By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
LATE ONE Monday morning several weeks ago in a small-town diner in central Pennsylvania, I looked up from my paper to see that I was the last customer at the counter. Just the one waitress, the coffee pot and me.
Filling the silence, I asked for a refill. Then I asked for her thoughts on the upcoming titanic battle in which she and her fellow Pennsylvanians would get to choose the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
She didn’t have any. Yeah, she knew there was something like that going on, and that some people were really excited, but she had made no effort to follow it. She wasn’t dismissive, and she was willing to hear me talk about it, but to her it was neither here nor there. Some customers want coffee. Others don’t. Some want to talk politics. Whatever.
This was disconcerting. I looked around the way you do when you’re thinking, somebody back me up here. But it was just her and me. And there was something about the moment — she was so matter-of-fact — that made me feel like I was the one who had to explain himself.
So I did, at some length. I even confessed that I actually made my living caring about elections and such, thinking and talking and writing about them, which as I said it sounded ludicrous. She just nodded. Some collect stamps; others watch birds. This guy’s into politics. Whatever.
She even encouraged me, in a noncommittal way. She asked who was still in it. I explained that John McCain had sewn up the Republican nomination, and that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a tight battle on the Democratic side — one primary going to her, the next to him, back and forth, the suspense building. I told her how folks had come out in huge numbers in South Carolina to support Obama.
So who will win? she asked, and I said the smart money at that point was on Obama, with more and more Democrats deciding they couldn’t support Hillary.
She asked: “Why? Because she’s a woman?”
The question wasn’t a challenge; there was no feminist defiance in it. She was just asking, the way you might ask, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
Certainly not, I told her, and tried to explain about the Obama Appeal, about Hope and Change (capitalizing the key words with my voice), and how Sen. Clinton tended to appeal to folks who actually relished the partisan fight between left and right, and that many Democrats, and independents who had voted in Democratic primaries where (unlike Pennsylvania) that was allowed, were tired of the Bad Old Politics, so Obama was really catching on.
There were, however, certain demographic tendencies to be noted, I said. For instance, quite a few white women over the age of 30 (realizing that I had just described the woman in front of me, I started talking faster to put that part behind us) did seem to support her because she was a woman, but the men and minorities and young people and women who favored Obama were, if they were turned off by Clinton, reacting more to the sort of campaign she had run….
She nodded, and when I paused to take a breath, told me that the woman who owned the diner, and another waitress who wasn’t on duty that morning, were both Hillary supporters. Apparently, I had described them pretty well. Deciding I should quit while I was ahead, I paid my check, making sure to tip at least 20 percent, and headed back out into the cold March wind.
And I thought about that woman, and how very normal she had been. She was no silly, apathetic fool, the sort that the passionately committed declare that Democracy Is Wasted Upon. She was intelligent — at least average, if not more than. She was sensible, and perfectly willing to care about things that should be cared about. She was earning a living; she was doing what needed to be done, and not wasting energy on anything that didn’t.
Since that day, she has come to represent The Pennsylvania Voter in my mind. Down here in South Carolina we knocked ourselves out trying to make a difference, and we did — giving Sen. McCain the payback he had waited eight years for, giving Sen. Obama a big push forward.
But it’s not over yet on the Democratic side, and it’s within the power of Pennsylvanians to make the final decision, and after the mad pace of having a high-stakes primary about every five minutes from the first of January through early March, nothing has happened for weeks and weeks while we all wait for Pennsylvania to do something, and the latest polls say it’s still a dead heat. Zogby reported Thursday that 45 percent were still for Clinton, 44 percent for Obama, 9 percent undecided, and 3 percent wanted someone else.
Tied? Undecided? Someone else? They still haven’t decided up there! It’s like they haven’t been paying attention.
The candidates haven’t helped much, what with Sen. Clinton making up Bosnia war stories (there I was, pinned down…) and Sen. Obama going all cold and detached (religion is the opium of the people…), to the point that you can see how a sensible person might be turned off.
But I find I want to drive back up there before Tuesday, and go back into that diner, and convince that sensible woman that these are solid candidates, that one of them is likely to become president, that the rest of us took them seriously, so won’t you please just bear with us long enough to go out and vote, and settle this thing for the sake of the country?
And then, once you do, we can all take a load off, order another cup of coffee, and think about something else until Labor Day.
By BRAD WARTHEN