The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The return of the dumbest genre of campaign story

(Meg Kinnard/AP)

If you decide to run for president, you will have to do many things, not all of them pleasant. You will have to call hundreds or even thousands of people and ask them for money. You will have to pretend to be overjoyed to meet every person you encounter, no matter how indifferent they are toward you. You will have to repeat the same speech over and over until you feel like a malfunctioning robot. You will have to put up with inane questions from reporters about your standing in the polls.

And you will have to eat.

Indeed, you will be expected to take any food item anyone puts in your hand, appetizing or not, and cram it down your gullet as though you'd been waiting years to get your mouth around a deep-fried Twinkie or squirrel-snout-on-a-stick or whatever is causing a stir at the state fair this year.

More than that, though, you will be watched while you eat by the eagle-eyed representatives of the elite press, who will scrutinize every move of your hand and and twitch of your lip as though they were Soviet figure-skating judges searching for the most minute flaws in your performance. Once the meal is consumed, they will ask: Was that sufficiently authentic? Did you order the local delicacy in this place you are not from and may never have visited with the proper words, and eat it with the proper implement? If you failed in this task, you are plainly unable to connect with the “real” Americans whose favor will determine your fate.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the latest to fail the test. On a visit to South Carolina, she went to a meeting in a chicken-&-waffles restaurant and began eating her chicken with a fork, then noticed that others were using their hands, and politely asked the owner what was better. Upon being informed that she should use her hands, she did so. But it was too late; her true nature as an out-of-touch fraud had been revealed.

“Could this really be the first time in 50 years she ate fried chicken?” a New York Times reporter asked. “Is there anything Gillibrand has done that is not contrived and opportunistic?” said an esteemed New York Magazine writer. Judgment: Inauthentic.

If nothing else, Gillibrand can take solace in having joined a long line of presidents and presidential aspirants who have fallen short in the culinary authenticity department. In 1976, Gerald Ford bit into a tamale without shucking it first, thereby proving that he would be an enemy of all Latino Americans. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ate pizza with a fork, like some kind of monster. But nobody was punished more harshly for a food faux pas than John Kerry, who in 2003 made the required pre-Pennsylvania primary pilgrimage to the corner of 9th and East Passyunk in Philadelphia, where Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks stare across the intersection in their eternal cheesesteak war.

Kerry made the horrific mistake of ordering his cheesesteak with that obscure, fancy-pants topping known as Swiss cheese, producing a chorus of contempt from reporters who explained that "real" Philadelphians order their cheesesteaks with Cheez Whiz. Which is itself not true; though many people get Whiz, the best choice is actually provolone (I speak as someone who lived in Philly for a decade).

But the point is that Cheez Whiz is, in the estimation of the Washington-based press corps, obviously the most authentic choice because they assume it’s the one that blue-collar, down-home, reg’lar-fellas would choose. If politicians haven’t been properly briefed by their advance team to place the right order or eat in the proper way — which almost always indicates nothing more than that they’re not from this place or they haven’t eaten this particular food — the judgment is swift and harsh. Look at this phony, pretending to be an ordinary person when he’s obviously some kind of effete swell who’d be more at home sitting in the Harvard Club sipping from a snifter of brandy while discussing the merits of the Gulfstream G500 with a guy named “Winthrop”! How could he possibly have the best interests of ordinary Americans at heart?

It works even better if reporters have already decided the candidate is inauthentic, as they had with Kerry — and if the reporters themselves are making their own possibly ill-informed assumptions about regular people's food preferences. So a CNN reporter described how she knew Kerry couldn't connect with the masses when he asked for green tea in an Iowa restaurant, as though green tea is some kind of exotic concoction the simple folk of the heartland could not possibly have encountered in their charmingly rustic lives.

A good deal of campaign reporting is an attempt to take the repetitive events of the campaign trail and not only find something new in them but also use the mundane goings-on of the moment as a symbol of something larger and more revealing. Which means that reporters are always on the lookout for screw-ups, especially those that offer an amusing visual. And if the reporter can condescendingly explain how “real” people are supposed to act — meaning the reporter himself or herself is authentic enough to know, while the politician isn’t — that’s even better.

So the next time you encounter one of these stories, remember that there are foods every single one of us isn’t sure how to eat, or how to eat in a certain context. It doesn’t make us inauthentic, and it doesn’t tell you anything about who should and shouldn’t be president.

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