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Marjorie Cortez: What qualifies Obama to define rural America?

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This one is for all of my "bitter" friends and family in small-town America.

That's how Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama described you during a recent hoity-toity fundraiser among the wine-and-cheese set in San Francisco.

It was a private function (is there such a thing in this era of technology for presidential candidates?) so he probably let his guard down a bit as he talked about life in small towns in Pennsylvania and a lot of small towns in the Midwest. "The jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," according to an audio recording posted at www.huffingtonpost.com.

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Where do you start with a statement like that?

Sen. Hillary Clinton pounced on it, trying to make as much political hay as possible from this rare Obama gaffe. Now she's talking about shooting guns with her father and duck hunting in Arkansas. What's next? Producing an NRA card?

Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, said Obama's comments show "an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

For that matter, are any of the presidential candidates in touch with small-town America? I very much doubt it. They're city people. They each reside in the Washington, D.C., area. And they're urban types who can do math well enough to know that the general election will be won in densely populated urban areas, not small-town America.

So why try to define rural America, let alone as "bitter"?

Sorry, Sen. Obama. When I think of rural America, like the small towns where I lived as a child, I don't think of people as bitter. I tend to think of them as pragmatic, at worst, a little cynical.

When you grow up in a place most people would consider in the middle of nowhere, you develop a sense of self-reliance. Even if there is a government program to maintain roads or provide child-care subsidies to working single mothers, chances are those funds aren't going to be allocated to your hometown. You learn to dodge the potholes and finagle no- or low-cost child care from relatives or friends.

Does it make you bitter that your tax dollars all seem to flow in one direction? "Bitter" isn't the word I'd use. It's more a matter of low expectations. You're pleasantly surprised when your little town receives a government grant or money is apportioned from the state highway fund to fill those potholes or, if you're lucky, replace a bridge.

As for clinging to guns, much of that is tradition. When you live in the middle of nowhere and it takes law enforcement 30 minutes to respond to a call for help, you're left to fend for yourself. But in a culture where guns are considered tools, it's not as though people in small towns are carrying out the shootout at the OK Corral.

Mass shootings are not the stuff of rural America. For the most part they happen in the suburbs and large cities, where I'd argue that many people's sensibility about firing guns has more to do with motion pictures and video games. In small towns, it is clearly understood that firearms are lethal instruments that need to be treated with utmost respect.

Clinging to religion as an antidote to bitterness? That seems a strange observation from someone who has vehemently defended the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The little I've heard of the Rev. Wright's sermons, I'd hesitate to describe them as uplifting. Regardless of one's social strata, clinging to religion hardly seems a bad thing to me.

Yes, I suppose it's easy enough to blame NAFTA or illegal immigration on economic downturns in small towns, but most people can point to a significant event that changed economic conditions in their hometown, whether it was a factory closure, a freak weather event or, as was the case in my hometown, the overnight drop in oil prices that resulted in the oil shale bust.

No question, living in the middle of nowhere, seemingly out of reach from the "trickle down economy" can make a person a bit cynical. Most small-town people I know aren't cynical or bitter, though. They haven't got time to be. They're busy scratching out a living, raising their families and attending to their aging elders, much like city dwellers I know.

Marjorie Cortez, who listened to the entire video file of Obama's talk at the private party and nearly snoozed off, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com