In Coal County, Obama's Causing Distress
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. A new survey from the Associated Press finds that by a three-to-one margin, most Americans feel more optimistic about the future now that Barack Obama is president. Still, there are millions of Americans who did not vote for the new president. NPR's Howard Berkes spent yesterday in rural Coal County, Oklahoma, where few people did. Here's his report.
HOWARD BERKES: The two big flat-screen TVs went on just before the lunch hour at Esther's Kountry Grill in Coalgate, Oklahoma. Both hang from opposite sides of a wooden high-pitch ceiling and both were tuned to inaugural festivities a thousand miles away. Some diners watched intently as they picked at plates of pork chops and mashed potatoes, and some didn't watch at all. Esther's co-owner Barbara Elkins seemed transfixed by what she called an historic moment.
Ms. BARBARA ELKINS (Co-owner, Esther's Kountry Grill): I am not liberal. I'm very conservative. And I did support John McCain. Still, I wish the best for Mr. Obama.
BERKES: The conservatism Elkins talks about is a Democratic thing. Most people in Coal County have voted Democratic for generations, and they still do in local elections. But abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and other social issues have them voting more and more Republican in presidential races. In fact, since 2004, the Republican presidential vote jumped 20 percent here. That puzzles David Holt, the fire chief in Coalgate, who is also one of the county's very few African-Americans.
Mr. DAVID HOLT (Fire Chief, Coalgate, Oklahoma): For years and years, to me it's been you're a Democrat. That's the way you need to vote. And all of a sudden, there's this big change.
BERKES: We talk in Holt's cramped office in City Hall. A small TV in the corner carries inauguration coverage. Holt grew up here. He says he knows 90 percent of the people in the county, but he can't figure out why they abandoned the Democratic ticket when it came to Barack Obama.
Mr. HOLT: That's just really odd. It sticks in my head, and it will stick in my head for a long time. But that's just really strange to me.
BERKES: Many people would conclude that race must be a factor.
Mr. HOLT: I think race probably weighs on it as a factor at some point. But then again, it could have been the issues as well.
BERKES: Race has never been a problem for him, Holt says. But he adds when the recorder is off, that he overheard a woman at the grocery store the other day using the "N" word in reference to the Martin Luther King holiday. It's the "N" day, she told her friend. Holt tried to turn the comment into a joke. It is? he said. Nobody told him. Later, the woman apologized. Grounded in that reality, Holt is circumspect about an African-American leading the nation.
Mr. HOLT: Yeah, to me it's kind of a big deal. But then again, it's, you know, another day. You know, he's in office now. It's time for him to get to work, and we're just going to see what happens as time goes on.
BERKES: Back at Esther's Kountry Grill, the expectations are high and low now that the Democrat most here did not support is president. Ken Braddock(ph) is Coalgate's postmaster, and he has this hope.
Mr. KEN BRADDOCK (Postmaster, Colgate County): Four years ago, when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention, he spoke there's not a red state and there's not a blue state, but we're one United States. Now what I heard during his campaign this year, it was very much, them and us. I would like to see us getting back onto that track, us seeing America as one.
BERKES: Braddock also has this fear.
Mr. BRADDOCK: And I'm not sure we're going to be as safe under his administration as we were under the Bush administration because that was his focus after 9/11, he was going to protect America. I feel like the Democrats, in general, are too weak on military, too weak to make a decision. And I'm afraid that we could find ourself in jeopardy.
BERKES: Still, the significance of the inaugural moment was not lost on Braddock, who marveled at the history unfolding on the restaurant's TV screens. He said he would continue to listen to the day's speeches and events on the radio at work for clues about the changes to come, across the country and here in Coalgate, Oklahoma. Howard Berkes, NPR News.