-do, down-to-earth, honest, industrious, spend-what-you-earn civility of the heartland. That civility has been usurped into Palin’s trash talk.
Presley’s busy, in a tough economic climate, balancing a $61 million budget, trying to preserve jobs, getting a new $500 million convention center rolling, seeking a better balance between development and the environment.
I asked her about the election. “This is an exciting moment,” she said. “An African-American at the top of the Democratic ticket. As Americans we should be proud of that. A woman running for vice president. We can be proud of that, too.”
I asked her if she was a closet liberal. She laughed.
She said her oldest son, Nick, went to Stanford, and she expected him to come back from California “with a tattoo and a piercing.” But, no. He’s now working at the family’s Country Jubilee Theater.
It was one of the first to open on the strip. I’m 53, and I reckon the night I saw the show I lowered the audience’s average age to about 78. Fall is “empty-nester” season — oceans of gray hair.
The audience roared when a hillbilly idiot said something dumb and was rebuked by his father: “Next thing, you’ll believe in global warming!”
So go the culture wars in Branson.
This is red-state central, dear to evangelicals. But Presley has few illusions. Obama has been surging in bellwether Missouri with its long and almost perfect record of voting for the winner. He is now neck and neck with John McCain in the state polls.
Americans still vote their pocketbooks — always have, always will.
“I can see how the drift is going, but we’ll move on,” the mayor said.
A speech four years ago brought Obama to the national stage: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
I found that spirit in Branson, the last place I expected. And it gave me hope, in these sobering days, for a nation aching to unite behind a new start and uplifting endeavor.