2009-10-01 / Local & State

Searching For The ‘Real’ America


PITTSBURGH (AP) – The guy who runs the planet’s latest G-20 summit city made an illuminating remark as he welcomed the world to his front door.

“Let’s keep in mind why we were chosen,’’ Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said this past week. “The president of the United States picked Pittsburgh because of the fact that our story is real.’’

And there it was again, a sliver of the powerful energy force that politicians are hungry to harness, that forever pops up in the national discourse: the ability to summon, for strategic purposes, the notion of a “real America.’’

To Sarah Palin last year, the small-town South felt more “real’’ than other places. For John McCain, it was Iowa, among other places. Barack Obama has rejected the term, but his version of America was laid out for scrutiny at the Group of 20 summit: a community that can remake itself for the new economy without forgetting where it came from.

For more than two centuries, U.S. politicians have pursued a piece of “real America’’ – the power to cast the country in their own images, to commandeer the national story of what the country was, is and should be.

Attempts to define “real America’’ from either side of the political divide can be perilous. There’s the risk of annoying those who are told that they are somehow less real than their fellow citizens.

In Pittsburgh’s case, you heard it everywhere last week. The White House called it “a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation ... a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work.’’

From visitors, national news anchors and locals alike came varying synonyms all pointed to the same thing. Pittsburgh is the “edge of the heartland.’’ The “town of reinvention.’’ The “cradle of industry remade.’’ And the always evocative “buckle of the country’s rust belt.’’

“All of the things that our nation is attempting to promote, Pittsburgh seems to stand for – without all the glitz of big-money Wall Street,’’ says Gerald Shuster, a political communication expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

Some of it represented pragmatism. The Democrats want to keep Pennsylvania Democratic in 2012, and a global summit can’t hurt. Pittsburgh also had the logistical virtue of not being too far from major East Coast airports.

Nevertheless, the region also summons the duality of the American narrative – rural values and the urban might that built a country and then, after its economy was knocked down in the 1980s, turned to 21st-century pursuits such as high-tech, green initiatives and health care.

That story line also manages, conveniently, to include the elevation of the blue-collar underdog and the spirit of getting back on your feet and fighting another day.

The notion of a “real America’’ story line is no surprise, given that the United States was founded upon a story and ideals, rather than centuries of shared history. It’s one big national narrative that has kept the country‘ s disparate constituencies together, so seizing the story line is one of the most politically powerful maneuvers of all.

Thomas Jefferson disliked cities, and his veneration of the farmer became a foundation of early “real America.’’ Andrew Jackson laid out his version of “real America’’ in the 1820s, when his early populism rejected the effete Founding Fathers for a more frontiersman-like democracy not unlike that Palin has espoused.

Most presidents of the past 50 years have presented their takes on what America is and should be. The tradition-laden optimism of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America’’ was a foundational principle of the GOP’s enduring family-values platform. The trick is to make sure your narrative supersedes others. That’s no easy task in a melting-pot nation where uncounted narratives are vying for center stage.

“It’s obviously an effort in simplification. It’s not surprising – if you call one area of the country the real America, there are those who would be offended by that,’’ says Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist who worked in the Clinton administration.

“You’re trying to show off something as a symbol of America. But of course, America is a vastly diverse place,’’ Masket says.

For the G-20, Pittsburgh was served up as an alternative to Washington (where suits are trying to fix the economy) and New York (where other suits broke it in the first place). Pittsburgh has been, for generations, where politicos turn when they need a salt-ofthe earth backdrop against which to ram home their points.

“As you shift from a town that is primarily manual, shifting to a town that is basically in the aftermath of that, the messages, the symbols of Pittsburgh become, strangely enough, half high-tech and medicine ... but then also that lasting figure of the generic steel man who’s working the ore,’’ says Ed Slavishak, a historian at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania who has written about Pittsburgh’s history.

“The idea of using the city as a prop is the perfect way to think about it,’’ he says.

But whether it’s George W. Bush clearing brush on his ranch or John Kerry appearing in front of baled hay in 2004, “real America’’ isn’t going away.

It’s stronger than ever – the ultimate commodity, from Glenn Beck’s 2003 book “The Real America’’ to a tourism consortium called Rocky Mountain International that tries to draw international visitors to, you guessed it, `’the real America.’’

No matter that it does not, cannot exist in a nation of such diversity. It is priceless nonetheless.

Return to top