INEZ, Ky. — In the heart of Appalachia, in the town where Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty but where poverty still reigns, John McCain told voters Wednesday that the government couldn't solve all their problems.
"Government has a role to play in helping people who through no fault of their own are having a hard time," McCain said. "But government can't create good and lasting jobs outside of government. It can't pay lost wages. It can't dig coal from the earth. It can't buy you a house."
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who's on a weeklong tour of what he calls America's "forgotten places," faulted previous politicians for taking a top-down approach to fighting poverty. He said a better approach from Washington would be "to listen to and learn from you, about what you're doing to grow your economy and increase opportunities here, and to find out what government is doing and not doing to help your initiatives."
He called for providing Internet service to underserved areas. Under McCain's plan, the government would reward companies that provided that service with tax breaks and faster depreciation of their investments.
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McCain reiterated his previous calls for ties between businesses and community colleges to train needed workers, for encouraging professionals to go into teaching and for more use of the Internet to teach those in remote areas.
Finally, McCain promised to return to Inez if he's elected and hold another town-hall meeting to hear from Martin County residents about how he's doing in his efforts to help them.
This is poor country — the poverty rate in Inez is 35 percent. But people here say it's McCain country. George W. Bush won the congressional district here by 62 percent to 39 percent in 2004.
"This area is conservative, rural and religious — a perfect place for John McCain to do very well. These are white hillbillies," said Thomas Packett, a school principal for 37 years in nearby Prestonburg.
Irene McCoy works at a Wal-Mart with her daughter. Her son works in a coal mine. "It's a hard way to go around here. We're just poor folks," she said.
Yet in many ways the area has changed since Johnson visited in 1964, Packett said.
"It's a lot better than it was. A lot of people didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing. Now they might be in trailers or double-wides, but they're better off. There has been progress."
He said LBJ's big government aid was helpful in its day, but he agrees with McCain that now the area's biggest need is more money for job-training education.
The crowd of several hundred — in a town with fewer than 500 residents — greeted McCain rapturously, with several standing ovations as he delivered a speech and held a town-hall meeting in an old county courthouse.
The loudest applause of the day, however, wasn't for McCain.
It came when local State Sen. Brandon Smith rose to complain to McCain about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent statement that some people "cling" to guns or faith in their bitterness. McCain asked Smith what he thought of Obama's remarks.
"I think it represents the view of someone who doesn't understand this neck of the woods," Smith said. The room exploded in prolonged whoops, cheers and clapping.
McCain added, to more applause, that "those were elitist remarks, to say the least."
McCain then took a brief walking tour of Inez before flying to New Orleans.