And so it was that Scott Walker arrived in South Philly yesterday, no doubt believing that like Arthur approaching the stone, this Harley-riding blue-collar guy, this lover of bargains at Kohl’s, would prove himself worthy where so many others had failed. But alas, it was not to be.
First, his triumphant entrance was marred by a pair of creative protesters who thrust their handmade signs into the camera shots, one reading, “Scott Walker lives inside my butt,” and the other claiming, “Scott Walker sniffs his own poop,” a combination of absurdity and scatology that was plainly appropriate for this hard-bitten city. (For the record: yes, Philadelphia Eagles fans did once pelt Santa Claus with snowballs. But Santa had it coming.)
Then there was the fact that, as the story was first told, Walker cut to the front of the line at Geno’s as the cameras clicked away, then left half his cheesesteak from Pat’s on the table for others to dispose of. His campaign later noted that the owner brought him to the front, so it wasn’t just boorishness, and he only left his sandwich temporarily, later finishing it on his way to the car (and anyway, it was his second, which is a lot for anybody). But the damage was done: “A Philly Faux Pas by Scott Walker” reads the article on the New York Times web site; “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker visits Pat’s and Geno’s amid protests, bad cheesesteak orders” says Philly.com.
As someone who lived in Philadelphia for 10 years, I look forward to the quadrennial cheesesteak ritual, because it never fails to lay bare the contemporary presidential campaign in all its hideous glory. While candidates have been using the public consumption of popular foodstuffs as a performative act for about as long as there have been campaigns, the press’ use of the cheesesteak as a test of authenticity really dates to twelve years ago. Here’s how Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote about it at the time:
If Sen. John Kerry’s presidential aspirations melt like a dollop of Cheez Whiz in the sun, the trouble may well be traced to an incident in South Philadelphia on Monday.
There, the Massachusetts Democrat went to Pat’s Steaks and ordered a cheese steak — with Swiss cheese. If that weren’t bad enough, the candidate asked photographers not to take his picture while he ate the sandwich. Shutters clicked anyway, and Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich — another serious faux pas.
In a world of reality, Kerry’s cheesesteak misstep revealed nothing more than the fact that he is not, in fact, from Philadelphia, just like most people. The failure was one of his advance team, which should have consulted with pretty much any Philadelphian, who could have revealed the magic words Kerry needed to speak. Had he strode to the counter and said simply, “Whiz with” — that would be a cheesesteak, with Cheez Whiz and fried onions — he would have been hailed for his common touch (even if provolone is easily the best choice for a cheesesteak). Instead, Kerry was ridiculed mercilessly as an out-of-touch brahmin, as though Swiss cheese were some kind of obscure and expensive delicacy. It wasn’t even the only time reporters scolded Kerry for what he consumed — don’t get me started on the story of Candy Crowley and the green tea.
Anyone who stopped to think about it for a moment would realize that the deftness of a candidate’s order at a sandwich shop tells us absolutely nothing about his true character, let alone what sort of president he might be. But that didn’t matter — in subsequent days, Kerry’s cheesesteak incident would be mentioned by reporters countless times as evidence of how he just couldn’t relate to ordinary people. President Bush, carefully coached, later told the press with a smirk, “I like my cheesesteaks ‘Whiz with,'” no doubt to the congratulatory chuckles of all assembled.
As he always did, Bush won that authenticity contest. Reporters remained convinced that this son of a president and grandson of a senator, educated at Andover and Yale, who summered at his family’s compound in Maine and spent his presidency pursuing creative ways to relieve the nation’s wealthy from the unjust burden of taxation, was the real reg’lar fella. And while exercises like the cheesesteak ritual are presented to us as though they reveal something important about the candidates, what they’re really revealing is something important about the press.
It isn’t just reporters’ love of trivial pseudo-events and their desperate search for metaphors through which they can present the conclusions they’ve already reached about the candidates, though it is that. It isn’t just the way they simultaneously express contempt for the artifice of campaigning and elevate that very artifice to the thing that supposedly matters, though it’s that, too. It’s also their own search for authenticity and their desire to feel like they too are connected to regular people.
Events like these are a way for journalists themselves to pose as, if not actually working class, then in touch with the working class. When they heap scorn on a candidate for not being familiar with a particular city’s downscale culinary mores, they stand with the common folk, pointing their fingers and laughing at that stuck-up toff in the suit and tie who thinks he can pretend to be a normal guy like us. When they explain that a candidate is a phony (even if not in so many words), journalists assure us that they’re the ones who can cut through the baloney and strip away the theater, because just like us, they care about what’s real.
Walker’s visit to Pat’s and Geno’s may not have gone smoothly, but at least he avoided doing anything that would mark him as a member of that dreaded “elitist” class, the sort who can’t forge those critical bonds of affinity with ordinary Joes and Janes. Other candidates had better keep watching their step; as the New York Times wrote a few months ago, Jeb Bush’s adherence to a “paleo” diet “runs the risk of putting him at a dietary distance from an American electorate that still binges on carbohydrates and, after eight years of a tea-sipping president, craves a relatable eater in chief.”
That line may have been half in jest, but it’s the half serious part that’s the problem. Is the public really craving a president who eats exactly what they eat in the way they eat it? Forget about the fact that no one person could possibly meet that standard in the most diverse country on earth — do they actually care? Or might it be that they have at least a passing interest in what the people running for the White House want to do as president?
I’m not trying to get the politicians off the hook — they and the people covering them cooperate to construct a campaign built out of ridiculously staged moments like a visit to Pat’s and Geno’s. But nobody’s forcing journalists to claim that the quality of the candidate’s performance at a campaign stop like this one has deep symbolic meaning and is profoundly revealing of the candidate’s true character. They do that all on their own.