Last weekend, Newt Gingrich strutted into an overflow crowd of people waiting for him at the Wiregrass Museum in Dothan, Ala., and greeted them with an insult.
“What a crowd,” he said. “I’m really impressed. There must be no one left at Wal-Mart this afternoon.”
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what Gingrich was willing to say to the majority of Alabamians who didn’t support him.
I first heard about Gingrich’s comment during a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon with Bill Perkins, editor of the Dothan Eagle. I later discovered that Fox News also had reported it on its website.
“Everybody was all set to applaud him,” Perkins told me. Instead, the applause was tentative, and there were a few howls, too.
Perkins shared a prediction: “I don’t think Newt is getting traction here.”
Hours later, the primary results confirmed Perkins’ hunch. Rick Santorum — the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania — had won.
That would be the same Rick Santorum who said earlier this week, “We’ve been running a marathon breathing through a swizzle stick.” Finally, we have an explanation for why he’s been running a campaign to alienate every thinking woman in America. Quick, get that man some oxygen.
When I heard about Gingrich’s Wal-Mart crack, my head hurt, and my heart ached. He tends to have that effect on me in general, but this time, my grievances were more specific.
For one thing, I couldn’t help but think of those awful videos ricocheting around the Internet, the ones full of images ridiculing poor and working-class Americans photographed shopping at Wal-Mart. One of the lowest forms of entertainment is to make fun of vulnerable and unsuspecting people from afar. I’ve got all kinds of objections to Wal-Mart, but none of them has to do with the people who need cheap prices to survive.
Gingrich’s comment felt personal, too, because it’s been my good fortune to suddenly know a lot more people who live in Alabama.
I was there last week to deliver the annual Ayers Lecture at Jacksonville State University. Before my arrival, I was assured that the crowded room where I was scheduled to speak would include many people who disagreed with me on any number of issues.
I never felt more welcomed, not just in that lecture hall but everywhere I went in Anniston and Jacksonville.
My column runs in The Anniston Star, so a lot of people in the audience were familiar with my opinions before I even opened my mouth. Yet there they were, ready to have a conversation. Afterward, I lost count of how many came up to me and said they seldom agree with my politics and then pulled out their smartphones to show me pictures of their dogs.
Proof yet again that my old editor Stuart Warner was right when he advised me years ago to include snippets about my personal life. “Give them a reason to like you even when they hate what you’re saying,” he said. Good advice for a columnist — and for life in general, too.
We are not a nation of haters, and most people are willing to cross an occasional bridge to common ground. It’s easier to misunderstand one another, and I worry that we in the media too often celebrate what divides us. Invite people to say something stupid and you’ll always find someone willing to oblige.
There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a poll that claims that more than half of Alabamians think President Barack Obama is not a Christian, but a Muslim. This doesn’t pass the straight-face test with anyone talking to a lot of people in Alabama. As a number of journalists there pointed out to me, you always can find people willing to say crazy things. That’s as true in Ohio, where I live, as it is in Alabama. But something’s fishy.
It’s likely that the response to that poll revealed more about the question than it did about the answer, Anniston Star Editor Bob Davis told me.
“If asked if the president is a Christian, many Christians would answer, ‘I don’t know anybody’s heart,'” he said. “‘That’s not up for me to say.'”
That sounds just like my Christian mother, who raised her four children up north, in Ashtabula, Ohio. She always said, “God loves everybody, no exceptions.”
My mom was a pro-union Democrat who believed that being a Christian is a lifelong project that gives us neither the time nor the right to judge other people’s progress.
If anyone ever had asked her whether the president — any president — was a Christian, she would have frowned and said, “It’s none of my business — or yours.”
She would have been right, too.
Let’s move on to the next stupid question, shall we?
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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