Keeping it real…searching for the ‘real’ America, political-style

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by Ted Anthony

PITTSBURGH (AP)—The guy who runs the planet’s latest G-20 summit city made an illuminating remark as he welcomed the world to his front door.

“Let’s keep in mind why we were chosen,” Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said this past week. “The president of the United States picked Pittsburgh because of the fact that our story is real.”

And there it was again, a sliver of the powerful energy force that politicians are hungry to harness, that forever pops up in the national discourse: the ability to summon, for strategic purposes, the notion of a “real America.”

For more than two centuries, U.S. politicians have pursued a piece of “real America”—the power to cast the country in their own images, to commandeer the national story of what the country was, is and should be.

Attempts to define “real America” from either side of the political divide can be perilous. There’s the risk of annoying those who are told that they are somehow less real than their fellow citizens.

“It helps define what game you’re playing and what the rules are. It allows people to say, ‘This is how reality ought to be,’” says Evan Cornog, author of “The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush.”

“The Civil War—people were trying to define what the country was then,” Cornog says. “The New Deal did it. Reagan did it again. And Obama’s trying to do it.”

In Pittsburgh’s case, you heard it everywhere last week. The White House called it “a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation…a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work.”

From visitors, national news anchors and locals alike came varying synonyms all pointed to the same thing. Pittsburgh is the “edge of the heartland.” The “town of reinvention.” The “cradle of industry remade.” And the always evocative “buckle of the country’s rust belt.”

“All of the things that our nation is attempting to promote, Pittsburgh seems to stand for – without all the glitz of big-money Wall Street,” says Gerald Shuster, a political communication expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

Some of it represented pragmatism. The Democrats want to keep Pennsylvania Democratic in 2012, and a global summit can’t hurt.

Nevertheless, the region also summons the duality of the American narrative—rural values and the urban might that built a country and then, after its economy was knocked down in the 1980s, turned to 21st century pursuits such as high-tech, green initiatives and health care.

That story line also manages, conveniently, to include the elevation of the blue-collar underdog and the spirit of getting back on your feet and fighting another day.

The notion of a “real America” story line is no surprise, given that the United States was founded upon a story and ideals, rather than centuries of shared history. It’s one big national narrative that has kept the country’s disparate constituencies together, so seizing the story line is one of the most politically powerful maneuvers of all.

For the G-20, Pittsburgh was served up as an alternative to Washington (where suits are trying to fix the economy) and New York (where other suits broke it in the first place). Pittsburgh has been, for generations, where politicos turn when they need a salt-of-the-earth backdrop against which to ram home their points.

“As you shift from a town that is primarily manual, shifting to a town that is basically in the aftermath of that, the messages, the symbols of Pittsburgh become, strangely enough, half high-tech and medicine…but then also that lasting figure of the generic steel man who’s working the ore,” says Ed Slavishak, a historian at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.

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