Friday, June 6, 2014

Nostalgia for small-town America (Appalachia, no less!) in the confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell

I have often written on this blog about how rural places and small towns are denigrated in the news media and popular culture.  Read more here.  So imagine my delight (through an admittedly skeptical lens) when I read yesterday the New York Times feature on Sylvia Mathews Burwell, confirmed this week at the new Secretary of Health and Human Services.   Even the double-barreled headline is a doozie:  "Newest Cabinet Member is Never Far from Her Roots:  Sylvia Mathews Burwell Builds Relationships from West Virginia to Washington."  Jackie Calmes leads her story with his anecdote:
When President Bill Clinton had thrashed out his first difficult budget with advisers, he turned to one of his younger aides for the final word, a seal of approval. “Sylvia, are the folks in Hinton going to think we’ve done right by them?” he said. 
To the man from Hope, Ark., the town of Hinton, W.Va., was likewise a defining, all-American touchstone.
As you will have gathered if you didn't already know, Hinton, W. Virginia, population 2,676, is the hometown of Sylvia Mathews Burwell.  

Calmes continues:
Rhapsodizing about the traditional values of America’s struggling small towns is a timeworn exercise among politicians, and Ms. Burwell’s well-known association with Hinton — years after she left there first for Washington, followed by more than a decade as an executive at the charitable foundations of Bill and Melinda Gates, in Seattle, and then at Walmart in Bentonville, Ark. — explains much about her bipartisan reception in the otherwise polarized Capitol.
One manifestation of that bipartisan rhapsodizing is this quote from Republican Senator Tom Coburn, offered at Burwell's Senate hearing last month:
Because she’s from West Virginia — Hinton, a town of about 3,000 people — she comes to Washington with a lot of common sense.  
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat from West Virginia, attributed her collaborative style and political savvy to her small-town upbringing--and her Greek ethnicity:
We are a product of our environment, all of us. The social skills that you learn in those small towns for survival — particularly if you’re an ethnic in a state that’s the least diverse state in the nation — well, you learn to adjust, you learn to work within, you learn to bring people together.
The story is chock full of anecdotes about Burwell's persistent links to Hinton, including the gifts (from her international travels) and flowers she still sends to friends there, and the fact that her husband proposed in a Hinton park because he knew how dear it was to her.  The Burwells' children's godmothers are both childhood friends of Ms. Burwell.  Perhaps most telling is how the Burwells seem to trying to foster their children's attachment to Hinton.  Both were baptized in the same Episcopal church there where Sylvia and her older sister Stephanie were baptized, but that isn't all:
The Burwells’ children stay each summer with their godmothers, Ms. Giles and Kristi Scott, another childhood friend, to enjoy the same idylls their mother did — swimming at Pipestem Resort State Park, eating on the river at Kirk’s or Dairy Queen, watching movies at the restored Ritz.
Beyond all the waxing poetic about this sliver of Americana in Appalachia, Calmes also addresses the changes that Hinton has faced in the three decades since Sylvia Mathews Burwell left.   Calmes writes of the "impact of the economic dislocation, brain drain and drug use that have ravaged so many towns. Like elsewhere, some locals blame Walmart’s arrival in nearby Beckley for the demise of downtown Hinton."  Another issue is the dwindling, aging population, though that population--including Ms. Burwell's parents--have been working to restore the community with what Calmes characterizes as "quaint results."  Ms. Burwell's mother, Cleo Mathews, was the mayor of Hinton for nearly a decade ending in 2009, but she has since lost two bids for reelection because of reported "resistance to her relentless push for changes to make Hinton a tourism and technology destination."

This quote from one of Ms. Burwell's childhood friends, Terri Giles, is especially poignant regarding how Hinton has changed.  Giles lived away from Hinton before returning to care for her aging mother:
The Hinton you see is not the Hinton that’s in our hearts.  The Hinton that’s in our hearts and our minds is the bustling downtown, but more importantly to us, the people. They’re like the steel thread that runs through our lives and knitted together to make us very strong, very self-confident.
Now that is a very powerful statement of what it is that a rural upbringing once meant to young people--how it prepared them/us for the bigger world, making them/us self-confident enough to face challenges they never imagined.  I just wonder if many rural communities still work that way--if they still have that critical mass of engaged citizens, of an old fashioned type of human capital--that permits them to endow their young people with such confidence.

As for Sylvia Burwell and her generation, one thing is clear:  Ms. Burwell is going to need that strength and confidence because, as Calmes notes, the workforce of HHS is 30 times that of little ol' Hinton.

An earlier story about Burwell's nomination to succeed Kathleen Sibelius at HHS is here, and an earlier story about her nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget is here.  

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