Welcome to My Small Town, a Place Political Types Really Should Visit

By RJI on September 30, 2008 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

This blank check does not resonate on Main Street, what with its small town values.

That’s because the check is not blank, checks do not resonate and Main Street has all but disappeared, perhaps taking small-town values with it.

And yet, anyone who reads the papers and magazines – or listens to the candidates, the congresspersons, the Cabinet members and the commentators – must conclude that no subject in American politics can be discussed without reference to blank checks and to Main Street, and to just what will resonate on that special street that apparently runs through the middle of some unspecified and possibly mythical small town.

Where, in case you missed it, there are values.

Blank checks and Main Street, along with its geographical and moral antipode, Wall Street, only invaded the political discussion a few weeks ago, when the antipode began to unravel. Small-town values were inserted during the Republican National Convention thanks to Sarah Palin, who was once mayor of a city of some 6,000 people.

“Resonate,” however, has been resounding, redounding and possibly rebounding around the presidential campaign for months. Indeed, it is hard to recall the last time one heard or read a campaign story in which the reporter/commentator did not suggest that a statement by one candidate or the other might resonate with the electorate or some subdivision thereof.

“Clinton barbs resonate among working women” was the headline on an MSNBC story in June. And in early September, a Politico headline announced that the “’08 debates may resonate like Carter-Reagan.” Before and since, political journalists have given little respite to “resonate,” making it unquestionably the most over-used word of the campaign.

And just what does it mean? Well, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, to “resonate” is “to exhibit or produce resonance,” and “resonance” is “the quality or condition of being resonant,” which in turn is defined as “Of, pertaining to, or exhibiting resonance.”

Hmmm. This seems circular. It does not resonate. Let’s click the thesaurus on the computer, worthless though it may be, and responsible though it may be for the decline of American rhetoric (the subject of another treatise, another day). This gives us, as a synonym for “resonate,” “reverberate,” and synonyms for that are “vibrate,” “resound,” “ring,” “echo” and “boom.”

So John McCain’s pledge to veto congressional earmarks will boom or vibrate? That does not ring true. We may resoundingly reject it.

Let’s go back to the dictionary. The second definition of “resonance” has to do with “the response of an electric or mechanical system,” which is exactly what our politics are not. But then comes the definition under acoustics: “the intensification and prolongation of sound, especially of a musical tone.”

Musical tones are not what we usually associate with campaign speeches, but by process of elimination this must be the relevant definition. The political commentators seem to be saying that some of the stuff that comes out of the candidates’ mouths will appeal to voters. Its effect, then, will be prolonged, politically speaking, rather like the tremolo of the piano in the midst of one of those Chopin études or the echoing twang of a good guitar.

Or, in plainer English, the voters might like what the candidate says. They could find it appealing. Then they will like the candidate more (intensification) and perhaps remember why (prolongation). If political journalists want to call this “resonating,” fine. Every once in a while, though, they could just say, “folks’ll like this stuff.”

But while it might be excessively fancy, “resonate” is not dead solid wrong. “Blank check” is.

Consider Barack Obama assuring the Congressional Black Caucus the other evening that he would not approve a “$700 billion blank check” in the Wall Street bailout under negotiation at the time.

But a “blank check,” according to the dictionary, is “a signed check with no amount filled in.” As Obama said even as he described the check as “blank,” this one has an amount filled in. Seven hundred big ones. It’s a huge check, a massive check, a ginormous check. Blank it is not.

Granted, the dictionary’s second definition is “total freedom of action; carte blanche,” which is what Obama and the other politicians and reporters who use the term really mean. The dictionary is obviously succumbing here to common usage, and perhaps it should. Only a prig would deny that language evolves according to how people use it.

But those of us who write should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and perhaps we should apply it to those we write about. Words and phrases ought to be as precise as possible. If we start calling a “carte blanche” situation a “blank check,” what will we call a real blank check? Had Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson et al proposed spending “a whole lot of money” to buy up those defaulted mortgages, without setting a price, we would call it a blank check. What he proposed is different, and therefore the words should be different.

The folks on Main Street in all those small towns with their old-fashioned values would no doubt agree. Both of them.

OK, that’s hyperbolic. But amid all this blather from candidates and journalists alike about the superiority of Main Street to Wall Street, someone ought to note that the percentage of people who ever walk down a thoroughfare called Main Street these days is about as small as … well, as the percentage of people who live in small towns.

Most Americans these days live in – and most under 40 grew up in – suburban subdivisions where streets have names like Poinsettia Way, Tally-Ho Terrace or Coventry Court. They work in an office park and shop in a mall, neither of which is on any street at all. Today’s counterpart to Wall Street – the place where middle-class Americans as opposed to pampered plutocrats live and work – is not Main Street. It’s an interstate highway off-ramp, or perhaps a parking lot.

None of which means, however, that there are no small-town values. I know. I live in a small town, half the size of Wasilla, Alaska, while Palin was mayor. And we have values.

You need not bother locking your car when you park it on … yup, Main Street, though more stores are on Church Street. Should you, one winter night, slide off the snow-covered, unpaved road on which I live, the next car that comes along will probably stop to help. If not, the one after that surely will and will probably be equipped with a thick chain and four-wheel drive transmission to get you back on the road in a jiffy. Small-town folks look out for one another. They are uncommonly friendly.

Not to mention uncommonly petulant and vindictive. In small towns, personal grievances are more likely to drift into the public realm, as with the current contretemps in our volunteer fire department as chronicled in the local weekly, which differs from most small-town weeklies by being rather good, in defiance of the small-town value that seems to glorify execrable journalism.

Another small-town value is devotion to the right to be left alone to do as one chooses, including, or perhaps especially, if one chooses to drink several beers and then get behind the wheel of a big pick-up truck, no doubt one equipped with a thick chain and four-wheel drive transmission. A quick look at the weekly discloses that were it not for the charge of driving under the influence, we might not need a county court at all.

The newspaper does not report, but gossips at the drugstore lunch counter enthusiastically do, occasions of another small-town value – friendly neighborhood adultery, equitably distributed among the socio-economic ranks from a few leading citizens to a few leading n’eer-do-wells. Those too young to marry often share the same values as indicated by the substantial number of pregnant high school students. When not doing whatever it is they do to achieve that condition, our small-town teens often amuse themselves by speeding down the road with the car-windows open, the driver probably chugging his fourth or fifth beer, one back-seat passenger smashing mail-boxes with a baseball bat. Sadly, Norman Rockwell, despite the many years he spent in another small town in my state, never got around to painting that scene.

Perhaps before another commentator or politician extols the values of small towns, he or she should spend a day in one.