In May, after Barack Obama got trounced in the West Virginia primary, our foreign editor, Nisid Hajari, had an idea for a story. Why not send one of our veteran foreign correspondents through the American South to take its pulse during this historic election? There's a journalistic tradition of bringing correspondents home to chronicle America as they might an exotic land. Seeing the country with the fresh perspective of having lived away can yield unusual clarity and insight. But there was a twist to this plan. The reporter Nisid had in mind, Christopher Dickey, has deep roots in the South. His mother's family hails from west Tennessee; his father, James Dickey, was also a Southerner—and the author of "Deliverance," the harrowing novel of the Georgia backwoods.
As the campaign unfolded, a question kept emerging: could Obama, this son of an African father and Kansan mother—this political phenom—broaden his appeal to reaches of the country that had abandoned the Democratic fold two generations ago? What role would race play across the South and Appalachia? And once John McCain had effectively secured the Republican nomination, we wondered how a maverick politician, representing a party whose brand has been so badly damaged, would fare in these parts during a period of economic anxiety. So last month, hoping to get beneath the polls and the cultural stereotypes, Chris set off with Irish photographer Seamus Murphy on a trail through the Old Confederacy that roughly traced Sherman's march to the sea. What they found—the subject of this week's cover—was, not surprisingly, more complicated than the versions in much of the political coverage and cable punditry. The South has, of course, experienced profound change over the years; it is not some isolated redoubt immune from the social forces—the rise of the middle class, globalization, immigration—that have transformed the rest of the world. Indeed, as Editor Jon Meacham argues in an accompanying essay, rather than contradicting, the South tends to reflect the way much of the country thinks and feels. But it has also absorbed change in its own ways, subject to its history and values. What Chris found was that this "change" election is unsettling Dixie—as well as throwing light on a much-altered political and social landscape. Obama's candidacy, at least in the short term, may serve to reinforce old divisions of race and class. But it is also revealing new storylines, including generational divides and the assimilation of South Asians and Hispanics into Southern life.
With his combination of distance and intimacy, Chris offers a unique perspective. He drew on years of covering the Middle East for glimpses into the Southern mind: "Among Palestinians and, later, Iraqis, I recognized that hallmark emotion of occupied peoples—defiance—that endures for decades and centuries, in prosperity as well as poverty." Visiting distant relatives in Murphy, N.C., Chris recognized that defiance when he spoke to Sue Dickey Hubbard in the shadow of Dickey Mountain, near the corner of Dickey Road. "We live out here in the country, and we feel like we're on ancestral lands," she told Chris. "We're clannish. Very clannish." Still, in the end, Chris was left believing in the inevitability of change —a sense that a world was coming to an end. It doesn't come easily.