Politics of Food

Me? I Vote For the Cheez Whiz

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman found himself stuck between a pork chop and a hard place.

It was the summer of 2002, and Lieberman was campaigning at the Iowa State Fair in advance of the 2004 presidential campaign when he came to a tent sponsored by the state's pork producers. As a Jew who keeps kosher, Lieberman was prohibited from eating the proffered pork on a stick. As a politician stumping for votes in the Iowa presidential caucuses, passing on the pork could carry repercussions in the polls.

David Yepsen, the state's legendary political reporter, watched as a compromise was struck: Lieberman passed on the pork chop but worked the tent -- meeting and greeting the meat men who form one of the pillars of Iowa's economy.

Empathy is everything in modern politics, and there is no better way for a politician to show it than fluency in the language of local food. "A premium is placed on authenticity and, short of being born and raised in a state or area within a state, demonstrating a taste -- literally or metaphorically -- for local cuisine is one of the best short cuts for connecting with voters," says Thomas Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland.

In other words, you are what you eat.

Modern presidential politics is littered with candidates who committed fatal food faux pas. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's request for Swiss cheese rather than Cheez Whiz on his cheese steak at a stop in Philadelphia during the 2004 campaign cemented the public's view of him as an out-of-touch Brahmin.

During his 1976 primary race against Ronald Reagan, President Gerald R. Ford was offered a tamale at a campaign stop in Texas. He ate it corn husk and all -- a cultural and culinary no-no.

Or how about Sargent Shriver? While he was the Democratic party's 1972 vice presidential candidate, Shriver wandered into a bar in New Hampshire and said: "Beer for the boys, and I'll have a Courvoisier."

Food can humanize as well as dehumanize. Witness Bill Clinton's habit during the 1992 presidential campaign of making unscheduled visits to McDonald's for a Big Mac and fries. Clinton's weakness for fried food and the yo-yo-ing waistline that went with it helped the average voter identify with him. "It said to voters, 'He's just like me even though he's the governor or the president,' " says Arthur English, an Arkansas political scientist.

And so, although the rise of e-mail, television and blogs has altered (and depersonalized) the way politics is performed, the simple act of sharing a meal retains a literal and figurative importance not to be understated.

Put another way, a candidate's willingness to eat a fried Snickers bar (soak in vegetable oil, fry, then douse in powdered sugar for a mere 444 calories per bar) or a stack of hot cakes (preferably at the Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester if you're trying to win the New Hampshire primary), says more about a campaign's chances of winning than a pile of worthy position papers.

Take the variety of food-centered political gatherings staged annually around the country -- all of which serve to test the food bona fides of aspiring candidates.

At Virginia's Shad Planking every April, politicians and the press trek down to a patch of piney woods in Wakefield to eat bony fish, drink cold beer and listen to political stem-winders. The J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake -- honoring the state's 54th governor -- is held in August on a smoking piece of asphalt on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Arkansas has the Coon Supper -- yes, that is the official name -- where raccoon and beer are on the menu along with politics each January. Attendees (who have included Clinton as well as former Democratic Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers) collectively consume between 600 and 800 pounds of raccoon meat in the small town of Gillett in eastern Arkansas.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has attended plenty of Coon Suppers, but it's what he hasn't eaten that has fueled his rise to prominence. A few years ago, Huckabee was an obscure Southern governor who topped the scales at nearly 300 pounds. Now 110 pounds lighter and preparing to compete in his fourth marathon, Huckabee is considered a viable presidential candidate in 2008.

Huckabee's ascent may rewrite the history books when it comes to food and politics. It may yet turn out that skinny is the new skinny, at least when it comes to getting elected.


Chris Cillizza covers national politics for washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company