On April 11, sixty-year-old Mayhill Fowler sent a blog post to “Off the Bus,” a citizen journalism project of the Huffington Post. The post, among other things, reported remarks Barack Obama made at a private California fundraiser suggesting that small-towners in the Midwest are bitter at their economic state and turn to guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiment out of frustration. The comments Fowler reported have since spawned questions about Obama’s attitude toward working-class Americans—and the semi-scandal now known as “BitterGate.” Jordan Michael Smith spoke with Fowler about her role in the controversy.
Jordan Michael Smith: Why did you go to the Obama fundraiser?
Mayhill Fowler: Just to enjoy myself. I had come back home for a few days, from following the Obama campaign around Pennsylvania. My husband and I had gone to other events—the ballet and the theatre—and this was one more vaguely pleasurable, somewhat boring event in that light. In fact, I almost didn’t take my tape recorder. I left my tape recorder upstairs and thought, ‘Oh, should I go back up and get it?’ I did go upstairs and get it, but that’s why when I went to the event.
JMS: Why did you record Obama’s words there?
MF: A lot of the things I go to I never write up. If there isn’t anything interesting to me, I don’t write it up. A lot of things just become background. I never in a million years thought there would be anything probative in this event, because I’ve been to a number of fundraisers, and except for a human interest/amusing kind of piece, there’s never anything newsworthy there. The idea that candidates huddle with donors and tell lots of secrets is some sort of paranoid fantasy, I just don’t think that’s true. But having followed Obama around, when he started speaking, I realized instantly that these were new sentences and phrases, so I started paying attention and recording it.
JMS: After the fundraiser, did you know you had a big story on your hands? That Obama had said something that could get him into a lot of trouble?
MF: I didn’t know if there any other traditional media or internet media people there. There was no way of knowing. When I was in the room, I was really taken back by what he said. And so on Monday night I went back and thought, ‘Did he really say what I thought he said?’ I went back and listened to it and sure enough he had. And at that moment I knew it was absolutely devastating. I showed it to my husband, and he thought it was nothing. And I sort of thought, well maybe my husband is right. But I also thought other people might think like me, might find it very offensive. If you read my piece, which few people have actually have, my criticism of the ‘bitter’ remarks occur in the context of, ‘Your whole campaign is about ending divisiveness in our political culture, bringing people together, you can’t just talk about one group of people to another in totally negative terms.’ I thought the piece was highly complimentary of Senator Obama.
JMS: Some critics have said this was a private affair and it was assumed supposed to be off the record.