Caught in the Middle: What Is Indiana’s Brand?
In 1983, a young, wholesome-looking Midwestern actor fell off the turnip truck in New York City. After a year of struggling to find work, he was on the verge of packing up and heading home. Then he got a tip from a friend. “Hey, I just went and auditioned for a part in this show called Cheers,” the friend told him. “The part’s called ‘Woody,’ and, I mean, you’re just perfect for it.” The actor even had the same first name as the character. Was it kismet?
He nailed the audition, and just like that, Woody Harrelson, a recent theater grad from Hanover College in Southern Indiana, got his big break in the Big Apple, picked to play a dumb Hoosier hick on one of the most popular television shows in America. As the backstory of Woodrow Huckleberry Tiberius Boyd developed, “Woody” even took cues from the real-life Harrelson, claiming Hanover as his hometown. Audiences embraced the role so well that Woody Boyd became a fixture for eight seasons. Woody Harrelson, born in Texas and raised in Ohio, emerged as one of the most famous TV characters associated with the Hoosier State.
A couple of years ago, Hanover College gave Harrelson a callback in order to grant him an honorary doctorate at an elaborate ceremony, where Hanover’s dean of faculty praised his “contributions to Hanover College, to his craft and his profession, and to society.” Notably unsung, however, were Harrelson’s contributions to Indiana, which, at best, are mixed. Because the portrait of Hoosierdom that Harrelson exhibited for the nation, albeit with spot-on comic timing, was nevertheless a paint-by-numbers of all the old stereotypes: a farm-raised, corn-fed rustic, hopelessly—willfully—naive, barn-strong but weak on intellectual heft. Even those aspects of Woody Boyd that ostensibly reflected the best of Hoosiers—the politeness, honesty, and earnestness—seemed absurd with Harrelson’s deadpan delivery.
Hoosier indignation was minimal, partly because we could acknowledge that Woody Boyd’s dumbness likely had as much to do with his rural origins as being from Indiana; TV has portrayed no bigger bumpkins than Newhart’s Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl, and they hailed from Vermont. (And as for willful naivete, 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell, product of Stone Mountain, Georgia, is the new titleholder.) So Boyd wouldn’t have been so bad for Indiana’s brand—hey, we can take a joke as well as anybody—except for an unfortunate confluence of circumstances.
Cheers’s Woody Era, from 1985 to 1993, roughly coincided with Hoosier Dan Quayle’s turn on the national political stage, a gaffe-prone career capped and defined by the unfortunate moment in 1992 when, during his last year in the office of vice president, he showed up at a children’s spelling bee and added an “e” to the end of P-O-T-A-T-O. In fairness to Harrelson and the writers of Cheers, their guilt lay mostly in trading on flippant assumptions for cheap laughs. Quayle’s sin, to some, was much greater: If Woody was a TV stand-in for the notion that people from Indiana were simpletons, the veep from Huntington was flesh-and-blood proof that we were. Quayle even shared Woody’s youthful, scrubbed appearance. In the eyes of America, those hayseeds Woody Boyd and Dan Quayle were emblematic of all Hoosiers.
Looking back, Quayle takes the ribbing in stride—and won’t blame Indiana. “[The media] normally has to pick on one of you, whether it’s the president or the vice president, and for the first three and a half years, I was the target.”
That characterization of simple-mindedness, though, further colored Indiana’s image in the nation’s collective psyche, which already identified us with touchstones of Hoosierama like farming, basketball, racing, small towns, and sugar-cream pie. Still, in easily distracted America, having a mark of distinction, even one burdened by a few laughable stereotypes, is better than the anonymous alternative. What would a Woody Boyd from Delaware look like? From Missouri? South Dakota? Who knows? Indiana, more than most states, has a brand—one that, even as it evolved over 200 years, has proven remarkably durable.
Starting now, Hoosiers will mark those two centuries of Indiana history with a yearlong party. But what, exactly, are we commemorating? That the state lasted this long? Was there any doubt that it would? No—we’re really celebrating the idea of Indiana, even as a new generation works to revive and rebuild the legacy we inherited.
In the early days of the republic, settling the territory that encompasses present-day Indiana was a national obsession, America’s Manifest Destiny. And so the first reputation people in Indiana got was admirable enough: sturdy, rough-hewn pioneer folk—of the kind that appears on our state seal, swinging an ax. One chestnut theory on the origin of “Hoosier,” in fact, is that it’s an iteration of Who’s ’ere?, a greeting cabin dwellers hollered to travelers approaching through the woods.
In the rush to clear trees for farmsteads and populate the prairies, however, the state quickly shifted from new frontier to old, and around the mid-1800s, an image of Indiana as a recently tamed and now idyllic, bountiful land took hold. As a bucolic counterpoint to the lurid and dangerous Wild West, Indiana’s mythos had broad appeal, one that came close to achieving the Jeffersonian ideal: an agrarian society of free, self-sufficient landowners.
For Indiana’s first territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, running a folksy platform as a frontier-tamer proved a successful strategy for winning votes in his 1840 presidential campaign, in which “Old Tippecanoe,” Harrison’s nickname, evoked his military defeat of Native Americans near Lafayette. For “Honest Abe” Lincoln, a pioneer boyhood—spent partly in Southern Indiana splitting rails and scratching out schoolwork with a lump of coal, by firelight, in a log cabin—was central to what we would now call his political narrative. Edward Eggleston’s 1871 novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story of Backwoods Life in Indiana, was popular with a national audience of readers, who, by the turn of the century, came to associate the state not with intellectualism, but certainly homespun wisdom. The Ideas of a Plain Country Woman, a column by Juliet Strauss, billed as a “woman in a tiny out-of-the-way-town in Indiana,” was syndicated nationally in newspapers and Ladies’ Home Journal. Also appearing in publications across the United States was humorist Kin Hubbard’s Abe Martin of Brown County, a cartoon featuring the sage witticisms of a whiskered rube from Indiana’s hill country. James Whitcomb Riley rose to prominence as a literary figure writing poetry in the Indiana dialect—which, as Riley conceived it, sounds something like a toothless cornpone in a bait shop.
As the 1916 centennial approached, the state’s downhome reputation dovetailed with a great demographic movement. Between 1880 and 1890, the mean center of U.S. population landed in Indiana for the first time and stayed there for five decades, meaning that if you bisected the country along a line running through the state, half of all Americans would have lived on one side or the other. In other words, for roughly a fifth of the existence of the United States, Indiana has been located at the center of it. We were, quite literally, Middle America.
Anchoring the Midwest made Indiana an avatar for what today’s politicians might call “real America,” insulated as it was from primary immigrant destinations and cultural crucibles like New York and San Francisco. “Indiana approximates an average of America and closely resembles the composite that the various corners of our country might present could they be brought together and intermingled,” wrote historian Frederic L. Paxson in 1916. “It is an average that makes a State with fewer of the very rich, with fewer of the very poor, with fewer of the foreign born, with a larger population of the home born than most of our other States; that makes a community born within itself, enlarging its own traditions and carrying on its own ideals; and because of the trend of history it is singularly American in its point of view.”
In the years leading up to that “average” assessment, however, Indiana embraced two nascent pastimes that would nonetheless leave indelible marks on the state’s character: racing and basketball. In 1909, a group of automotive entrepreneurs built a track in Indianapolis, and enthusiasm for its signature event—the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, inaugurated a few years later—would pace America’s increasing obsession with, and dependence on, the automobile. Meanwhile, YMCA members in Indiana had jumped at the chance to play a new indoor game invented by James Naismith, making the state one of the first outside of Massachusetts to take up basketball. By 1911, Indiana had installed its soon-to-be-famous single-class state high-school tournament, and the rest, as Milan’s Bobby Plump might say, is history.
Coastal sports fans in particular have made no secret of their fascination with simple folk who hail from the Heartland. Look at how Boston fetishized Larry Bird, “The Hick from French Lick.” To Celtics fans, the fact that Bird didn’t say much, and yet seemed to have a chess master’s understanding of basketball, indicated he was some kind of idiot savant, a player whose prowess must spring from drinking Indiana’s water. How else to explain the likes of Oscar Robertson and John Wooden, two more Indiana men with a preternatural understanding of the game? It was the same kind of thinking that fueled New Yorkers’ passion for the heated “Hicks vs. Knicks” NBA rivalry with the Pacers in the 1990s. Athletes from Indiana have their own archetype, for chrissakes, as mythologized in the film Hoosiers: Hickory’s Jimmy Chitwood, alone at dusk, sinking free throws on the dirt court of an Indiana farm. Which explains why network TV promos for the Pacers’ 2000 Finals series against the Lakers showed Reggie Miller—a guy who grew up in Southern California and attended UCLA—wading in a field of undulating grain.
We Hoosiers have often forgiven such cliches. Take the gentle people of Hanover. Cheers didn’t just portray their fictional son as a moron—that moron boasted of having been the smartest person in town! But was Hanover mad? “I think everybody was tickled pink we got referenced,” says Tom Evans, Woody Harrelson’s theater professor, who introduced the actor at his honorary doctoral ceremony. “Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame on TV, even if this is how you get it. Hey, this talks about the town where I live! Oh boy!”
As for Evans, a native of Mississippi (a state that knows something about having a brand with baggage), he tries to keep Woody Boyd’s Hoosier persona in perspective. What audiences took away from Harrelson’s performance, says Evans, is that “those guys from Indiana are dolts, but they’re delightful dolts.” At the same time, there was something true and good about Woody that endeared him to the show’s cynical, world-weary Bostonians, and to America, “a kind of genuineness, a kind of authenticity, that comes from the soil,” muses Evans. “Indiana’s a farming state, and there’s a kind of honesty that comes up out of the ground.”
Evans is onto something here. Besides Indiana, you can probably count on one hand the states that have produced more famous figures whose personas are as tied to where they’re from. (We see you, Texas and New Jersey.) The most celebrated Hoosiers, the most beloved, by us and by everyone else, seem to be the ones who play to Indiana’s downhominess without turning it into a caricature. David Letterman’s “Guess Mom’s Pies” bit, with a cutaway to Dave’s mom in her cozy Carmel kitchen. John Mellencamp extolling the virtues of small towns, rhapsodizing about “kids growin’ up in the Heartland,” and crusading on behalf of family farms.
Actress Vivica A. Fox grew up in Indianapolis then headed west to become a Hollywood star of the first order. “It’s glamorous, it’s glitzy, it’s red-carpet events,” she says of her adopted milieu. “You get to meet people, travel all over the world. But I normally come home every year for Thanksgiving and spend time with my family, go to church.” Her humble upbringing here formed a part of her she doesn’t want to let go, no matter how bright the lights are elsewhere. “I’ve always made sure that I never ‘left’ Indianapolis,” she says. “When I come home, I’m like everybody else. I’m in the kitchen cooking, washing dishes, helping the family.”
One thing these real-life celebrities share, along with popular fictional Hoosiers like Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, is a palpable absence of pretense, a calming counterpoint to America’s tendency toward excess. Their appeal suggests Indiana is more than a state—it is a state of mind, the idea of a place that increasingly urbanized and busy people want to believe still exists, where life is lived without artifice, at a deliberate pace. That would be a fair description of the Hanover, Indiana, that Woody Boyd described on Cheers. And the Hanover where Woody Harrelson attended college comes pretty darn close.
The rise of our downhome mystique depended on a kind of insularity, that “community born within itself,” as the historian Paxson described it, even though the state was anything but isolated. While Indiana wasn’t technically the country’s geographic center, it might as well have been. With the completion of the National Road, the nation’s first federal highway, and Indiana’s position snug between Lake Michigan and the Ohio River, two well-trafficked inland waterways, the state connected the country even before the land was crisscrossed by trains (of which Indiana has plenty: the third-most freight railroads of any state, second only to Pennsylvania and Texas). Indiana has long been a place people (and stuff) have to pass through to get someplace else, the self-proclaimed Crossroads of America. Before we were flyover country, we were float-past and roll-by country.
As the state developed to that end, the legacy of being “average” (or, if you prefer, “singularly American”) has had positives and negatives. On the plus side, outsiders project what they love about their country as a whole onto Indiana—for instance, the notion that our scrappy little state is a fitting setting for against-all-odds sports tales (Hoosiers, Breaking Away, Rudy), which are just allegories for the underdog spirit that brought the United States into being and, we like to think, still infuses the national character. It’s why they call us the Heartland instead of the Gutland (perhaps a more accurate metaphor).
Yet at other times we have looked like the nation’s id, particularly when some of our more reactionary outbursts are viewed through a prism of politics and culture. We like to brag about Hoosier hospitality, but look at all the big, important opportunities we missed to write a legacy of decency and humanity, retreating instead into small thinking, meanness, and outright hate. How much more diverse and culturally rich, how much more vibrant, might Indiana (and the nation as a whole, for that matter) be today had our forebears, instead of merely naming our state after the native inhabitants we displaced through force or threat thereof, sought peace instead of extinction?
What if, after tens of thousands of conscience-driven Hoosiers made Indiana a bustling route along the Underground Railroad and risked death to preserve the Union and end slavery, residents in the 1920s, faced with growing populations of European immigrants and African-American migrants from the deep South, had honored Indiana’s history of compassion instead of letting insecurity and fear drive them to the poison bosom of the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated state politics and waged campaigns of terror?
One of the most notorious lynchings in U.S. history occurred in Marion, in 1930, and a vivid photograph documenting the crime became a painful yet iconic symbol of injustice against black America, partly inspiring the famous poem and song “Strange Fruit.” One of Indiana’s proudest sports legends and educational institutions, Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, produced Oscar Robertson, who led the basketball team to the nation’s first-ever state title by an all-black squad, as well as such visionary graduates as former U.S. Representative Julia Carson and all-time jazz greats David Baker, Wes Montgomery, and J.J. Johnson. And yet the high school exists only because the city, caught up in Klan fervor, segregated black students in separate schools in 1927.
“Crispus Attucks may have been started because of segregation, but we took that opportunity and made gold,” says Angela Brown, a Class of ’82 grad who went on to become an international opera star. “We took a pig’s ear and turned it into a silk purse. We used the opportunity that we were given for education, period, regardless of if we were set aside.”
Then, as now, prejudice was not a strictly black-and-white issue. Jews and Catholics of any race bore the Klan’s hate as well, and also refused to accept it. The great Notre Dame president Father John F. O’Hara countered sweeping nationwide anti-papist bigotry by promoting the university as a symbol of Catholic achievement and pride, and it became a kind of base of operations for efforts to combat the Klan and subvert the organization’s pernicious influence. Others stood up, too, such as George R. Dale of Muncie’s Post-Democrat newspaper, who editorialized against the Klan and outed local members, including a judge—which landed Dale in jail and precipitated a nationally publicized Supreme Court case.
Our shortsightedness has extended to the environment, too. As much food and industry as commerce has coaxed from Indiana’s resource-rich landscape, we have, in our haste to exploit it, often squandered that great gift (which, historically speaking, was a “gift” in the same way that cash from a liquor store stickup is a gift). Around the world, fresh, clean water is a precious commodity, and something Indiana would have in abundance, if we didn’t treat our watershed like a chemical toilet: In 2012, close to 18 million pounds of toxic effluent flowed into our waterways, the most of any state. Indiana’s air pollution routinely places it near the bottom of all states for air quality. Hoosiers have been slow to update the pioneer ethos, wherein they regard this land as an inexhaustible wilderness rather than the fragile habitat it actually is.
That insular past also caused many of our most famous sons and daughters to travel elsewhere to find their fortunes (taking advantage of our convenient crossroads of getaway routes). The state has a history of feeling too cozy for outsized creative talents and personalities, such as Cole Porter, Kurt Vonnegut, Twyla Tharp, and Ryan Murphy, to name a few. Like the developer of a housing addition that names barren cul-de-sacs after the hardwoods felled to make room for them, we sometimes seem capable of appreciating greatness only after it’s gone. Hoosiers nonetheless take pride in the fact that at least some of the qualities that made those stars great—work ethic, say, or individuality—were somehow instilled during their formative years in Indiana.
Among such expats, the belated recognition can strain the bonds linking them to where they’re from. Robert Indiana, who adopted the name of his birthplace but found fame in the East, created two of the state’s most visible artworks: the iconic LOVE sculpture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the soaring INDIANA obelisk at the Indiana State Museum. And yet, in a 2014 interview with Indianapolis Monthly, he complained that moneyed Hoosiers haven’t embraced his work more heartily. “I don’t have paintings in almost any house in the state,” he said, “which doesn’t seem interested in collecting its most major artist.” He also lamented, “And I believe you have a Republican governor—is that right? That’s not good. I’m not proud to come from a Republican state.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton might have had the same perception in mind when she referred to Indiana’s capital as “basketball-crazed Indianoplace,” a slight that caused a minor stir a few months ago after the U.S. State Department released a bunch of e-mails from her time as secretary of state. Clinton may need to come back, hat in hand, should she score the presidential nomination. Because it so happens birthing vice presidents—both Republican and Democrat—is something else we’re good at. Only New York has produced more (11 to our five, but Indiana is way ahead per capita). No veep pick proves a presidential candidate’s moderation more than a Hoosier running mate. They’re safe, middle-of-the-road—won’t generate much excitement, but probably won’t offend anyone, either.
“You’ve got to be really able to work with the president and the president’s cabinet,” says Dan Quayle of the vice presidency. “And so I think that trait that people from Indiana have—good values and strong principles, but very collegial, and can work together with a lot of different people—it’s important.”
Consider Charles Fairbanks, a U.S. senator from Indianapolis. Understated and mild-mannered to a striking degree—especially in comparison to his president, the rough-riding, larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt—Fairbanks “was neither a great orator nor a brilliant political thinker,” writes Senate historian Mark O. Hatfield. “Like so many other Indiana politicians, Fairbanks excelled as a political insider. He was skilled in the arts of political management and compromise.” The same could be said for more recent Hoosier pols mentioned on VP shortlists, from unassuming Blue Dog Democrat Evan Bayh to plain-talking, pragmatic former governor Mitch Daniels.
On the national stage, Hoosier pols as a group thrive in the mild middle. Closer to home, voters in Indiana, a red state, tend to reject extremism, too. It’s why they ultimately chose Democrat Joe Donnelly over Tea Party darling Richard Mourdock for U.S. Senate in 2012. Hoosiers also seem inclined to stray from the GOP in order to seize big historical moments: The last two Democratic presidential candidates a majority of Indiana voted for were Lyndon Johnson, widely seen as an heir to the tragic legacy of John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama, the first black chief executive.
Governor Mike Pence—a former U.S. congressman long viewed as a disciplined conservative and reliable family-values defender—had to tone down the partisan talk considerably to get votes from Hoosiers outside of his old congressional district. As popular two-term governor Daniels had learned in successive elections, and as Pence seemed to discover after signing the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, Hoosiers want bread and butter: They seem to care more about jobs and economic growth than their neighbors’ love lives.
The RFRA moment showed that our state’s image has a ways to go in catching up with actual progress we’ve made. It’s hard not to believe the bashing Indiana took last year after passing the law wasn’t exacerbated at least in part by the preexisting assumption that backward people live here. Fact is, the Hoosier brand had quietly begun to evolve beyond Woody Boyd cliches—too quietly, perhaps. Here, agriculture isn’t just simple farmers driving tractors through cornfields, but rather a lively and sometimes contentious community encompassing industrial-scale operations, cutting-edge bioengineering, and a reenergized farm-to-table movement. Leveraging the industriousness that helped generations of Hoosiers past prosper, a rapidly expanding high-tech sector is knocking some of the rust off Indiana’s reputation as an old-economy manufacturing hub. The number of foreign-born residents has tripled since 1990, forming the first new sizable immigrant communities the state has seen in close to a century. And where the culture wars are concerned, a deeply ingrained live-and-let-live attitude, perhaps descended from the spirit of individuality that drove pioneers here in the first place, persisted in scuttling efforts to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution even before federal courts made allowing such nuptials the law of the land.
The insularity that helped create our brand is falling away, making the national scorn heaped on Indiana that much worse: We learned, in a few embarrassing and painful days, that a lot of our progress has gone unnoticed.
The same goes for our cultural refinement, which doesn’t get enough credit, either. Brown, the international opera star, is used to a certain kind of reaction when she tells people she resides in her hometown: “You still live there? Why?!” What’s really surprising, though, is not that a world-class musician lives in Indiana, but rather that anyone would find that shocking. “Every orchestra I have sung with across the world—not just nationally, but the world—someone has been affiliated with the Jacobs School of Music,” says Brown, who herself attended Indiana University’s renowned conservatory. “And that’s no lie. Either someone in the orchestra, or they had a parent that taught there, or they had a cousin or friend who went there.”
Some stereotypes we’ll just have to live with—our central location means being the buckle on a lot of belts. The Corn Belt. The Rust Belt. The Bible Belt. And that makes us an easy target. We’re one of the nation’s top pork producers, so, okay, when people drive across the state with the windows down, chances are they’re going to smell some pig shit. Yes, Gary is a convenient symbol for post-industrial blight. And on his late-night talk show, Conan O’Brien staged a mock interview with Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Czar,” a fictional Hoosier supporter of RFRA, who argued, “This law prevents discrimination against good church-going folks who just want their businesses homosexual-free.”
Here on the ground, of course, the situation is way more complicated than Conan let on. Our state’s legacy of academic liberalism and free inquiry at least partially belies the notion that where LGBT Hoosiers are concerned, Indiana seems to fear and persecute those it doesn’t understand. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the famous and forward-thinking study conducted by Indiana University researcher Alfred Kinsey in 1948, helped lay a foundation for the de-stigmatization of homosexuality. Amid intense public and political pressure to shut down Kinsey’s “immoral” research, force-of-nature university president Herman B Wells, a great defender and proponent of intellectual freedom and academic rigor, fought to keep Kinsey funded. Wells, it is important to note, was no effete East Coast interloper imposing decadent values on upstanding Hoosiers; he was a native of Jamestown, Indiana, pop. 958, the son of a banker and a schoolteacher.
Megan Robertson, a GOP strategist who has successfully directed mayoral, congressional, and U.S. Senate campaigns for Indiana candidates, rejects the notion that Hoosier conservatism precludes equality for the LGBT community. In 2014, she led Freedom Indiana’s effort to block the state’s proposed same-sex marriage ban. “I am an activist and a lesbian,” says Robertson. “I’m a Republican because of small government, and low taxes, and personal responsibility. [Because of RFRA] we ended up on the national stage in a way that obviously wasn’t flattering. We always talk about Hoosiers being fair people, and Hoosier hospitality. And those things are all true. It’s just that sometimes things can get done that kind of turn that perception on its head. I think everybody was really disappointed by that.”
Such an appeal to a core component of the state spirit—fairness—relies on an ideal, if not of who we are than of who we want to be, a people with a complicated past to take both pride in and lessons from. And that is a legacy worth redeeming—worth celebrating—this year. Indiana, for instance, is known for having the things tastemaking hipsters in Portland or Brooklyn seek out, at least in theory. Barn wood, rusty industrial detritus, and kitschy roadside cafe signs? Shoot, Indiana has Americana in spades. Indiana’s beleaguered official tourism slogan, “Honest to Goodness,” wasn’t coined by accident. The phrase denotes an authenticity we exemplify at our best—one other states wish they had. A generation ago, desperate to seem urbane in the eyes of big-city peers, many chafed under the mantel of “Hoosier” and its rustic connotations. But today, Indiana’s in-crowd is reclaiming not just barn wood but the nickname as well, and wearing it (often literally, on a state-pride T-shirt) without shame.
There are still miles to go, of course. In a kind of ironic twist, the actual substance and infrastructure on which Indiana’s folksy brand was laid has required some rebuilding. Sure, grain farmers grow more corn and soybeans here than ever, but as much as half of it isn’t consumed by human beings—or even finds its way into food at all. For a long time, Indiana farming was more industrial, and a lot less pastoral, than the state’s image let on. Only lately has a new generation of agrarians taken to the field to raise enough heirloom vegetables and heritage-breed livestock to make the cornucopia of farmers markets, specialty grocers, and farm-to-table restaurants overfloweth.
Which kernels of our legacy we choose to sow now will determine what kind of harvest we reap from our brand when Indiana celebrates future birthdays. In life as on the court, to paraphrase Coach Norman Dale, if we stick to the fundamentals that got us here—the hard work, fair play, and perseverance that would make our pioneer forebears proud—we’ll be winners. And where else but Indiana would a writer try to get away with mixing farm and basketball metaphors in a sentiment cribbed from a film based on Milan’s state championship?
We can’t help it: Hoops inspire us. As a U.S. senator, Quayle attempted to redress the very stereotype he would come to embody, however unfairly. When IU played Syracuse for the 1987 national championship, New York senator Al D’Amato and Quayle made a bet. “He was saying, ‘What’s a Hoosier? Who are these guys?’ And so I went to the floor of the Senate and described what a Hoosier was,” says Quayle. His non-binding resolution described a Hoosier as “someone who is smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique, and brilliant.”
Now that is a description most folks in Indiana could live with. But Quayle did us one better. At the time, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary included a second definition for “Hoosier,” as not just someone from Indiana, but also “an ignorant rustic.” Quayle wrote a letter to the president of Merriam-Webster, asking that the pejorative language be removed. He was refused. But if you pick up a recent copy and look up “Hoosier,” you will notice that, for whatever reason, the old second definition is no longer there. So it’s up to us, right now, to make sure that when our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids look up the word years from now, they don’t discover that the bit about being “ignorant rustics”—or, heaven forbid, something worse—has made it back in.