When Real Lives Get Swept Into Campaign Rhetoric

Editor's Note: After this story aired, Hillary Clinton's campaign contacted NPR to say that the campaign did leave a tip. Read the full story.

Geri Punteney and her mother in their home in Oelwein, Iowa

hide captionGeri Punteney and her mother in their home in Oelwein, Iowa. Punteney sought out Barack Obama when he visited her area recently.

David Greene, NPR
HIllary Clinton during a recent stop at the Maid-Rite diner in Iowa i i

hide captionHillary Clinton at a Maid-Rite restaurant during a recent bus tour of Iowa. That is where she met Anita Esterday, who was starting her first day as a waitress there. Esterday says Clinton's presence and questions took her completely by surprise.

Source: Hillary Clinton for President
HIllary Clinton during a recent stop at the Maid-Rite diner in Iowa

Hillary Clinton at a Maid-Rite restaurant during a recent bus tour of Iowa. That is where she met Anita Esterday, who was starting her first day as a waitress there. Esterday says Clinton's presence and questions took her completely by surprise.

Source: Hillary Clinton for President

Covering a presidential campaign can feel like this: Stop in one town, watch a candidate talk and shake a few hands, then move along to the town up the road.

There went Toledo, Iowa.

So that was Independence, Iowa?

The crowd back in Cedar Rapids sure was big.

It can be easy to see these scenes as photographs passed in a gallery or a set of props neatly arranged for a candidate to make a pitch.

The reality is, these scenes are full of people with a story to tell — not only of whom they may vote for, but of what drew them to a political event or how a candidate may have touched them in a fleeting conversation.

On a recent trip to Iowa, I came across two women who clearly had stories to tell. One had a chance encounter with Hillary Clinton. The other sought out Barack Obama.

A Chance Encounter with Clinton

I followed Clinton during a recent bus tour across Iowa, when she and her entourage pulled into a Maid-Rite, a greasy spoon famous for its loose-meat sandwich. Clinton settled into a red stool at the counter, ate a sandwich, chatted with her waitress and then was on her way.

The scene gave Clinton perfect fodder for her next few stump speeches. It turns out her waitress was a single, working mom — just the kind of voter Democrats are courting aggressively this year.

Clinton recalled the meeting for an audience up the road in Boone. "The woman waiting on us — it was her first day," she said, adding, "She was a little nervous. Single mom, raised two boys, works at a nursing home and always has a second job."

If she's elected president, Clinton promised, people like her waitress will have it better.

The way Clinton eased the waitress into her rhetoric is something repeated day after day, by all the campaigns. But in the process, people like the waitress don't always have their stories told.

'Nobody Got Left a Tip'

"I wished I would have been asked first," the waitress, Anita Esterday, said of Clinton's decision to insert her in a speech. "I wish she would have asked if she could talk about me later. I didn't like it when someone called me up and said Hillary Clinton is talking about you. It's like, what'd I do now? What's she saying?"

When I returned to the Maid-Rite a few weeks later, Esterday said the senator had caught her off guard. But once they got talking, she was honest with Clinton about her need to work two to three jobs.

"I've been doing it all my life. Why should it change now that I'm old," Esterday said.

Esterday does not think Clinton got it. "I don't think she understood at all what I was saying," Esterday said. "I mean, nobody got left a tip that day."

Clinton may have decided not to tip. She was also never given a bill — her meal was on the house. Still, Esterday said Clinton might have left her something: "Maybe they don't carry money. I don't know."

The visit hurt Esterday in another way. The local paper ran photos of her with Clinton. She said her supervisor at the nursing home isn't a big Hillary Clinton fan and she thinks that may be related to why her hours were almost totally cut.

Now, Esterday is looking for a different second job. However, she said she's not upset that Clinton visited the restaurant.

"I got my 15 minutes of fame out of the world," Esterday said. "There you go. I got her autograph. That's something I'll treasure forever."

But as far as the attention she's received? "It hasn't helped me. It's made things worse."

Still, Esterday doesn't blame Clinton; she says she may even vote for the former first lady. She's also considering voting for Barack Obama.

Seeking Out Obama

Obama, in fact, passed through Iowa around the same time as Clinton. At an event in Independence, he asked if anyone had questions. A woman in the front row named Geri Punteney stood up. She said her brother was dying of cancer. When Punteney began to sob, Obama walked over to comfort her.

"I know what this feels like," Obama said.

Punteney recalled how her brother, who has stage 3 lymphoma and leukemia, had to work to keep his health insurance. Obama sympathized with the unfairness of the situation. All Americans, he said, should have access to health insurance — something he said he's committed to doing as president.

"Tell your brother we're thinking of him," Obama said. "Maybe I'll write him a note before you leave today."

Esterday's encounter with Clinton was by chance; Punteney's with Obama, by choice. Yet both women considered these moments — which observers may have dismissed as simply part of a busy campaign day — to be complex and meaningful.

'He Just Seemed Sincere'

Punteney has faced much tragedy. One of her brothers was burned as a boy in a Fourth of July fireworks accident and later died. Her other brother, as she told Obama, has late-stage cancer. Her father died recently. Her mother has not been well. Punteney said she cries a lot.

A few weeks ago, at the home in Oelwein, Iowa, she shares with her mother, Punteney said she'd been inspired to see Obama when he came to the area.

"I'd seen the commercials," she said. "And he just seemed sincere, like he's for people like my mom, my brother and me."

Many people feel politicians may not be the first place to turn when in dire need of help. But Punteney said she was confident Obama could do something to make her feel better.

"I never had anyone pay attention to me and my needs — and he held my hand," she said.

I brought a tape recorder to Punteney's house and played her moment with Obama back for her — and his suggestion that he'd write her brother a note. He never did.

"He didn't have time, I guess," she said. "I understand. You know, he was bombarded by so many people. But just knowing he knows — that's more important than a note."

Indeed, Punteney seemed to get just what she wanted from Obama. She got noticed.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: