This Way to the White House
Out here in the Midwest, I got friendly with a local (now former) Congressman (David Minge - Democrat of Minnesota's Second District) and he got me invited to a very interesting conference hosted by President Clinton. I am rarely impressed by big names in the news but to spend an entire day (as part of an intimate group of, oh, 300 or so) with the President of the United States is pretty special. This piece appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 7, 1995.
IN THE PRESENCE OF POWER Reflections on the National Rural Conference
by Marty Gallanter
On my left sat an attorney for a utility who described himself as "a Clinton fan." On the aisle, was a retired farmer who addressed all the state officials by their first-name and said he was "life-long Republican." On my right was a woman, an artist, who was active in rural cultural organizations. And then there was me.
Until November, 1993, I lived in New York and worked close enough to the World Trade Center that I heard the bomb go off. Now I reside in Tyler, MN (pop. 1257) and spend most of my time assembling grant applications for the Educational Cooperative Service Unit (ECSU) in nearby Marshall, working with local economic development agencies, writing newspaper and magazine articles, and the occasional novel.
On April 25th, I found myself in Ames, Iowa... along with the attorney, the retired farmer, the artist and 300 others from rural America... participating in a seven hour-long dialogue with the President and Vice-President of the United States and the Secretary of Agriculture. This was the "National Rural Conference" held, appropriately, in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union at Iowa State University.
To be in the presence of the President and the Vice President of the United States... to watch closely as they interact with each other... to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with them is pretty impressive stuff for the average American. Most of the time, these are the unreal people who belong inside our television set, like a movie star or a national newscaster. I expect Bill Clinton to have a serious discussion with Dan Rather. I don't expect him to have one with me.
But on this day, no matter what opinion of Bill Clinton and Al Gore one carried into that room, an average individual couldn't help but be impressed. I expected the President to open the conference and leave. He didn't. He chaired it personally for over five hours and when his voice began to fade, the Vice-President took over.
The huge briefing books set down by the aides for the President and Vice-President were never opened. Both men carried on extensive and complex discussions supported entirely by the knowledge they carried in their heads. They spoke with farmers about commodity support prices, with hospital administrators about rural health care issues, with school superintendents about education, and with everyone about the thus unfulfilled dreams promised by technology. A person could begin to think that if these men had put forth so much effort to learn about these issues, maybe... just maybe, they really did care.
One advantage of spending so much time in the presence of fame is that eventually the aura begins to fade. After about an hour they started to become people, not national leaders, and I began to focus away from them and onto the other people in the room whom, I discovered, were literally discussing life and death issues for rural America. I became intensely interested. I realized these people were talking about the very survival of the way of life I had chosen after living for more than 48 years in and around New York City.
What became immediately apparent to this newcomer was the similarity of concern, no matter what regional accent was used by the speaker. From Georgia, Mississippi, rural California, Colorado and the Dakotas came anxiety about preserving family farms, delivering heath care, providing transportation for the elderly, and maintaining a "critical mass" of population so small towns could survive. From Ohio, Minnesota, Wyoming, Texas, and Florida were voices that spoke toward equal access to technology, reaching export markets, assistance with local economic development, and help to build and maintain regional infrastructure.
I couldn't tell Republicans from Democrats... Clinton fans from Clinton foes. None of that mattered. Strangely enough, my personal focus began to center on when the President picked up his pen. He did so whenever someone... anyone... offered a aggressive or innovative idea, or when a speaker related a tale of local success. When a participant stood to tell the administration that this budget item or that program should not be cut, the President looked sympathetic, but the pen remained resting on the table.
By the time the conference was winding down, I found myself thinking of my long-gone, Eastern-European Grandmother who escaped the persecution of her native land by coming to America. In this new land, she chose to live among her "own kind..." white, Jewish, immigrants... and feared those who were different. When her health required that she move into a senior citizens high-rise, I asked her how she felt about living with black and Hispanic people, with the non-jews she had avoided all her life.
"When you get old," she said to me, "there's no black and white anymore, just old."
Maybe those of us in rural American should start to think like my grandmother... not like townies or farmers, Southerners or Midwesterners, fruit growers or grain growers, but as a single people fighting to maintain a way of life important to us and to all of America.
My grandmother made mental peace with her neighbors to gain a measure of joy in her final years. Our truce offers the promise of a future where our children have the option of raising their children in the community where they were raised.
The National Rural Conference did not get the media coverage I thought it deserved. The networks tend to look at rural and middle America only when a tragedy like Oklahoma City strikes. I would have liked more people to have heard President Clinton's closing remarks.
"What works is practical commitment to partnerships and to solving problems each as they come up, --- and to developing the capacities of people, to dealing with the options that are there --- and to going forward."
Sounds good to me. The gathering in the Great Hall at Iowa State might have been the first meeting of a new rural coalition, one that rejects regional parochialism in favor of common human issues. Our partners are all over America and it is time we started getting together more often.
The Clinton-Gore Campaign took an interest in this page and arranged a link to the 96 Campaign Home page. But the link expired when the site was shut down after the election. By the way, I'm not the only Gallanter to have shaken the hand of President Clinton. Check out "Our Daughter the Doctor"
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