WASHINGTON -- If you're a Democrat who needs help getting the votes of rural white folks, the go-to guy is David "Mudcat" Saunders, a central-casting political consultant recently made famous by a parade of magazine writers led by The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash.
But sometimes you can learn more about a people and their place through literature than by hiring consultants. So I called Ron Rash, poet, author and purebred Appalachian whose newest novel, "Serena," should be at the top of Barack Obama's reading list.
Sarah Palin might enjoy it as well. Described by one blurber as "an Appalachian retelling of Macbeth," the story features a strong woman who hunts rattlesnakes with an eagle. An Academy Award nomination awaits the woman who plays Serena, predicts novelist Pat Conroy.
I asked Rash, with whom I've visited on occasion: What does Obama need to do to win the hearts and votes of Appalachia?
Rash is a lean, wiry man who has trouble sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground, usually pulling one knee to his chest like a yogi. He speaks in quick bursts like an engine spitting in the cold -- or a man more accustomed to thinking than talking.
Though an Obama man, Rash is quick to condemn the snobbery he has observed toward Palin. He cringes when he hears a news anchor refer to his home turf as "redneck country." Or when the bad guy in movies too often has a Southern accent.
But, he says, "One thing about Appalachian people is they don't bitch and moan."
Rash's Appalachian roots run 200 years deep, and he has the tales to prove it. One that may prove helpful to Obama in understanding the character of his people tells of a Confederate soldier who dropped by Rash's family farm near Boone, N.C., to confiscate their only horse for the Confederacy.
As the soldier left whistling "Dixie," the lady of the house shouted: "Before morning, you'll be whistling 'Dixie' in hell."
Indeed, the next morning, the fellow was found face down in a creek two miles away -- and the horse was back in the barn.
Moral: Don't mess with Appalachia.
Obama has more in common with the mountain people than he may realize, says Rash, who is the Parris distinguished professor in Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowee, N.C.
African-Americans built this country and got nothing back, he says. So did Appalachians. What Obama may not know is that most mountain communities were pro-Union during the Civil War. These often-impoverished descendants of the Scots-Irish weren't slaveholders, after all. In a sense, blacks and Appalachians are natural allies.