The outrage continues to swirl around ABC News and its travesty of a mockery of a sham of a presidential debate here in Philadelphia last night. Meanwhile, this post over on Philadelphia Will Do raised my curiosity over something that seemed a footnote at the time, as I was focusing my fire on the way that Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were misconducting the debate.
It concerned the videotape question that was posed by the woman at top, Nash McCabe of Latrobe, Pa. Here's what she asked:
Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.
As I watched her question, what I wondered -- and I imagine many other viewers wondered as well -- was where on earth did ABC find this representative of my home state. As a journalist, I kind of assumed that ABC sent a film crew to western Pa., and then culled the most provocative questions from the people that they found. Silly me. In fact, ABC News found Nash McCabe the old-fashioned way -- they read about her, and her thing with the American flag, in the New York Times earlier this month:
LATROBE, Pa. — Ask whom she might vote for in the coming presidential primary election and Nash McCabe, 52, seems almost relieved to be able to unpack the dossier she has been collecting in her head.
It is not about whom she likes, but more a bill of particulars about why she cannot vote for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
“How can I vote for a president who won’t wear a flag pin?” Mrs. McCabe, a recently unemployed clerk typist, said in a booth at the Valley Dairy luncheonette in this quiet, small city in western Pennsylvania.
So Nash McCabe wasn't located at random at all. Instead, someone at ABC News decided that they wanted to go after Obama on the patriotism issue, and they actively sought a Pennsylvanian who they knew wanted to bring it up. I assume they thought it would sound better if "a typical voter" asked the question instead of Charlie Gibson. "You see, we're only raising the issue the voters really care about," they can claim.
Now, remember the other issue that's been bandied about for the last week, about what's really happening in small towns like Latrobe, Pa., and whether voters are "bitter" or "frustrated," as Obama said in the debate last night, and whether economic anxiety is driving other issues that serve as political diversions. Latrobe is a model city for that breed of frustration -- as the Times noted in its article:
Latrobe is probably best known as the birthplace of Rolling Rock beer. The label was sold to Anheuser-Busch, and brewing was moved in 2006 to Newark. A new company came in that employs fewer people, mostly at lower wages.
Today, McClatchy Newspapers did a follow-up story on Nash McCabe, and it's clear that there's more going on in this woman's life than lapel pins:
But to understand why Obama rubs McCabe wrong is to go beyond the question of what a flag pin has to do with patriotism — it's not really about the flag pin, she said in a telephone interview Thursday — and consider McCabe's life. It's no Hawaiian prep school and Ivy League story, unlike Obama's. It's a slice of working-class Pennsylvania, the core of Hillary Clinton's support there.
McCabe met her husband, Lloyd, in April 1983 at a dance. They married two months later. Six months after that, she says, he was injured in a coal mine accident. He hasn't worked since.
They never had children. He had back surgery. The muscle relaxers he took damaged his heart. He's had three bypasses, nine angioplasties, seven stents and a pacemaker. Three months ago doctors found a brain tumor. His choice: surgery that he may or may not survive, or life in a wheelchair.
Over 25 years of marriage, McCabe was the breadwinner. She said it took eight years to get her husband disability payments, during which time they racked up huge bills.
Read the whole story -- it's fascinating and heartbreaking, and will cause you to reflect some more on the "bitter" Pennsylvania controversial. But there's one more thing about Nash McCabe and insertion into our national political dialogue, and that is the most bizarre twist of all.
That original New York Times article (by a former Newsday colleague, Paul Vitello), the one that started this whole ball rolling. It wasn't really about flag pins or patriotism.
It was about race.
Here's the headline over the picture of Nash McCabe: "In Ex-Steel City, Voters Deny Race Plays a Role."
Vitello writes that he found little support for Obama in Latrobe, and crux of his article is this:
But when dismissing Mr. Obama, voters in this former steel center, whatever their racial feelings, seem almost compelled to list their reasons, if only to pre-empt the unspoken race question.
Because he voted “present” too often as an Illinois state senator. Because he speaks very well, but has not talked about reviving the coal industry. Because he would not command the respect of the military. Because there is something unsettling about his perfect calm, they say.
So, the New York Times is basically stating that many voters are finding odd or vague reasons not to support a candidate who president who happens to be black. And without any thought to the subtext, ABC News plucked one of those reasons and brought it to the center stage of democracy.
To be extra clear, none of this is a criticism of Nash McCabe -- my heart goes out to her and her husband, and there is no evidence here that her views on Obama and the flag, which I personally think are misguided, are racially motivated.
Instead, it is yet another indictment of ABC News, which was eager to act is if there's no racial subtext to this election, other than its question about affirmative action for Obama's "affluent African-American daughters." Obama's been under fire for the last week for suggesting that Rust Belt voters -- facing a swirl of feelings about the economy and "people who don't look like them" -- are wooed by wedge issues.
ABC's contribution to that discussion: Wooing voters with wedge issues.