This is the eighth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter from Part Four (2011) of Janesville (The Ambassador of Optimism). I’ll cover the chapter in detail because it’s so perfect in its account of boosterism, as though Sinclair Lewis’s protagonist George F. Babbitt overtook a Janesville resident and spoke through her.
Goldstein’s account of banker Mary Willmer (co-founder of Rock County 5.0) is utterly devastating. Willmer’s sure that sunny optimism will lift Janesville’s condition from that of a near-depression:
On the first Tuesday of the year, Mary Willmer is in a cheerful mood. This morning, the Gazette has published a guest column she has written in hope of setting the proper tone in Janesville for 2011. The column is featured in the upper right corner of the newspaper’s Opinion page. It reminds people of the efforts Rock County 5.0 has been making to lift the local economy, but the message is less about strategy than about state of mind. “We need to be proud of our community,” Mary has written, “and we need to all be ‘Ambassadors of Optimism.’?” This mantra about being an ambassador of optimism is an idea that Mary came up with during the early weeks of Rock County 5.0’s existence.
Willmer’s also excited about her new-found friend, rightwing billionaire Diane Hendricks:
Seeing her words in print is not the only reason that Mary is pleased. She got home late last night from downtown Madison, where she was because Diane Hendricks snagged her a ticket to the inaugural ball of a governor who is, Mary can see, as determined to set a new tone for Wisconsin as she is for Janesville.
Predictably, those in Janesville who are struggling feel they need more than an ‘ambasssador of optimism’:
The anger that rises against Mary is local. It rises because she has neglected to notice a basic fact: talking up a town to people who can still afford to go out to eat, to travelers checking into the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express, is not quite the same as telling everyone who reads the Gazette that the only thing they need to do for the economy to recover is to become an optimist. And telling them this near the start of a month during which Rock County’s unemployment rate, even two years after the assembly plant shut down, stands at 11.2 percent. Not the same at all.
(Astonishingly, and cluelessly, Willmer is “slow to sense the anger rising against her.”)
Meanwhile, Mary Willmer’s new pal takes a moment before a meeting to ask recently-inaugurated Gov. Walker a question:
Diane [Hendricks] asks, could they talk for two seconds about some concerns that are best not to raise in front of the group? “Okay, sure,” the governor says. Diane stands close and looks him straight in the eye. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions and become a right-to-work? What can we do to help you?” “Oh yeah,” Walker replies. “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” “You’re right on target,” Diane says, as Mary looks on.”
Goldstein saves the best for the end of the chapter: “Mary types on her BlackBerry a message that she posts on her Facebook page: “Great morning with Gov. Walker. We are so lucky to have him.”
It’s familiar: the insistence on optimism (the myopic role of boosters), the reliance on a local, poorly written but ever-so-obliging publication to carry water for the effort, and the search for a few well-placed pals to reassure that one has arrived….
Goldstein’s accounts in the chapter are, of course, all from 2011. They’re striking. Yesteryear’s mirage of arrival (for one never arrives) seems, from our later date, less arrogant than it is impossibly sad.
Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 9 of 14).