COMMENTARY | There may be nothing more pathetic than a pandering politician, an individual so driven to get elected that he or she will say anything anywhere to anyone to get a vote. Such was the case with Mitt Romney in Mississippi this weekend when he attempted to get cozy with Southerners by immersing himself in the culture.
The vehicle? Food, of course, because there's nothing more universally connective than food in general, nor is there anything more peculiarly cultural than particular types of food. So which food did the presidential hopeful use for connection? Romney went for the quintessentially Southern side item of grits.
"I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me," Romney told a Pascagoula crowd of supporters, according to the Associated Press. He then added that he'd had "cheesy grits" for breakfast.
"Cheesy" might be a good way to describe the patronizing. Someone from Mississippi (or anywhere in the South) might add a few more colorful colloquial expletives when doing so.
Why? Well, people in the South don't find grits and saying things like "ya'll" as "strange" and many would just as soon see the south end of a north-bound Yankee (Southern for "Northerner" or anyone hailing from anywhere north of any acceptable Southern state) than hear them speak about things that are just going to get them riled up anyway. As political pandering goes, it wasn't one of the best lines imaginable.
Stephen Gordon, a Republican consultant in Birmingham, Ala., noted that that it was pandering found lacking. "If you're going to pander, at least pander well, and this isn't pandering well," he told the Boston Herald. He said that it all stems from the distrust
Besides, like that famous character in that Yankee book that most Southerners have read but will not admit ever reading, The Catcher in the Rye, the good people of the South don't particularly care for phoniness. And like Holden Caulfield, they're very skeptical. Especially of Northerner. Bad enough that the entire nation generalizes the South as either multi-generation illiterate inbred rednecks and hillbillies or indifferent educated decadents with unbridled libidos and more dollars than sense. But to have Northerners with no connection to Southerners or the culture attempting to endear themselves to said population through the poor affection of mannerisms and side orders? And just for a vote in an election? Condescending and insulting.
Even Romney supporters were annoyed with Romney's descent into phoniness. Couple the phony Southernisms with his recently acquired campaign companion, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, most noted for his "...you might be a redneck" lines.
"Does Romney think he can win over Southerners by marching around with the redneck comedian?" asked Chris Brown, a Romney supporter and the former executive director of the Alabama Republican Party. "Does he think we're all rednecks?"
Of course, Brown's simplistic view of Romney's grits and chuckles campaigning in the Deep South is the voice of frustration at candidates unwilling to just be themselves and talk about issues important to the people, not to mention the willingness to allow for the possibility that those that are listening are intelligent enough to follow the talking points.
Better that than setting off the "phony" meter.
Will it cost Romney votes? Doubtful. Given the Southern propensity for granting second chances and forgiveness, the pandering will most likely be relegated to tolerating the ignorant, a quick mental "bless his little heart" for the effort of trying to fit in, and moving on to something really important, like what Romney thinks about foreign policy and how it differs from that of his rivals -- all Yankees themselves.
Southerners have grown accustomed to the sufferance of outside condescension, ridicule, and dismissal. That doesn't mean they accept it. Or enjoy it. Nor is it an excuse for politicians who only care about the region once every four years to use preconceived notions and stereotypes in order to present themselves as something they definitely are not.
Besides, it's not like it works for Romney to try and "fit in." Look what happened when he attempted to be just one of guys from his home state of Michigan. He fumbled around about loving cars and lakes. He said he thought the trees in Michigan were just the right height. This from a man who actually grew up in the state.
And it isn't like the populace at large don't understand the why of it. It is all about garnering votes. But getting extra votes in Alabama and Mississippi -- or anywhere else -- should not require politicians to feel they need license to act the charlatan.
But if compelled to do so, referring to cultural icons, including culinary ones, as "strange" -- even indirectly -- should be avoided.
Mitt Romney and all future candidates should take note: Drop the "I'm like you" charade and be yourselves as much as your acceptance-seeking mentalities will allow. Not appearing phony will go a lot further with the electorate than pandering. Being politicians, it might be difficult to embrace the honesty at first, but it circumvents the backlash from being called out for being duplicitous, deceitful, disingenuous, untruthful, mis-informative -- an imposter, a phony.
The people, which includes Southerners, Easterners, Northerners, and Westerners, would really appreciate it. Perhaps in the form of votes.
- Mitt Romney