Getting 'Real' is Harder Than It Looks
We have reached the "authenticity" phase of the presidential campaign. This is when we're told whether candidates are "real," and therefore worthy of our trust. Being real — or, at least, being perceived as real — is important. In '92, we can remember that President George Bush flunked the authenticity test when he was bewildered and amazed by a grocery store scanner. It was clear the guy hadn't bought a half-gallon of milk since before he headed the CIA.
For the past week, we've been supplied with various measures of candidate authenticity — from Barack Obama's musing about a snooty kind of lettuce to Fred Thompson's decision to slip his law-and-order hoofers in some less-than-manly Italian footwear. This is a strange time, the authenticity period, but here we are and here is how the candidates are stacking up against "real" Americans.
Democrats should (like England's Queen Elizabeth) know by now to stay away from lettuce. In '88, Boston's Michael Dukakis suggested that the row crop boys in Iowa plant Belgian endive, which branded the Democrat with the mark of Brie. This month, Sen. Obama was at Beverly Van Fossen's farm in Adel, Iowa, when, searching for a profitable future for agriculture, the candidate began talking lettuce. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" Obama asked. The answers would be no and no, since there is no Whole Foods in all of Iowa.
Sen. Obama, talking lettuce in Adel, Iowa.
Photo: Obama campaign
(Hey, Sen. Obama is not the only one with an arugula-meter. Lettuce is how supermodel Cindy Crawford knows whether she's in a real city. She said, "Arugula is how I define cities. I go to a grocery store, and either you can get arugula or you can't." According to the supermodel standard, Adel isn't a real city, an opinion with which the citizens of Adel no doubt agree.)
Obama's lettuce moment gave everyone a howl; on the other hand, we learned that Obama, who is African American, "shows an ability to transcend race" and to connect with mostly white Iowans "on shared values." Who knows about that?"¦..just don't get him talking leafy vegetables.
This exercise in authenticity is all about sitcom stereotypes, of course, and nobody fits the "Green Acres" script better than former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to The New York Times, his honor toured small town Iowa recently — specifically, Greenfield —and there voters checked for "dirt under Giuliani's fingernails."
What did they find? Betty Schuler asked if Giuliani would forget people in rural America after he was elected. "Oh, I'm not going to forget the little guy anywhere," Mr. Giuliani said, according to the Times. "When I got elected mayor of New York City, I didn't forget anybody. The place that kind of won the election for me was Staten Island. It's the closest thing that New York City has to — I wouldn't call it rural, but suburbs."
Fred Thompson, in his Guccis, at the iowa State Fair
The poor candidate was trying to connect, and maybe Staten Island was as close as he could come to Adel. "It was, as he traveled through heavily Republican country in the most rural part of Iowa, a complicated process of cultural negotiation," the Times reported of Giuliani's venture into rural Iowa. "At moments, he was the candidate from Mars who seemed as if he was campaigning on Venus (and no disrespect intended toward either planet)."
Republican Fred Thompson was supposed to be the most authentically rural candidate. (Giuliani was an authentic New Yorker, but for some reason that doesn't count as real.) Yankee reporters think Thompson is authentic and rural because he has a southern accent. But then the tall, deep-voiced actor and former senator showed up at the Iowa State Fair wearing Gucci loafers. Jeez, he couldn't pick up a pair of alligator boots in Los Angeles?
John Edwards's Secretary of Rural Affairs, Virginian Mudcat Saunders, is busy telling everyone that Sen. Hillary Clinton can't win in rural America. "Hillary Clinton can't win where I come from," Mr. Saunders said. "It's a joke for her to even try... If the Democrats want to win, Edwards is their guy." In other words, she's authenticity-deficient. Clinton, meanwhile, tells folks she was "born into a middle class family in the middle of America in the middle of the last century." Middle, everyone knows, is real.
It doesn't pay to mess around during the authenticity period of a campaign, to play it cute. It's best to be straight up about your genuine-ness. So, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee entered a sports bar in Fort Mill, South Carolina, the Republican candidate got straight to the business of being true to life:
"We do talk the same language, don't we?" Huckabee said. "We know about deer hunting, NASCAR -- the things that really matter."