The Personal Is Not Political

Regular readers know that I grew up in South Dakota. I left my home state at 16, never to return for longer than a summer, partly because it seemed like a place where nothing ever made the news. As you can imagine, my perspective has changed over the years. Still, it’s been fun to see South Dakota in the news as the Democratic primary process has continued long enough for even my home state–last in line–to have its votes counted. I wrote here about Barack Obama’s appearance at a “livestock arena” in my home town of Watertown–a big city by South Dakota standards, where it is hardly necessary to speak in a livestock arena, and where no politician had ever done so prior to Obama.

This week, the focus has been back on South Dakota’s primary, which is tomorrow. Dana Milbank has been covering the action for the Washington Post. Milbank used to be a liberal reporter. Now he has stopped reporting, and the Post pays him to do liberal snark, full time. It’s a great job, I suppose, and Milbank can be a funny writer. Today, he reported from his namesake town of Milbank, South Dakota, which is a suburb, more or less, of Watertown.

Milbank’s report from Milbank was typically snarky. He covered Bill Clinton’s appearance there, and wrote that the fact that “he was talking to Milbank at all…was a measure of the diminished circumstances of his wife’s campaign.” Milbank explained that Milbank is “too small and too Republican to be of much electoral use.”

Well, maybe. Some, however, would say that it is a small town, but there are those who love it. Like, for example, Merlin Smart:

“I’ve been disappointed,” Merlin Smart, at the Clinton rally in Milbank, said of the former president’s “too much” antics on the campaign trail. “It hasn’t helped Hillary at all, and it brought him down to normal status rather than superstar status.” Smart, a Milbank man, was wearing a Clinton sticker, but he confides, “I personally am going to vote for Obama.”

Merlin thus betrays the kind of nuanced thinking that is too much for us Republicans. But I don’t hold it against him; I knew Merlin back in the 1960s when he was a couple of years behind me in high school. He had an identical twin named Marlin. I have no idea whether Marlin is a “Milbank man” or not. They called each other “Mer” and “Mar” and both wore pocket protectors and carried slide rules. You could tell them apart only because Merlin had a slightly chipped front tooth. Their father, Miles Smart, taught me physics and mathematics. He was not just a great teacher but a great man. His sons get a pass from me, even if they turned out to be Democrats. Like many others whom I knew growing up, some of whom have played significant roles in tomorrow’s primary.

I gave a talk a few years ago at the Watertown Rotary club, to which my father has belonged for more than fifty years, and my older brother for several decades. I was struck by the fact that some of what I had to say about politics on the internet was weirdly out of place. Looking around the room, I saw several old friends who were Democrats. I struggled to explain why Republicans and Democrats on the web despise each other so much, while Republicans and Democrats who get together for lunch in a place like Watertown, South Dakota consider themselves friends first and members of a political party second. Or maybe twelfth or thirteenth.

The national press caravan will move on tomorrow from Milbank and other towns in South Dakota, and the reporters probably won’t have learned anything from their few days there. That’s too bad, maybe. I’ve learned a lot from South Dakota since I left at age 16. They might have learned a few things too. Politics is important, but it isn’t everything. Not even close.

PAUL adds: Bethesda, Maryland could learn a lot from Watertown, South Dakota. Unfortunately, I’m one of the few Bethesda residents to have been in Watertown or even to know it exists.

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