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In Search of the Elusive PUMAs | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

In Search of the Elusive PUMAs

Monday, August 25

Good Omen: the people sitting in front of me on the plane read The Nation! Anna and Russ from Washington DC are coming to the convention as tourists. Apparently a lot of people are doing this. Who knew? Anna and Russ are huge Obama fans, and (like everyone I will meet today) are confident he will win in November. For extra fun they've brought along their two year old, Juliet. Brave souls. "What do you say about George Bush?" says Anna, using her singsong mommy voice. "Do you remember what we call George Bush?" I imagine it's something not too favorable, but Juliet, who has clearly already begun her life in politics, just gives a diplomatic smile.

You're not supposed to write about interviewing cabbies, which is too bad because the extremely good-looking and cheerful Somali driver who takes me into downtown Denver has a lot of interesting things to say about American intervention in Africa that I'll just keep to myself. But I have to report that, like most of the taxi drivers I've met in the last year, he's for Obama. "America used to be admired all over the world. It's fixable! If foreign policy changes, America is America again." Put that way, it sounds so simple. "If he loses, it's because of race. When people say 'we don't know who he is' -- that's race. When people say, 'he's really a Muslim' -- that's race. He went to a Christian church for twenty years, but he's really a Muslim? What kind of a Muslim is that?" Not for the first time, I'm struck by how many ordinary people not only have as much political acumen as most pundits, but have learned to talk like them too. Why can't this driver go on TV, and Chris Matthews drive a cab?

While waiting to check in at the Comfort Inn, I look around for possible interviews. "Are you a delegate?' I ask a well-padded, carefully-casually-dressed man who is visibly suppressing his annoyance at the slowness of the check-in process. He smiles at my naivete. "Major Donor." While trying to fathom the mindset of someone who would describe himself this way--donor, ok, but major donor? Isn't that a little vain?--I latch on to Jeffrey and Brian, who look to be in their late forties, and tag along with them to the Convention Center for the Gay Caucus meeting, already well under way. Like many gays, they were Hillary supporters from way back; Jeffrey describes them carefully as "warming up " to Obama. What are their issues? "The economy," says Brian instantly. "The war." What about gay marriage? No! they say practically in unison. "Civil union is fine -- it's the benefits that matter," says Brian. I guess he doesn't read Andrew Sullivan. "There are a lot of other issues that matter more," adds Jeffrey. Such as? "Anti-discrimination laws, hate crime laws, Don't Ask Don't Tell."

The gay caucus is held in a large brightly lit underground room. It's well attended; the audience looks youngish, hip, attractive. A long row of credentialed journalists and bloggers are arranged at a prominently placed table, where they type furiously on laptops as a series of upbeat, energetic speakers culminating in charming, dynamic Rep. Tammy Baldwin -- take the podium.

How different is the rural caucus, held next door. Attendance is sparse; there's lots of polyester; no table of bloggers. In fact, there's only one other journalist here, a writer for the Dallas Morning News. As I come in, An older gentleman with an unfortunately soft and monotonous voice is going through a long list of McCain's bad votes on issues affecting farms and farmers (in this room, ethanol is good). But the next speaker, Tony Dean of Sportsmen for Obama, is riveting. Dean is short, white-haired, rotund and he has one of the great old radio voices-- rich, warm, genial, friendly--which is not surprising, because he is a radio announcer, formerly of stock-car and Nascar racing, more recently of Dakota Back Roads, a popular and much-honored show about fishing and hunting.

"I used to be a conservative Republican," he begins, and swiftly moves on his support for South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, his father's love of quail hunting and his mother's passion for fishing (every Saturday and Sunday!), and his long and interesting life in radio. I'm not sure where all this is going, but I could listen to him all day. And sure enough, there's a point: "This is the most important election of my lifetime. I'm not sure fish and wildlife can survive eight more years of George Bush." Dean talks about the ongoing destruction of the regulatory system that protects forests and water: "There's a clear connection between fishing and clean water." He talks about the reliance of small rural Dakota towns on the tourist dollars from hunters and fishermen and winds up with global warming: "It's real." Mallards that used to appear in vast numbers in South Dakota by October 1, the day the hunting season starts, now stay in Canada till January.

What a terrific speech! I not only want to vote for Obama more than ever, I want to go fishing too. In South Dakota. While it still has fish.

Next stop: the Equalitea hosted by Feminist Majority, NOW, the National Congress of Black Women and other women's groups. I get here too late for the speeches and tribute to Stephanie Tubbs Jones, but I do get a chance to chat a bit with Kimberle Crenshaw, legal theorist and law professor. Kim's field is affirmative action, and she has lots to say about what's wrong with the currently fashionable argument that race- and gender-based affirmative action should be replaced with preference based on class.

People talk about class when they talk about race, she tells me, but not when they talk about women. "Does class protect women? Did it protect Hillary? You can be a multimillionaire and still suffer the effects of discrimination because you're a woman." Most affirmative action is about government contracts in construction and the like, she goes on, not about getting into college or law school. In the six years since California passed its ban on affirmative action, women and minority-owned businesses have lost 1.4 billion dollars in government contracts. Yet white women voted for the ban, making white women the only demographic that voted against its own interests. Sigh! Read Kim's terrific take down of Ward Connerly in Ms. magazine at www.aapf.org.

I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea-- like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. "What about those PUMAs?" I ask.

"There has to be some reality here," Ellie says exasperatedly. "Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now."

"You'd think none of them ever worked in an office," adds Mavis. "You have to compromise!"

Smeal herself is totally on board with Obama: "This is a progressive, positive ticket." She heaps praise on Biden, whom she has known for years as a friend of feminism, a supporter of women in his own family, and an all-around wonderful person, who is "deeply, deeply against the war."

More later....

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