America’s Core – Obstinate, Upright, and Irritable

In the village of Clairton the people love their Browning guns, they attend church regularly, and as members of the National Guard put it all on the line in Iraq. But they’re by no means frustrated by any of that.

It’s a bit cool on this early April morning. Wayne Wilson wears a down jacket over his flannel shirt, has his cap visor pulled down over his face, and in the crook of his arm he carries a Browning Lightning in the crook of his elbow. He has just shot two rounds of skeet, clay pigeons, 50 shots. “When the target’s in the air you have just about one second to react,” he explains. “You have to have both concentration and speed. If your mind wanders, you won’t hit anything.”

Wilson is Range Officer at Clairton’s Sportsmen’s Club, which has 400 members in this small town south of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The next Democratic primary will be held here next Tuesday – and how the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton really stands will be decided. Because of its demographics, Pennsylvania is considered Hillaryland, but in recent days her advantage has shrunk noticeably.

The mood in town is muted. “We’ve lost a lot of people lately,” says sport-shooter Wilson. Mostly because the giant US Steel mills are producing less and less and other factories in the region, such as General Motors, are closing.

For blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania it’s been tough for a long time, especially in the area around the former steel stronghold Pittsburgh. On a cloudy day, Clairton looks as desolate as a ghost town. Only the few chimneys still billowing smoke and the smell of tar in the air show that there is still some life in the community of 8,000 souls. The hours spent in the hunting club are like immersing yourself in a small, paradise that’s still intact.

“I just can’t understand why Obama maligned us,” says Wilson’s friend Will, about a hundred yards below the skeet range. “He really screwed up here.” Will is a businessman and even days after Obama’s controversial words he can still get worked up: “Nobody’s going to tell me I’m frustrated just because I like guns and I go to church,” he rages.

During a speech to supporters in San Francisco, Obama tried to explain how it is for people who have lost their jobs: “It’s not surprising that they become bitter,” he said. “That they cling to guns or to religion and they say they don’t like people who are different from themselves, that’s all explained by frustration.” Since then, Obama has been on the defensive in Pennsylvania. The 46-year old has been forced to defend his statements, to vindicate himself, he has to set the record straight.

And so it was last Tuesday. At a function attended by war veterans in Washington, Pennsylvania, during a question-and-answer session, a woman immediately rose, grabbed the microphone, and asked about those strange words. Obama, however, turned the tables by claiming that Hillary Clinton had fashioned a poison arrow out of his words. Clinton’s camp interpreted Obama’s blunder as proof that he was an elitist and had no connection with the common people. “That’s just how politics work in this country,” said Obama, “and it’s high time that we change that.” The veterans and their supporters broke into thunderous applause.

But a cloud hovers above it all. For Pennsylvania is truly the land of gun lovers, the fishermen, the church-goers-- the patriots. In Pennsylvania’s southwest, on the Ohio border, those are the virtues in which the people take pride. Hardly any other state has sent so many soldiers to Iraq.

The National Guard alone has provided more than 8,000 troops. The National Guard plays a special role. Those who participate risk a great deal. Guardsmen have civilian jobs and civilian lives. They are called to active duty only when the regular army can’t provide enough troops, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then they must leave their jobs and families to become full-time soldiers for one year. For the family members left behind, there are no social safety nets as exist for the regular army. They have to cope alone. And that’s where the friends from the churches and the hunting clubs become important. It is precisely those people that Obama, with his choice of words, has deeply upset if not outright alienated.

Gary van Kirk is a guardsman. In November 2005 he returned from a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq to his small town home north of Pittsburgh. The homecoming was anything but friendly. There were no flags, no banners, no mayor to shake his hand, Gary said. “It was as if I didn’t exist.” Why? “Because the Democrats considered the war illegal,” the 42-year old believes. “And they let you know it.” What Gary doesn’t understand is the Democrat’s balancing act: “How can it be that they claim to support the troops but they hate the war?” Gary can’t balance that equation.

This evening he sits at the bar of the VFW poet in West View with a bottle of Coors Light. The VFW bar has become almost a second home for guardsmen. “I can talk to people who understand me,” says van Kirk. He means the other soldiers who know what it means to be alone with their worries and nightmares after seeing battle. He recalls his uncle Tony who predicted he would have a hard time when he returned from the front. “When he came home from Vietnam, he was reviled,” Gary says. “Now there’s a tendency for it to all happen again.” The conclusion he draws from that: “I was a registered Democrat, but I’ve recently switched over to the Republican side.”

The war, the treatment of veterans, patriotism: for the Democrats, these subjects are mine fields. At all costs, they want to avoid being labeled back-stabbers, so they avoid criticizing the troops. But because they owe their majority in congress to their opposition to the war, they cannot give up their main objective: get out of Iraq as soon as possible.

When he addressed the veterans, Obama repeated his position. In 16 to 18 months after his inauguration he wants the majority of troops to be withdrawn. When he repeated that at Jefferson College in the town of Washington, the applause was somewhat less then enthusiastic. Now that there’s finally a silver lining appearing in Iraq many Obama fans have a stagnant feeling. The war may have been bogus, but now just cut and run? The senator, however, can no longer retreat from his position. Not even if he loses Pennsylvania to the more flexible Clinton. Absent a miracle in Pennsylvania, the Democratic race will continue after Tuesday. Through Indiana, North Carolina, and other primaries, right to the bitter end on June third in Montana, if not right up to the convention at the end of August.