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Who Would Elvis Vote for?

September 29, 2008

Marion, AK –

Big John’s Shake Shack, offering twenty-four different flavors of soft serve, is a local hangout in Marion, a town of 11,000 in southeast Arkansas. This family-owned restaurant right off of I-55 is also a microcosm of mid-America stuck in the heart of Elvis Presley country.

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Memphis is only a few miles away across the Mississippi River and Marion is, essentially, a suburb of what was once home to the King. “I opened this place in 1977, the year Elvis died,” says owner Loretta Tacker pointing to a wall poster that advertises a concert in Hartford, Connecticut, for August 21st 1977. “Elvis never performed the concert because he was found dead on the 16th,” Ms. Tacker recalls.

She and her husband John started their business fresh out of college. They had met at Harding, a Christian university in Searcy, AK, and Ms. Tacker, who is originally from Illinois, followed her spouse to his hometown after graduation. Big John — to whom the restaurant and the recently launched ¼ pounder are dedicated — died three years ago. A framed photo collage hanging opposite from the Elvis’ poster celebrates his memory.

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Lunch is a busy time of the day at Big John’s. Patrons stream in and out incessantly while Ms. Tacker, her daughter Lisa and two other employees are busy serving their signature fried-fish. Sitting on the yellow plastic bench of one of the restaurant’s boots, Timothy Taylor has finished his lunch and is reading the local paper intently. “I’m completely depressed and disgusted about this election,” Mr. Taylor sighs, “Neither Obama nor McCain are the right choice for the country.” A man in his late thirties, Mr. Taylor works for the IT department at the Marion school district and is a disgruntled Hillary supporter. “I was born in 1971 and Bill Clinton entered Arkansas politics in 1974,” Mr. Taylor recalls as a way to illustrate the influence of the Clintons on his political upbringing. “This state is home to a near-cult of Bill, people love him for what he did here and for how he touched our lives,” Mr. Taylor asserts.

The son of a railroad worker and of a nurse, Timothy Taylor sees Bill Clinton’s popularity extending by default to his wife Hillary: “If Hillary were running for President, Arkansas would be color blue.” Which is certainly not the case today; according to the latest state polls Republican candidate John McCain leads Democrat Barack Obama fifty-one percent to forty-two percent.

While he doesn’t believe Sen. Obama is qualified to be president, Mr. Taylor is not impressed with Sen. McCain’s credentials either. “McCain would be a better choice as far as his experience, but I can’t stand his social policy, his stance on gay rights and abortion,” Mr. Taylor avows.

He holds completely opposing views of the two Vice-Presidential candidates, but just as negative: “Strategically, I think Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice for the Republicans, because it helps them reaching out to the Hillary supporters and to energize the evangelicals who were going to sit out this elections.” However, Mr. Taylor doesn’t like Gov. Palin, he’s worried by her lack of experience and wishes that there had been more vetting on the affiliation of Gov. Palin’s husband Todd with the Alaska Independence Party.

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As for the Democrats, Mr. Taylor thinks that “it was absolutely stupid not to choose Hillary.” According to him, Joe Biden is qualified but boring and does not bring anything to the ticket. As a result, Mr. Taylor will vote for Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr, but he is keen on making it clear that “this is not so much a vote for Barr but more a vote against Obama.”

A single man and a homeowner, Mr. Taylor is worried about the economy and dismayed by the collapse of Wall Street and by the government bailout. “I’ve always believed in government and the need for taxes to support the system,” Mr. Taylor says, “but this mess is going to make me into an anti-tax person.”

Mr. Taylor is especially upset at the thought that somebody might have profited from the financial crash and that nobody in Washington, Republican or Democrat, seems to want to go after them. “I want to see some action against people who made money out of the subprime mortgage crisis,” Mr. Taylor states.

Although, as a government employee he hasn’t felt the effects of the economic downturn, Mr. Taylor is nervous that the worst is yet to come. He says this year many parents in his school district cannot afford to buy school supplies for their children. He also notes that premiums for health coverage are skyrocketing. In his case, for example, while the employer puts $131 a month towards benefits, his personal share of the burden will rise from $68 to $98 a month starting in October. “And I only have single coverage, if I had family coverage the cost could be much higher, up to $1000 a month,” Mr. Taylor maintains.

But he also believes that there is more to be anxious about than just the economy. Mr. Taylor says he is “scared to death about the situation in the Middle East,” and describes Iran as “ticking-time bomb.” Finally he hopes that the next president will be able to repair America’s suffering image abroad.

Bail bondsman Mike Morgan, who is sitting with a few friends by a wall painted in a life-size effigy of Elvis, is also concerned about the Middle East, although he frames the issue in different terms: “I’m worried about terrorism and these Arab/Muslim extremists,” Mr. Morgan utters. He is convinced that the Iranians “are soon to be a nuclear threat,” and that “they detest America.” Mr. Morgan partially explains the dwindling relations of the United States with much of the rest of the world with America’s inclination to policing the globe. However, he is also persuaded that having a presence abroad is crucial in defending this country’s national security.

A self-proclaimed independent who professes little allegiance to either party, Mike Morgan will vote for Sen. McCain, ultimately swayed by the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate: “I think she is plain spoken; she relates well to little people,” Mr. Morgan says while adding that he shares her views on social issues. He is not troubled by Gov. Palin’s inexperience and cites the fact that Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush were also governors prior to being elected to the White House.

Although Mr. Morgan deems Sen. Obama to be an extremely bright individual, he doesn’t trust him: “I don’t think he says what he really feels.” Moreover Mr. Morgan accuses Sen. Obama of racism, quoting the Senator’s controversial affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whom Obama ended up denouncing, and Michelle Obama’s contentious statement, several months ago, that she was, this year, for the first time, proud of her country.

A soft-spoken sixty-something father of three with an abrasive sense of humor (he approached me while I was taking photos of the restaurant and inquired whether I was a terrorist gathering information to blow the place up), Mike Morgan is also apprehensive about the economy. “Nobody has any money anymore,” he says complaining that, for example, he sometimes can’t afford to pay the 10% cash-requirement that courts have instituted on bail bonds. He agrees that at this point the bailout is a must-do but he scorns at the attitudes of politicians in the White House and Congress: “This is such a typical Washington thing to do; they should have done something years ago.”

The only one that is not overly concerned about the economy, at least on a personal level, is owner Loretta Tacker. Today, Ms. Tacker is wearing a light blue pajama-like blouse dotted with pink hearts and Elvis’s face. “Business is going great,” Ms. Tacker asserts, “People are always going to eat, independent of the economy.” Her 1950’s style restaurant filled with Elvis’ paraphernalia attracts regulars such as Messrs. Morgan and Taylor as well as a steady stream of passers-by traveling between Arkansas and Tennessee on I-55, which essentially runs above Big John’s.

Ms. Tacker is a life-long Republican who seems pleased with John McCain. “He is a down-to-earth, honest man,” she contends. Ms. Tacker also likes President George W. Bush and argues that he has done good things for the country, such as the stimulus package, which was passed this past spring and which resulted in a check between $300 and $600 for each American tax-payer: “It’s not much money individually, but if you think that everybody got it, I think it was a good way of taking care of the country, a good gesture,” Ms. Tacker maintains.

A socially conservative Christian, Loretta Tacker adores Sarah Palin: “She is pretty,” Ms. Tacker says smiling. Her biggest concern is homeland security and she is apprehensive about “terrorists constantly coming up with ways to attack America.” Ms. Tacker also acknowledges that the economic crisis could, after all, impact the lives of everybody: “It’s hard to believe,” she comments, “but we could have the Great Depression again.”

However, Ms. Tacker confesses that she doesn’t follow politics all that much. Big John’s Shake Shack is open from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. Mondays through Thursdays and until late on Fridays. On Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on Wednesday nights, Ms. Tacker attends a non-denominational Christian church in Marion: “As you see I don’t have much time left for politics,” she remarks before returning to the kitchen to fry more fish.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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