The following interview was conducted November 7, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview is with Joanne Carlson, a fifth-grade English teacher and the mother of the author. She has taught in the same small town in Illinois since 1972.
Tuesday night, as it progressed—I think you’re assuming that I was watching the returns, but I wasn’t. I found it depressing, because I was rooting for McCain. I didn’t tune in until later that night to confirm what I figured would happen. Obama had won.
Did you feel that on the eve of the election McCain had a chance to pull it out?
If you watched all the polls they didn’t give him a lot of hope. But I kept my fingers crossed. I voted, even though in my state of Illinois there wasn’t much as a chance that Illinois was going to go for McCain. But I still went and voted. It is not a Republican state, but you still take part in the process.
Did you watch either the concession or acceptance speeches?
No I didn’t. I’ve seen snippets. Whatever news shows wanted to cut and show. But no, I didn’t. I didn’t have the heart to watch them.
What is your mood?
My mood? Well, I’m hoping that our country will go in a good direction. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I’m fearful of how Obama will handle international issues. I know that after Russia invaded Georgia, I thought he really faltered. I thought he was slow and weak, and so, whenever we have any kind of dealings with Iran or North Korea or even Venezuela… They seem to becoming an issue down there. I just hope he can handle it, because I am just not confident that he’ll know how to do it.
You spoke of hope, of a “good” direction. To where?
As far as Iran and North Korea—whether he is ready to handle crises that come up, dealing with other countries.
You characterize his response as “weak.” What did you find weak about it?
He just said, um—as far as I can remember—both sides need to show restraint. I did’t think that was very supportive of Georgia, who is an independent republic being invaded by another.
If we were being invaded by another I don’t think anybody would say, “We need to show restraint.” I thought it was very weak on his part.
What would be the correct measure, steps, to take?
I think you need to show support for them. It means you verbalize that they are a free nation, that they should not be invaded by another country. Yet I don’t think he did that.
Anything beyond verbalizing a message of support?
Well, it depends on a lot of things: how long you stay and what they do.
Has this led you to form a skepticism of his overall abilities?
A skepticism that he’ll get things done? No, I don’t have a skepticism, I have a fear. I think—
Please, this seems important. Can you relate to me the differences between a skepticism and a fear?
A skepticism is you doubt they’ll get things done. Since we have a Democratic Congress, and president, I have a fear that they’ll put into practice a lot of Democratic philosophies, which I just don’t agree with. I fear that they’ll weaken the military. I heard that proposed, that one of the cuts would come in the military. I fear that we’ll have greater spending—and we’ve had a lot of spending under the Republicans. They went the wrong way. McCain was finally talking sense and saying, “No earmarks. I never voted for, and I never asked for earmarks. I will cut them all.” That’s where the Republicans need to go back to.
I fear, now that the Democratic party is in control, we will have greater spending with lots of earmarks and bigger programs. Government-controlled programs.
Earmarks, as they are, account for a sliver of the overall federal budget.
True, but just like in a household budget, if you cut out soda, I save a lot of money throughout the year even though it’s just 25–50 cents a can. You take care of your pennies and the rest can follow.
A common question put to us all in 2008 was “Is the country ready for a black president.”
I would say sure, they’re ready for a black president. Why not? They voted for him. I pI thought about the picture after you once mentioned it. And, really, you didn’t think of that slant, someone else did. And it was reported as such. Brought it to your attention like that, right? Now, if a male candidate was shot like that, would it have elicited any kind of reaction? Was the sexualized content of the picture created for you?ersonally never looked at the screen and a thought black/white. I honestly never did. I never thought, “Oh, he’s a black president. A black man.” They kept bringing it up. I only saw big government candidate versus small government candidate. I think the country is less ready for a woman president.
What leads you to this?
If you think about the things that they would talk about, with Hillary and with Sarah Palin, I mean, they focused on the clothes they were bought for her. Even when it was pointed out that she didn’t buy them, they they went out and bought two or three sizes to bring back and her try it on, because they didn’t know what her size was. She used some, and then they were either returned or given to charity. And that didn’t drop the issue! It kept being brought up. And there was the famous picture where she was shot between the legs with the audience out in front of her. They wouldn’t do that to a man.
Her hairstyle—“why always up?”—I mean, those things wouldn’t be brought up with a male candidate.
I thought about the picture after you once mentioned it. And, really, you didn’t think of that slant, someone else did. And it was reported as such. Brought it to your attention like that, right? Was the sexualized context of the picture created for you?
No, it is true that I heard the comment when I saw the picture, but if I had seen it without the commentary, I would have thought, “Why are you shooting it that way?” It hasn’t been done before, and that’s the point.
Indeed you must dress for job you want, yes? A vice-presidential candidate must look like one. Yet, for the clothes, it seemed the criticism was not gender-based, but rather message-based. Whether it was a conflict of interest to portray yourself as a common American, a “Joe-six-pack,” a “hockey mom,” and be wrapped in Saks Fifth Avenue while decrying elitism. One is fine, the other is fine. You can’t do both.
I think that they made an issue of it altogether, that was my point. I think she came from a life where she didn’t have—I mean, you look at Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, they are always dressed up in those suits, and they look so nice. And I think her campaign just said, “This is someone not used to being on the campaign trail, let’s make her more presentable, and candidate-ready, so that she’ll look like a Clinton or Pelosi.
The campaign did it; Sarah Palin did not go to Saks Fifth Avenue. The campaign did it. And they just went in and brought back a bunch of clothes. Like I said, I think she’s someone who came in—I think she had different priorities on her mind. What she wore I think didn’t matter to her. To me, it didn’t detract from her message. She was just being handled by someone who went and did this. If someone handed me clothes like that I wouldn’t know if they were $100 or $5,000. I wouldn’t know, okay?
They’re making much more over this than—oh gosh, um—Edwards. He was the one who had the $400 haircut. And that was in the new too long. It’s time to drop this for her. If she had come in and demanded all this, that would be one thing, but with the campaign she probably didn’t have much of a choice where she was going either. They probably planned out her route.
What have you heard in the small town of Elmwood, Illinois?
Oh, nothing. I don’t talk politics with people in town or with co-workers. I just don’t. Our school—I teach fifth grade English—did have a student election. And a lot of times what the student vote, it will follow the community’s feelings. They hear they parents talk. We had 56% among K-6 vote Obama. And the teachers also voted, keeping their ballots separate, and our teachers were 52%–42% in favor of Obama. So that’s all I know about the community.
As far as school-related issues, I love to see they changed the union dues for teachers. The political portion goes to the Democratic party, about 98% is the last figure I saw. We can opt out, and have out political portion given to an alternate charity, but they do not allow us to give to an alternate party. And I think that is totally unfair. If you’re going to take money from my paycheck for union dues, and part of it is going to go to a political party, I should be able to chose. I want mine to go to the Republican party.
That is the reason I ended being in a union, and the reason I will never join a union again. If I were to join a union the way the law in written now I could never opt out. I would be permanently in.
I am an independent person. My whole life in not as a teacher. I am more an independent person than I am the other. My thinking is not the same as the body politic and National Education Association.
One of the proposals decided Tuesday was for a rewriting of the Illinois Constitution. It failed, and you opposed the convention.
The proposal. I only know about it because we received emails from our superintendent who said to vote no. He told us through our emails that it could jeopardize our pensions, or put into jeopardy the funding of our pensions. And we were encouraged to fill out cards that said “vote no.”
I do know that, when we were standing in line to vote, we were handed a blue paper that said “Disregard the information on the voting machine, because it was deemed by the judge to be inaccurate and incorrect.” And we were supposed to look at what was on this blue paper, and I thought that was kind of strange.
Were you surprised to have both the students and teachers of a tiny rural Illinois school vote in favor of Barack Obama?
I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I thought we would be Republican here, in the center of the heartland.
Does this point to a different kind of election, outside of our normal bounds?
I can’t speculate, because I don’t talk politics with people I know.
What thoughts are drawn from the one-sided electoral college returns?
I read, in the media, that it was the economy. Because it was true, the polls in September, McCain was doing well. I do believe that the media was more biased in favors of Obama. I think that did have an effect. They even did analysis of late night jokes, and more were about McCain and Palin. By like seven times as many. Seven times as many as were against Obama and Biden. You can only keep saying the same…
I do believe She was effectively shielded from the media, not allowed to give important statements until late in the game. No press conferences. Why do you think they kept her away from the media?that the media is in the Democratic camp. And they want to put their candidate in a better light than the Republican candidates. And not every single one, but the majority. I mean, I remember seeing the two candidates going on The View. And Obama went on and they said things to him like “You’re sexy.” And McCain went on there and he get a battering. To me that is very telling. And I think that was true in other cases too.
One of the watershed moments of the election was Sarah Palin’s broadcast interviews, especially with Katie Couric. With those specific set of interviews, could anything have been done to be unbiased?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t see it. I honestly did not see those interviews. I saw a couple snippets, which I don’t think I can comment on. You know, when you only see a bit. And only saw the Saturday Night Live parody replays of it. I don’t really know. I think maybe they could have let her get out and, and they said, interview on more friendly turf. To kind of toughen her up a little bit, and then send her against…something like that.
She was effectively shielded from the media, not allowed to give impromptu statements until late in the game. No press conferences. Why do you think they kept her away from the media?
Well, I suppose they were preparing her. Even Obama, um, would have practice debates—the candidates each went to their own separate places, and they would go against a stand-in. I don’t think it’s unusual for them to say, “We need to prepare you a bit. Throw some questions at you, get you ready.” I don’t see that as unusual.
There is a lot of truth to what you are saying. When she was first picked the campaign understood that there was a lot of preparing that needed to undergo. Yesterday, a former aide of the campaign said, “When we got her there was a lot she didn’t know. One thing being that she thought Africa was a country.” Can this explain why she was kept away for so long?
Well, yes. I’ve heard reports of what the aides said, and I don’t know who they are. I do know I saw one of McCain’s organizers speak, and he said he heard the entire preparatory for some of these things. He was there when the supposed Africa thing was said, and he said “If you heard the whole thing you wouldn’t come away with the same thing.” So whoever these people are, I’d like to hear the whole thing. Because he said he would not come away with that opinion, that, you now, Africa isn’t a country.
There is a great deal of world reaction to Obama’s victory, and there were cutaways to places around the globe. How do you account for this reaction, and what was its cause?
Oh, I suppose it’s not surprising. I mean, he’s got connections in Africa, and he’s got connections in Indonesia. And he went over and made his tour of Germany, and stopped in France, didn’t he? And France does lean left too. So I suppose that it is not surprising that they would celebrate.
What do you think it is that leads them to celebrate?
Well, he has a grandmother in Kenya, and he grew up in Indonesia. He kind of becomes the hometown boy. And the stops in Germany in France, as I said, with France a bit left of center.
Other points include Japan, India, and South America—
I don’t know.
How would you like to see him lead?
Oh gosh. I would like to see him give us smaller government, but I don’t think that is going to happen. I would like to see him give us a strong military, I don’t think that is going to happen. I would like to see him veto all earmarks; I don’t think that is going to happen.
I will tell you one thing I’d like to see him do, which is a Republican issue. I would like to see him get rid of No Child Left Behind. As I said, I know that’s a Republican-pushed issue.
As a teacher, we teach our children at their own level. We send special-ed kids sometimes out of the room. I have students that I don’t even see in my homeroom. They’re pulled out because they’re reading at the second-grade level. I have a boy that is autistic, but he can’t even answer a yes or no question: “What do you want for lunch today? A hot dog? Or would you rather have peanut butter?”
He goes to a special school, and yet in the spring when tests are given that boy, who couldn’t answer my “do you want a hot dog?” question, because he’s severely autistic, he’s going to take the same state test that my fifth-graders are taking, that I’ve been teaching all year. The special-ed kid that leave my room, they’re totally pulled out because they’re reading at a low level. They’ve been reading first and second grade books. They’re going to be tested at the fifth grade level. And their scores are going to be reflected in our building.
But here’s the problem. Our school this year had an 84% “meet or exceeds” on our state tests. 84%. And that’s including our special-ed. That’s good. And yet our school is now listed as Does Not Meet. The reason? Because they look at the subgroups. And our subgroups—our special-ed subgroup—did not meet.
Because our special-ed subgroup did not meet then our whole school is listed as Does Not Meet. I think that No Child Left Behind should be replaced or refined. If you espouse teaching children at their own level then they should be tested at their own level.
How best should teachers then be evaluated—rewards-based on performance?
No, because different schools have different populations. I know personally—we have a good school, we have a good group of students—but I can teach my heart out and if I have students who will not go home and do their homework, if I have parents that will not support me. I call and say, “Your child is not studying,” and I get no response from the parents, I can’t even get them in for a conference. I’m at a roadblock. There’s not much I can do, except what I can do with that child between the hours of eight and three.
And if they’re not a receptive learner, and I don’t have parents that will support me, then with that particular student I cannot get a lot done. And some teachers have a larger population of those kind of students than I do. I have a few. So no, I don’t think we should be judged on that. I’m not sure how you would judge us.
I’m not sure it can be by some objective standard from the outside, because like I said different schools have different populations. If I say it can be judged within the school, but the principal, would that be too subjective? I just don’t know.
Would you like to see more funding?
Well, we’re getting by. But I still think that our government needs to cut corners. Some I’m willing to make do with what I’ve got. If the government would do the same with every single part of their budget. And quit spending in the needless areas, and quit all the earmarks.
What are the “needless areas?”
That I don’t know, but I’m sure they’re there. I mean years ago we had reports of expensive hammers. I’m sure that someone who wanted to do a clear sweep, like McCain wanted to do, of the government and get rid of those areas where there’s needless spending. I’m sure you could find a lot of things.
I would have to see a list of all of them. I believe in smaller government, and I’m not espousing more funding. At school we’re getting by. We cut corners. If I had over 200 students, unlike the 160 I have now, I’m sure I would spend it. Can I get by on what they give me? Yeah, I can get by. And in our country we all need to get used to getting by. We’re too used to “gimmie gimmie gimmie, more more more ,” I think that’s were we’re getting into trouble in this country. Everybody wants more. And we’ve become very wasteful.
This is the source of all our problems. It’s totally out of control. I think that is begins right at the base roots, with individual people in their individual homes. And this was one thing Sarah Palin said. Within a home you have to stay within a budget. And I understand some people are out of work, I’m not talking about them. But there a lot of people who hold down a job, or two jobs, within their family. And they buy what they can’t afford. Beyond what they need, they buy what they can’t afford. I mean, your Dad and I, we didn’t buy a $150,000 house. Our house is called a bungalow. We don’t buy new cars—mine’s 22 years old. It works fine. It’s not the prettiest one sitting there, but it works. If we can’t afford it we don’t buy it. And again, I’m not talking about the people out of work, I’m not talking about the people who can’t get jobs. I’m talking about people around me I see that buy things they can’t afford. And if the average household credit card debt is $17,000, which is what I read recently, some of that is from buying what you can’t afford. And that is why I was a John McCain supporter. He was for cutting spending, and cutting earmarks, and getting us back to what we need, not what we want. Let’s me happy with what we need, and quit always demanding what we want.
What does the government do for the people that is unnecessary? What strings should the government cut from people, to say essentially, “You’re on your own?” As a smaller, budget-slashing government would.
I really have to think about that one… I will tell you this though, okay? This is what I see. I see kids in the room who are on free lunch, okay? And yet I hear them talk, that they have a TV in their room. They have a Game Boy in their room. They have ipods, they have all of these things, yet they are on free lunch. And I’m thinking to myself, there is something wrong here. There is something wrong when a basic a family should support, such as food, is being paid for by the public. And I know there are many families who receive free lunch at school, and they need it, and they don’t have those things. But others have both, and to me—
Would you allow a social program to continue if, out of ten children seven were legitimately using the program, and three were abusing it. Is it a matter of percentages?
Like I said, I don’t have easy answers. I just see there is a problem. I don’t know how you address it. I’m not saying cut free lunch for kids. No, of course not.
In order to receive free lunches, doesn’t a family have to previously disclose their income? So they have to meet the standard set, the state requirement of what denotes need.
The state requires it, yes.
Switching gears, you have a brother who was very much against Obama. I know you haven’t spoken much, but what were his views?
Yeah, I was surprised when I talked to him. His reason for not voting for Obama was an Islamic connection. And like I said, I try not to talk politics with family, because you get into arguments, sometimes. And so I was surprised, and he only said that he wasn’t going to vote for him because of the Islamic connection, and that’s all he said.
But as far as that, I mean, Obama does worry me with his connections. I don’t know about the Islamic connection. I don’t agree with that, but I do think that there is a great lack of character when he couldn’t separate himself from some pretty bad characters. Bill Ayers, for example. That bothers me. Now, he said he was only six years old when Ayers was doing his bombings—that’s true. But yet he knew him as an adult. I think I would have better judgement than to hang around with someone who blew up government buildings, and then as recently as a few years ago he wished he had done a better job and stood on an American flag. And his campaign began in Ayers’ home. His Illinois campaign began there. To me that is a great lack of character. I think there is a great lack of character in his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. How do you sit in a church for 20 years? You’ve got to have heard something. And I think that probably did not have the guts to stand up and leave. Because he realized the people in that church, in that community, were what was going to get him ahead. They were the people that were going to vote him in. I just think he didn’t have a strong enough character to say “this isn’t right.” I think there was a lack of character when he associated with Rezko, who is now convicted—the man that helped him purchase his neighborhood property, next to his house, at a reduced rate. That’s what I see in this person that has made himself president, and where do we go from here? What is he willing to do in order to stay office another four years?
He’s going to hold onto power by any means?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean there isn’t going to be an uprising or anything, but he’s working with a Democratic Congress who is probably going to pull him further to the left than he wants to go, in order to get their cooperation. And their support, and stay in office four years from now.
Part of his acceptance, Tuesday night—I’ll paraphrase, but get it as close as I can. “To the people that I have not yet earned your confidence, I hear you too. I will be listening to you too, because you disagree with me. I am your president too.” Is that just rhetoric?
It is just rhetoric, m-hm. It sounds very nice, but I don’t believe it.
What would a President Obama have to do to impress you?
There’s really nothing he could do. Because he’s not going to put into policy anything that I would probably agree with. When you’re president, isn’t that the whole gist? Putting policy into effect? I’m not sure—I really don’t know what you mean.
There is a role a president plays, beyond the formal powers. His informal powers: his ability to communicate, motivate, and get a message across. Also to listen and comfort during tragedy. Is there an informal power you will be able to gauge?
I really can’t think of a thing. I’d like to say “I don’t agree with him but he’s a nice man.” I can’t say that, because I look at his past relationships and I don’t see someone I can trust. Right now he is surrounding himself with a lot of good people. From what I’m hearing. But what I think of when he began to get where he is now, I just don’t seen good character there. And I don’t know what he could do to change my mind.
Over the summer we had a conversation when you visited me in Edwardsville in early July, at a Chinese restaurant. Remember? I asked you to remember it, because at the time you said he was a good person, but I predicted your mind would be changed by November.
I don’t recall what I said, but if I said that and I’m saying this now, yes, there’s been a change, because I’ve learned some new things about him.
Things are said in the midst of high-stakes campaigns. The relationships you’ve heard about: are they completely true and legitimate, or at least in some respect a campaign tool?
No, there’re real concerns, I believe. Fox News had a half hour program on McCain’s life, and they had a half hour program on Obama’s life, and I watched both. And these are not political ads, these were half-hour news programs in which they told the life of each person.
The shift in polls occurred in parallel with the stock market crisis, giving Obama an advantage McCain was never able to overcome. Yet, 2008 overall was a Democratic year. We’ll never know what a very possible Hillary Clinton/John McCain campaign might have been like, but she also have been the hypothetical winner. To you does an Obama administration compare favorably in light of a possible Clinton term to you?
I would say Hillary Clinton didn’t have all those characters in the background. But she still would not represent my way of thinking. So perhaps slightly favorably, if it came to that.
The Republicans wouldn’t have brought up a long list of past associations from the Nineties, and from Arkansas? We wouldn’t be having these same conversations?
Oh, they might have. Sure.
Do you hold any predictions for success or failure?
I don’t really have a prediction, I just keep my fingers crossed that things go well for our country. “Well” means that we don’t find ourselves on the wrong end of terrorists, that our country rebounds. That people find work. And that we don’t spend ourselves into a bigger hole than we’re in.
The transition is fast underway, and hand-off from the Bush team to the Obama team. Talk about what the outgoing administration will be remembered for.
I was just hearing the other day that historians talking about past presidents—which he’ll soon be—are already starting to rethink his term. Which I thought was nice, but I was surprised it was so soon.
I know there were things that were done wrong. We can always look back and say, “It could have been better.” He went into Iraq of the right reasons. I believe that. I know a lot of people don’t. From what we were told at the time, we didn’t know that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction there. Saddam Hussein even said they were there—he wouldn’t let observers come in and look for them. He turned them out. We have gone to the United Nations. There were sanctions against them. We were trying to do what we needed to do, and many who later said, “We were never for it: at the time said we should go in.
I think he remains firm to his commitments. I think Afghanistan is going to be more of a problem than Iraq was. The Soviet Union found it so when they were there. They pulled out unsuccessfully; there are just too many places to hide and it’s a mountainous region. I heard the estimate—I hope this number is right—that 45,000 troops is what they thought they would need. Much more than what we have there now. We really need to be there in order to succeed in what we’re trying to do. But I think President Bush did what he thought was right.
For failures people are always going to say Hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, at the time, they said the local communities were supposed to have state help, which I’m told New Orleans didn’t do right away. And the local are also had dozens and dozens of school buses sitting there that they never did use. And the state of Louisiana was supposed to turn and ask the federal government. I think that’s what I read at the time, that was the procedure. And yet the federal government got the brunt of the criticism, when it was the local who was supposed to handle it first, and then when they couldn’t do it they turn to the state. The requests were not made. But, you know, they seemed to jump in sooner when we had the more recent hurricane and things went better.
You will soon be in the unique position of seeing soon in your classroom children who have known only a black president.
I don’t think my students think in terms of black and white. And it’s not because they hadn’t been in class with black students—they have. There were many years were I never had a black student, until about ten years ago. And this year I have two. I don’t think kids think in terms of black or white, it’s just “Obama.” who happens to be a black man, or just Obama as president.
I know when it comes to talking about Civil Rights, when we learn about the Civil Rights movement, the kids don’t really connect with the events of the past. Because they didn’t live through them. To them it’s just history. We talk about the way blacks were treated, with the separate water fountains, not being able to use the front door of hotels. They just look surprised—like how could such a thing happen? As history they just don’t connect to it. Even the black kids who are sitting there, I think—and that’s just my perception—that it’s a part of history because they haven’t personally experienced that.
It is a very different world than the one you grew up in, fifty years ago, on an Illinois farm. Though I understand your relative racial isolation when young, can you please juxtapose then from now, for you?
It’s true that we had no black students in my grade school, or junior high or high school. But I think that if there had been one I don’t think I would have thought anything about it. Other than that’s another girl or boy in my classroom.
The first time I ever was around a black person was in college, Western Illinois University in 1967. Two black girls lived on my floor, and I didn’t think about it at the time, but they were roommates. I suppose they were purposefully but together, because maybe the university didn’t think a white person would want to be in a room with a black person. It wouldn’t have bothered me. And they were very nice girls. We used to go down and sit in their room, and they’d come down to ours. They were just two girls on the floor.
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