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The View From Appomattox, Va

APPOMATTOX, VA--This morning, I drove the rainy road from Richmond west into what's called "southside Virginia," a hilly swath of old tobacco country cut through by an ancient railroad. The highway also happens to follow General Robert E. Lee's final retreat, which ended, of course, at Appomattox Court House, where the Confederacy lost the Civil War and the scourge of black chattel slavery in America finally passed away.

Barack Obama's campaign wants this to be the site of another big retreat: the retreat of the GOP in the South and the end of a symbolic barrier for blacks in the U.S. Although Obama's main hope in Virginia is to drive up the margins around Washington D.C., he also needed to limit his losses in what McCain's campaign called "real Virginia," as much to underpin his broad mandate as to win the state. 

The county's Democratic chair, a stout, amiable medical photographer named Frank Portnoy, proudly told me that Appomattox's Republican mayor is voting for Obama. That's an amazing thing in and of itself. And, obviously, I wish I could report on a huge outpouring of support for Obama here, some lions-laying-down-with-lambs reconciliation, a final end to the project that went only half-finished in 1865. (This region didn't take to the consequences of the Confederacy's loss so well: The county next door, Prince Edwards, shut down its entire school system in 1959 rather than integrate.)

But things are mixed; progress is always two steps forward and one step back. Obama won't carry Appomattox County; but on the bright side, he intends to come, says Portnoy, "pretty close," maybe even beating Jim Webb's margin in 2006. In the run-up to the vote, a prominent black Appomattox resident's Obama lawn signs were defaced with the words "KKK" and "nigger"; but on the bright side, registrations--most of them probably Democrats--are up by about 50 percent in many parts of the county, and turnout today is huge: At the main Courthouse precinct, 800 out of about 1,800 on the rolls had voted by 2:30 p.m. Although many of his most ardent volunteers are black, to keep things quiet Portnoy had made sure to have a white precinct captain as well as a black one at every polling place. The woman whose signs were defaced with racial epithets told him to do that.

Many of the voters I talked to outside the Courthouse precinct cited, like Jon found in Ohio, the economy as a big factor, but often presented the choice as one between economic competence and a vaguer notion of good character. Four out of 15 used the word "morals" to describe their thought process. "I closed my eyes and chose at random [on the presidential ballot]," admitted an elegant older woman named Daphne. "The economy is one thing"--she was impressed with Obama on this point--"and the morals of our nation are another, and I wasn't sure which is more important."

Linda Thompson, a 45-year-old prison employee, was more emphatic. "I voted GOP primarily because of Biblical beliefs," she explained, adding, "I think, although you're going to think this is racist, that we'll have a race war [when Obama wins]." She guesses that she'll be relatively safe at the prison, but, she says, "I told my son, 'You're going to have to travel in packs.'"

Race war? Travel in packs? The first time I heard of this fear was this morning on "Glenn Beck," but I guess it must be getting a wide airing on talk radio. Maybe the riots will have begun by the time I get back to Washington tonight, but I don't think so, and the whole idea is totally sad: It presumes a tribalism, a triumphalism, and a hostility on the part of one's opponents where there isn't really evidence of it--remember, Obama's whole political raison d'etre was the wish to be a reconciler. Weirdly, it's Appomattox in 1865 that has something to teach us tolerant moderns about viewing one's American political adversaries as worthy of respect. Last night, I looked back at the history books' account of Lee's surrender, for kicks. During the negotiations, the distraught and distracted Lee became aware that one of Grant's aides was a Seneca Indian. "I am glad to see one real American here," Lee murmured. The aide replied, "We are all Americans."

But the hope that Obama could be a national reuniter--the opposite of Linda Thompson's dark view--can be found here. In the middle of the day, two women who voted for Obama appeared at the Democratic headquarters to complain to Portnoy that their precinct was missing Obama signs. After assuring them he would fix the problem, Portnoy added, "Thank you for voting."

That unleashed something. "I didn't vote black or white today," one of the women stated, looking like she was on the verge of tears. "Today, I voted American. I thought, well, we all live here together now."

--Eve Fairbanks