One of the truisms, I think, of covering either working class or poor, white and black, is that people have less the built-in defenses. If I went to talk race on the Upper West or Upper East Side, I would have great difficulty getting an honest sentence out of anybody. That’s not to say they’re all racist, but they recognize a third rail and they don’t want to touch it. I came away from Beaver somewhat depressed by the extent to which race still dominated for people, but, on the other hand, with quite a bit of respect for how these working class men and women were wrestling with it. And I came away from the last piece I did there thinking McCain was not going to win in Pennsylvania. And Obama took 49.5 percent of the vote in Beaver, a huge victory for him. If he could hold his own in these counties, and then, of course, run up in the cities, he was going to win the state. And he did. In that sense, doing this fine-grain work in an area did give you this broader view on the macro.
You spoke about the differences between reporting on people in the Upper West Side and people in Beaver County. And you’ve reported a lot on the poor and marginalized. Is there ever the concern about exploitation when dealing with people who are perhaps less media savvy?
The further down the class scale you go, the less sophisticated people are in dealing with the press. They just don’t have the experience; there are exceptions, but as a group they tend to have less defenses and they’re, to some extent, used to speaking plainly. Then, if you go down to the very poor, very often because they’re used to talking to social workers and caseworkers and the like, they’re used to keeping people abreast of their strikingly personal information. I think what you owe people in that situation is just to deal with it honestly. It was interesting in Beaver because these were guys who had grown up in steel mills where a lot of their buddies were black. In some respects they’d had a far more intimate experience of race than most white upper middle class people in New York, which is a strikingly segregated city. They were conflicted in interesting ways. I don’t want to idealize this, though, there were some stone cold racists, it’s all God’s children, at every level. But at its most interesting, there were great complications.
Obama is a complicated character. What was your approach when you sat down with him?
Obama’s a very challenging cat to cover. He’s a writer himself, and a quite perceptive writer. So he tends to look at himself and everything around him with a writer’s eye. And also therefore tends to have defenses up in interesting ways. Interviewing him is a challenge, trying to pull him out of that and get him talking about something.
As often happens, I got him out of that with some luck. I got talking to him about what he reads and was telling me about these different policy tomes. And I said, “Well, yeah, but come on. I’m out here on the campaign trail with you, you’re up even earlier than I am, and I’ve been carrying around this Philip Roth book with me for two months and I’m yet to even crack it.” He actually laughed at that point, and said, “Yeah, you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch Sports Center.”