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Climbing Higher Mountains: Mother's Day With Hillary Clinton in West Virginia

Categories: The Donkey Show

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At the rise of a gently rolling hill in the Alleghenies on the road from Washington, D.C. to West Virginia, someone is building an arc. The skeletal wooden outline of a massive ship catches the sun as it dips below the horizon and reminds all passersby that the flood is coming.

For Hillary Clinton, it may already be here.

I’m Not Bitter: The man in the red pickup truck with “I’m Not Bitter, I’m Better” spraypainted between his taillights idles slowly down the street. The main drag of Grafton, West Virginia, runs one block parallel to the industrial train tracks that long proved the town’s lifeblood. Some of the storefronts that line the main street are boarded and shuttered, but those that are open do brisk business. Entering the town from the east or west, you realize that it is built into the side of a steep hill, with many of the outlying houses stilted into densely forested terrain.

The views across the valley are remarkable. The land, without pride or majesty, lives up to its billing as the Mountain State: The tallest peak is only 4,863 feet up, but the ruggedness and no-nonsense quality of its environment and people make the whole scene stark and otherworldly.

The red brick church down the main street, just before the train depot, now houses the International Mother’s Day Shrine, recognizing Grafton as the birthplace of Mother’s Day exactly 100 years ago. Its second level features rows of pews and rows of paintings, illuminating scenes of mothers at their most maternal. Nothing is flashy or overdone here; you could pass the church without noticing the sculpture of a mother holding her two children set back off the street, might pass the spartan gift shop without feeling an urge to pick up a last-minute present. On this centenary Sunday, not even the rain can keep away mothers sporting white celebratory carnations, often accompanied by daughters who are similarly feted, wearing matching white carnations if their mother is still living, red if they have passed on. Governor Joe Manchin III and his wife had made a visit to the morning service at the shrine, as did the Food Network’s “Dinner Impossible” earlier in the week.

I call my mom to wish her a very happy Mother’s Day from the foot of the shrine. I pick up a postcard from the gift shop and am told by a bewildered usher that I can just leave a donation in the jar at the end of the room as payment. Crossing myself—since I know no better sign of respect for the divine mother—I leave the church and am nearly flattened by the Secret Service convoy that has now laid claim to the train depot across the street. In the few minutes I have been inside, banners and red-white-and-blue ruffles have gone up all over the outside of the ornate building, and a terminally giddy black lab has bounded out of the back of an FBI truck to sniff for bombs.

Hillary Clinton is making the trek to Grafton to show respect for mothers (working-class, blue-collar, real salt-of-the-earth, true-blue, must-have-to-win-a-general-election moms) just as I have, though her campaign hopes to leave with more than a postcard.

Semi Locals: I take up residence on a bench immediately across from the depot and watch the might of a crack political advance team at work. I’m two hours early for her speech, and I’m getting a full view of what an ordeal this campaign must be for volunteers, let alone full-time staffers. Sharing the bench with me is a producer for ABC News, and this clearly isn’t his first rodeo. He’s lit up a cigarette and talks technical with three other cameramen. “It’s a baby pool,” he says. “No, two baby pools. Wait. Three? No. Two. There are two baby pools. And Comedy Central is here. I think they’re working off someone else’s feed.” The media army that has followed Clinton for the better part of a year has subsided a bit. Only two “baby” media pools will be providing coverage of the event, and as the weary producer talks, I see only one CNN truck and one local news van at the scene.

Two young Clinton staffers walk by. “Do you think they chose this town because of the Mother’s Day thing?” one asks.

“That would be a good idea,” the other responds, nodding vigorously. “Because it’s Mother’s Day. That might be why they had it here.”

I’d venture to say that might have something to do with it. Grafton is the kind of town where most of the neighborhood cars passing by the train depot, where frantic Secret Service officers implore Security At All Costs, pause to chat with the local police, asking what’s up and calling them all by name.

A semi-local couple soon joins me on the bench and strikes up conversation. “We’re from about twenty minutes away,” the husband says. “We’re not locals.”

They talk about what an exciting week this has been for Grafton and the state as a whole. They ask if I know that it’s the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day. I respond that I did see that joyous fact plastered all over the shrine. They motion to a man walking by wearing a nametag that says "Doug," and ask him how things have been at the shrine. He’s apparently a docent there. He says the shrine is okay and asks me if I’ve heard that it’s the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day. I mention that I have.

Talk turns to the other big event of the week. “The Food Channel was here for their ‘Dinner Impossible’ show, feeding folks in honor of the Mother’s Day festivities. What was the name of that chef…Michael Symon, that’s right. yes. They made food for 500 people out back there for Mother’s Day,” the wife says.

“You were there, weren’t you Doug?” she asks. “How was it?”

“Not my style,” he says.

My new friends are forced to an early exit by the rain, which has gone from a slight mist to an outright downpour. The streets start to flood just as the Secret Service begins to let people line up to enter the depot for Clinton’s speech, scheduled to begin in a little over an hour. No one will be admitted without a “ticket,” the advance staffers say, handing each one of us a sheet asking for our name, address, phone number, e-mail address and when we might be available to attend a rally or volunteer. We form a line to the left of the depot as the rain is joined by powerful thunder and lightning. The water is coming down at such a rate that the Hillary hucksters—selling everything from T-shirts to buttons to sweatshirts and hats—are forced to curtail their relentless optimism due to sopping products. It rains so hard that the gel in the nearest Secret Service officer’s well-manicured hair forms cloudy and firm droplets.. The agent, turning to the local cop beside him, attempts some interdepartmental conversation. “So, is this the town hall or something?” he asks, jerking his thumb back towards the train depot.

The line, meanwhile, moves geriatrically. The elderly and disabled are being fast-tracked to the front of the queue, a fact not lost on the teenagers behind me. “Hey Mom, why didn’t you bring your wheelchair?” they ask their life-giver. “Mom, you’re old AND disabled. Hey! She’s old and disabled, here! Old and disabled! She needs the front of the line!” Mom, on her special day, is not amused, and despite her children’s protestations, they are not moved beyond me to the front. But plenty of others are. I remain unconcerned until the seventeen-year-old with a Hillary pin on his lapel, who seems to be running this whole operation, starts whispering and gesturing to fellow staffers who quickly segment the crowd, gauging numbers and available space. The room is starting to fill up. I plod forward, finally reaching the doorway to the warm inside, and am asked to relinquish my ticket and umbrella. As I hand over both, a Secret Service man shouts, “We’re all full up now!” and I am summarily spun on my heels and told to try the overflow area across the street where I can watch the speech on television.

“May I at least have my umbrella back?” I ask, standing with my plaintive palms turned skyward, collecting rain. They eventually oblige, and I vow that there will be no waiting in the rain to get into the overflow area for me. I leave the surging, drowning crowd and seek refuge at the Capri Pizza Parlor.

Clean Jokes: Inside, there are only four other patrons, all of whom are fixated on each passing car in the street. When I open the jangle-belled door, their eyes pop towards me, and when they are convinced I am not wearing a brightly colored pantsuit, they go back to their roving, relentless quest.

The pizza is good and cheap. The owner recites the price in a wonderful way, “That will be nine dollars and sixty-eight cents,” like an old-timey malt shop owner who removes all doubt as to the total amount. When I ask for parmesan cheese to spread over the top, however, I am met with pursed lips. “We don’t have that,” he clips, layering a tone of reproach as though I have just asked for arugula and Thai peanut sauce. “We have hot peppers,” he offers.

I pick a table near the windows that also provides a prime listening post for the quartet of eager-eyed pundits to my right. The woman has bleached blonde hair and deep purplish-pink nail polish. She slugs a Bud Lite from a can. She seems to know the man to her left, a goateed fellow with a tweed sportcoat. One man with his back to me gets up and leaves suddenly, allowing full access to the analysis of the fourth member, who wears a Grafton Fire Department shirt with thick glasses and a baseball hat.

As I dig in to the pizza, a white limousine -- circa 1984 with the white boomerang antenna on the trunk -- drives by, heading in the opposite direction of the train depot. “There goes a limo!” shouts Nail Polish. “Is that Hillary? She’s going the wrong way!”

“Come back!” roars Fire Department. Goatee says nothing but goes outside to look. He comes back in a moment later. Then he leaves and stands in the doorway. Then he sits. Then he returns to the doorway and paces back and forth until a pudgy woman with a fisherman’s hat stuck full of Hillary pins pushes him aside. She marches up to the owner of the restaurant.

“I’ll have a coffee, please. It’s freezing out there. I’m a volunteer for Hillary,” she says.

“Sorry m’am. We don’t have coffee,” the owner replies.

“No coffee? What? What’d you have that’s hot?”

“M’am, we only sell soda and beer.”

“I never drink beer,” the Volunteer says indignantly. “I’m a volunteer for Hillary. Where’s your bathroom?”

Nail Polish has helped herself to another Bud Lite. Goatee is prowling the sidewalk, impervious to the rain. Fire Department is standing at the window, watching one of the Hillary hucksters desperately try to hide his wares from the downpour. The huckster has consolidated all of his gear into four little piles and continually reassesses his sale prices as the weather and the mood of those still standing in line for the overflow seating worsens. Fire Department turns back to me and smiles.

“One time, this woman was selling, you know, those personalized T-shirts at the fair. The whole thing went down the hill and we had to go chasing after it. She lost about $5,000 worth of stuff,” he says.

“Wow.” I say, feeling the eyes of all in the parlor on me and thinking desperately of what I can add to the story. “Well, obviously, that man’s not on a hill,” I say of the huckster. “Er, though he does have those T-shirts perched right over the middle of that stream in the gutter. He’ll lose all of them to the flood if he’s not careful.” I pull my right leg from underneath the table to show where I’d previously stepped off the curb in my haste to join the line for Hillary’s speech, only to step knee-deep in a swirling puddle. The assembled cluck their condolences and nod sympathetically.

“Does anyone know any good, clean political jokes?” The Volunteer emerges from the bathroom, ignorant of the gravity of the stories unfolding.

“Not in this place, hon,” Nail Polish says, under her breath. I smile at her, she returns the look, and I clear my throat to try my best clean political joke.

“I’ve got one,” I shout across the room to the Volunteer. She brightens. “Okay. So a 71-year-old, a black man and a woman are running for president in America,” I say. And pause.

Nail Polish laughs. Fire Department claps, but I think he’s still looking out the window at a worm that’d gotten caught in a storm drain. The Volunteer squints.

“Wait. That’s it? A 71-year-old what? What’s the joke?” She stares me down, then shakes off the befuddlement. “Now Obama/Osama. I bet that’s a common joke. Obama. Osama. Obama.”

I am saved from any sort of response by a cheer rising in the street. A convoy of police cruisers, SUVs and tour busses crawls by. “It’s Hillary!” Fire Department yells.

I duck out the door to catch the sight of a beige SUV coasting down the road and a mustard-yellow arm waving out from behind the glass on the passenger side. The cheer of the faithful along the route quickly subsides, townies walk back into their stores and I am left wondering if three hours in the rain has been worth it. Democracy, they say, ain’t easy.

Precariously close to calling it a day and beginning the long slog back to Washington, as I stand pensively on the sidewalk I am nearly knocked over by a woman, her daughter, and a loud cell-phone conversation.

“Yeah, I’m downtown,” the mother says, her West Virginia drawl heavier than any I’ve yet encountered. “Downtown. Downtown, I said. I’m watching Hillary. Yeah, I got it. Okay.”

She snaps the phone closed and looks down at her daughter. “We need to take a picture of all the police cars for Timmy. Just look at all the police cars.”

There are four police cars.

What Does That Spell? PRESIDENT: Bolstered by the knowledge that there is still a story here about the electorate, if not the actual candidate herself, I stop my retreat to the car and head up the hill near the Mother’s Day Shrine that overlooks the depot. Here, amidst the gathering crowd of locals and, no doubt, a few semi-locals, I wander in and out of conversations.

Near the park bench, the county commissioner -- up for re-election this year, according to the pin on his lapel -- is deep in discussion with a constituent over water rights. Apparently his goddamn neighbor was stealing something that sure as hell wasn’t rightly his. During the man’s long harangue, the commissioner’s eyes, darting back and forth between a man whose ballot would decide his public-office future and the showstopping Clinton campaign whose coattails he hopes to ride in two days time, tell the story of local politics in America.

An older, bearded man who looks like Donald Sutherland if he started teaching at a community college, is talking demographics as he distributes fliers for his business offering tours of the surrounding area. He laughs with a couple about the “good people” in this area, noting that “no hippies need apply.”

As I move to the front, a spark of activity from Clinton’s campaign staff sends a ripple through the crowd. It seems like she’s going to work the rope line, soldiering on for a meet-and-greet despite the rain. Two senior staffers walk over to the front line of observers. “Does anyone own a pickup truck?” one asks.

“Yeah, I know where one is,” a young blonde woman behind me responds.

“Can we borrow it? You can drive it.”

After a short conversation on the blonde’s cell phone, in which the owner of the truck (seemingly her boyfriend) asks why they need his car and she responds, “Hillary Clinton needs it,” a red pickup pulls around the corner and stops in front of the depot. It seems the campaign is eager to use the flatbed of the vehicle as a platform for the assembled journalists. It’s a stunning moment of realization for me: both that the Clinton advisors would commission a truck out of the crowd, and that the media contingent is so small that they all might fit up on the back. Though the truck idea is eventually abandoned, the sight of whiz-kid political advisors and ultraserious Secret Service officers all miming the universal turn-the-wheel-this-way action to help the woman guide her truck in reverse is a righteous sight that will never make an evening election wrap-up.

As the minutes pass with no sight of the candidate, I zip up my jacket a little tighter against the Tygart Valley wind. I suddenly remember the remarks of the ABC news producer I’d shared a bench with so many hours ago talking about Comedy Central being in attendance when I spy correspondent Jason Jones of The Daily Show walking by. I do not notice him by his face, per se, but rather because his face shows the telltale signs of makeup. There aren’t many men wearing makeup in West Virginia.

I follow him up to the very top of the hill overlooking the depot as he discusses shots with his camera crew. Another journalist approaches and he greets her by name. She proceeds to talk shop with him about the Pennsylvania primary and the never-ending march of the campaign. Their conversation is derailed by chants below of “Give me an H! Give me an I! Give me an L! Give me another L! Give me an A! Give me an R! Give me a Y! What does that spell? PRESIDENT!” and “North, South, East, West, Vote for Hillary She’s the Best!” and “H-I-L-L-A-R-Y, HRC She Works For Me!”

Jones breathes a heavy sigh. “Here come the orchestrated chants,” he tells his fellow journalist.

“No ‘homemade’ signs this time?” she asks.

“They’re only up in front,” he says. “She’s folksy and in touch with the regular people. That’s what the signs say.”

These two have been around the campaign for a while and are used to the tricks of the trade. As I watch, older women hand out roses “from Hillary and Chelsea” for the mothers in the crowd while staffers make a frantic last-minute effort to ensure that everyone who might be seen on camera is wearing a Hillary sticker or button. I’m handed a free white cap saying “Clean Coal” on the front and americaspower.org on the back (the hats, I learn, are courtesy of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group combining the Center for Energy and Economic Development and Americans for Balanced Energy Choices which, the Washington Post reports, are waging a $35 million campaign in primary and caucus states in response to rising campaign promises to curb global warming). A gigantic homemade sign saying “Happy Mother’s Day Hillary” from “West Virginia Moms For Hillary” is placed strategically in the first row next to the media. Three older women lead most of the cheers, and by the time Senator Clinton makes her appearance in full mustard yellow-overcoated glory, the crowd is in a gleeful, ebullient state. A young girl next to me tugs on her father’s coat and asks, “Is that her down there? Is that the President?”

As Clinton shakes hands (mine included), signs autographs and shouts reminders to vote, I commiserate as much as any mere citizen can with the gravity of her predicament. Here in Grafton and in cities big and small around the country, she is hailed as the savior-in-chief. Calls from supporters to “never give up!” and “keep on fighting” mix with the half-true, half-hyperbolic anecdotes of young girls believing Hillary can shatter the greatest glass ceiling and older women cherishing this vote as the only one that has really mattered in their lifetimes. Though Clinton has misstepped in recent days by saying she is the sole voice of the hard-working white folks of America, suggesting racial and class divides that could permanently damage the Democratic party, there is a strong sentiment amongst her supporters (many of whom are indeed white and tend towards lower income levels) that she is their last, best hope for representation in a country that has turned its back on them. The scuttlebutt within her inner circles is that conversations about the end game have begun in earnest: how might the first viable female candidate for president in the history of this country, who was once the de facto nominee, step aside? Should she rack up big victories in friendly electorates like West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico before ending on a high note? Should she start to actively position herself as Obama’s only choice for vice-president? And what of Florida and Michigan? Will she take her fight to the convention floor, or will she take to the convention floor on Obama’s ticket?

In Grafton, in the shadow of the Mother’s Day Shrine, the best and worst of Clinton’s remarkable campaign are on display. She is outwardly convivial, engaging and warm, working the crowd like a seasoned pro and playing to a proud sense of working-class identity. Her staff is professional and competent, her supporters, drenched and cold, remain loyal and eager to vote. They know the odds have now swung against them, but many in the audience here understand what it is like to be the underdog and love Clinton all the more for her struggles. Clinton may win the state by 30 or even 40 points, but her appeal runs even deeper than that.

Yet apparent, too. is the overt politicality of her swing through town. Signs, flowers and chants are carefully orchestrated, her staffers and supporters alike don’t miss a beat when asked why they are voting for her. “She represents safety and stability in an increasingly dangerous world,” one intones directly from the campaign playbook. “She’s a fighter, just like Rocky!” another proclaims. When asked when Clinton will make her way over to shake hands, a senior staffer replies that if it were his choice, she’d be right here right now standing next to him, only to immediately correct himself. “Right next to me in the White House,” he adds.

There is an overwhelming sense that everyone in downtown Grafton has their own role to play in this scene—supporters stand here and say this, volunteers distribute this and remind people of that, media take pictures of this, Senator Clinton makes reference to that. In a profound way, Hillary Clinton is the modern example of the classic conundrum: She and her husband refined and revolutionized campaigning in the 1990s to such a degree that their tricks of the trade have now become so standard that they seem stale. Suddenly she is fighting an insurgent of powerful means and ability, of purpose and promise. Politics has a cruel way of almost repeating itself.

With a last mustard yellow-armed wave, Clinton is back in her SUV and headed to the next event. She will spend nearly sixteen hours campaigning on Mother’s Day, and Chelsea will be at her side for all of it. On Tuesday, West Virginia will hold its primary, and in the following weeks, the last Americans will have their say on the road to the White House.

The rain, which had slowed to a drizzle, begins to come down in torrents again. Clinton has to know that the flood will eventually come for her, and I can’t help but think she’s making her way to higher ground. Once there, taking in the view that surrounds, her fate rests on the final choice to be made. -- Joe Horton



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