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Posted at 07:49 PM ET, 03/15/2012

Why Romney’s grits are fried


Children and supporters listen to Romney speak at the Mississippi Farmers Market in Jackson, Miss., on March 9. (Rogelio V. Solis - AP)
On what only feels like Day 94 of Cheesy Grits-gate, pundits are still having a ball saying y’all. Because just like the man they’re mocking, they have found it’s a fun thing to say.

Now, maybe GOP hopeful Mitt Romney’s true sin, when greeting Mississippians with a friendly “Mornin’ y’all,’’ was committing irony with reporters around; when the guy we have down as humorless winks at the conventions of campaigning, well, this does not compute.

But his hat-tip to “cheesy grits” didn’t win over the locals, some of whom thought he was making fun of them. She the People’s Patricia Murphy, who’s from Georgia, felt Romney wasn’t the only one who couldn’t have been more awestruck on a visit to the moon: “The candidates all acted like they were amazed we get our water through pipes. Then again, we’re a sensitive bunch.”

Comedian Bill Maher certainly did his pot-stirring part to illuminate the complexity of Southern life, tweeting while the votes were still being counted in Mississippi and Alabama, both of which have astronomical poverty rates, that “Toothless Tuesday too tight to tally! We’re gathered around the magic picture box with a bowl of grits watching the returns come in.”

And if some of the coverage seemed skewed towards Southerners from central casting, well, as my late friend the New York Times reporter Allen Myerson once wryly observed, “You can never go wrong pandering to the prejudices of your editors.”

With Louisiana yet to vote, on March 24th, and thus more wonder at the diverse region’s quaint and colorful folk ways yet to be expressed, I’m here to tell you how the hog eats the cabbage: The idea that Southerners have any wish to hear politicians from other parts of the country talk like them is silly.

Still, lots of pols who go South do try to go native, with varying degrees of success. Barack Obama, who as everyone knows was born in southern Hawaii, can drop his g’s without any fear of embarrassing himself.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, after all those years as a Yankee in Bubba’s Little Rock, wisely made no further forays into her husband’s patois after that disastrous day in Selma in March of ’07 when she sounded like Scarlett’s Mammy quoting Rev. James Cleveland’s hymm, “I don’t feel noways tired.”

There may be something in the sweet tea, because Rick Santorum’s accent during his victory speech on Tuesday night was a little more deep fried than usual.

And Obama, if you recall, talked about his love of biscuits and grits on the stump in ’08 – oh, but that was in Evansville, Indiana, where they’re not on the menu, so that wasn’t so much pandering as just confused.

In any case, I move that we give all office seekers a pass in this regard, because many of us who aren’t running for anything do the same thing. (See: Imitation = flattery.)

Or must Americans in Paris leave merci to the locals, for fear of a phoniness faux pas? And when in Rome, should we be sure and have the burger and fries?

Even New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen (insert ‘Born to Run’ joke here) succumbed to this temptation on Thursday, his accent heading noticeably south as he talked about country music at South by Southwest in Austin.

Part of it is the Madonna-in-London syndrome; even rebels can give in to the natural human urge to fit in.

Something about a Southern accent, though, is as alluring as my Kentucky grandmother’s buttermilk pie. (Though she never wrote a recipe down that I knew anything about, and whenever I tried to pry one out of her would say something about using “right smart of lard,” my cousin-by-marriage John Egerton does approximate it on page 329 of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History. But don’t even try and thank me with your mouth full.)

I used to laugh at my mom for morphing her pronunciation from ‘pie’ to ‘paah’ anywhere within 50 miles of her people, but I do it, too, and during my Texas years y’alled it up with impunity.

There’s a reason we might want to sound like that: Apparently, the few extra milliseconds it takes to drawl gives Southerners time to add a little twist of humor to the tip of the knife; I won’t argue that arguing while Southern is any kinder or gentler, perhaps because I’m familiar with the Jeff Sessions oeuvre. But as someone who quotes people for a living, I will say that when it comes to fun with words, storytelling Southerners – and do sit down, because this might take a minute -- have no equal. (Think Haley Barbour, or Mike Huckabee, or even, bless his heart, James Carville.)

I am not a true Southerner myself, though in Southern Illinois, where I grew up, we do lean a little in that direction, culturally, politically and linguistically, yet not, sadly, when it comes to food. But my many feelings about my semi-Southern roots include a combo of irritation and perverse admiration for the pure stubbornness it takes to tell pollsters that no, they still don’t believe in evolution, thanks.

Which sort of reminds me of the time in 4th grade when our teacher said, “There’s no one in here who still believes in Santa Claus, right? Raise your hand if you do.” And I raised my hand, not because I didn’t know that was the wrong answer, but because it ticked me off that she’d asked so condescendingly.

Empathy that’s signaled too glibly, in the shorthand of stereotype, is a poor subsitute for the real thing, which is universal, and, unlike an accent, can’t be faked.

When voters from Vallejo to Valdosta say they want a candidate who’s like them, they don’t mean it literally. What voters want is someone to believe in, and who seems to believe what he’s saying. Which, sadly for Mr. Cheesy Grits, is something that can’t be learned or put on — and which unlike him, Barack Obama and Rick Santorum both convey.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’

By  |  07:49 PM ET, 03/15/2012

 
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