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Where do those real people go?

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Campaigning in Omaha the other day, President Bush ecstatically told a room full of people, "How nice it is to be out where the real people are _ outside of Washington, D.C.!" It is true that Omaha is jam-packed with real people. The latest study shows that real people make up 79 percent of the population. Still, the city has no reason to be smug. Five years ago 85 percent of Omaha's people were real, and 10 years ago the figure was 91 percent.

People who study these things find the same downward trend in almost all cities in the 300,000-to-400,000-people class. Real people in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, have declined from 68 percent to 53 percent. Charlotte, N.C., has had a drop from 71 to 60 percent.

What is happening? Some experts believe that as a city reaches the 300,000 level, it just naturally attracts a faker class of people. Others think real people are being driven out by pressures to which real people, being sensitive, are peculiarly vulnerable.

For instance, after President Bush congratulated Omaha the other day on its wealth of real people, television reporters out in Red Oak, Iowa, interviewed Newton Skeebeau, the father of an entire family of real people, who had moved out of Omaha to escape what he considered a nasty situation.

Skeebeau said he could no longer stand presidents from Washington constantly descending on Omaha to praise Omaha people for being real.

"I got tired of presidents coming to town to tell me how lucky I was to be real in Omaha instead of living rent-free with plenty of servants in the White House in Washington, D.C., with a private airplane to fly me to Tokyo or Paris whenever I wanted to go," said Skeebeau.

There may be something in this suggestion that presidents are causing the flight of real people from the middle-size cities. Look at the figures for Newark, N.J., for instance:

Ten years ago 18 percent of Newark's population was real people. Now, while other cities decline, Newark's figure has risen to 29 percent. One possible explanation for Newark's gain may lie in the statistics on presidential campaign visits.

In the past 30 years Newark has been the only city in its population category that has not been visited at least once by a campaigning president in search of real people. This fact, says Naughton Boles, Newark's maverick politician, can be used to persuade real people from Midwestern cities to migrate to Newark.

He argues that Newark can lure real people from cities like Omaha with an advertising campaign pointing out that Newark is a town where real people never have to worry about being patronized by campaigning presidents as "real people."

Of course he overlooks the likelihood that if his campaign succeeded and Newark's real-people population hit, say, 80 percent, no president would ever again fly from Washington to New York without putting down at Newark to tell America it made him feel wonderful to be out among real people again.

Are there, then, no real people at all in Washington? None except for the president, his family and close associates. Aside from them, Washington is populated with unreal people.

Legend has it that all the real people of Washington were moved to Omaha years ago and replaced with hundreds of thousands of unreal people who were imported from all over the country. The aim was to create an entire city whose people could be abused by campaigning presidents who wanted to make Omaha feel sorry for them.

Do Washingtonians hate being unreal people? Yes, but not as much as they might if Civil Service pay scales were not so generous.

New York Times News Service