Empire State of Mind

 /  May 2, 2016, 10:50 a.m.


It’s a myth as old as time (more accurately, since 1992). During the primary season of his reelection, President George H.W. Bush strolled into the National Grocers Association. At one point, he stared at a barcode, “amazed by some of the technology” on display at the convention. The New York Times had a field day, portraying him as hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans. After all, barcodes had already been around for decades.

The rest is history, right? Not exactly, although the details that followed were too late to remove the impression that many drew of President Bush. The author of this story wasn’t even at the convention Bush was at. Additionally, Bush wasn’t being shown just any barcode; the one he saw was new technology that could weigh groceries and read torn barcodes. The man who showed the scanner to Bush even told reporters later, ''It's foolish to think the president doesn't know anything about grocery stores. He knew exactly what I was talking about.''

I thought about this story after watching several presidential candidates walk into awkward moments of their own with some fixtures of everyday life. New York’s primary was this past Tuesday, so it’s fitting that all these stories all happened there. Anecdotes such as these tend to provide a far better picture of who a candidate truly is than some of the more polished appearances that they all make on the campaign trail.

On the Republican side, John Kasich was recently spotted ordering enough food to feed a small army. In the course of a single meal, Kasich ordered “two plates of spaghetti bolognese, a sandwich with mozzarella, pickles, salami, provolone, and hot peppers.” Kasich, however, was not done yet. In fact, when someone tried to take his plate, Kasich asked for it back, and then proceeded to order pasta fagioli. If you ever visit a food market on Arthur Ave and order the John Kasich Special, you know what you’ll be getting (I’m serious, that’s what it said on the receipt).

Kasich’s culinary experience reminded many of when Nelson Rockefeller was running against the popular incumbent Democratic governor in what was called the Battle of the Millionaires. In order to prove that he was a man of the people, Rockefeller “campaigned as a man of the people, appearing in shirtsleeves and eating his way through the ethnic foods of New York neighborhoods.” It was important for Rockefeller to shake the image of him as an out of touch millionaire, and his culinary tour of parts of the city helped him do that.

Ted Cruz also had an interesting interaction with food, but in his case he was mostly involved with making--not consuming--it. Cruz visited a matzah factory in New York and joined kids there in rolling matzah before singing Dayenu, a traditional Jewish song, with everyone there. The scene was pretty awkward to watch. Republican Jewish leaders have had mixed feeling about Cruz recently. While some are warming up to him, others are wary of openly backing another candidate after seeing previous candidates that they supported (including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others) drop out of the race. Despite Cruz being an evangelical, Republican Jews have no problems backing him over the only Jewish candidate in the race, Bernie Sanders (who recently had to suspend the hiring of a Jewish outreach director because her anti-Israel stances unsettled many). However, it is clear that Cruz’s matzah making efforts were far from enough. He came in a distant third, and even lost some districts to Ben Carson, who dropped out of the presidential primaries some months ago.

Donald Trump is the only New Yorker on the Republican side, and he has frequently attacked Ted Cruz for Cruz’s attacks on “New York values.” However, at a campaign stop in New York, he mixed up 9/11 with 7-Eleven, to the shock of many. He also visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time after Cruz’s more recent attacks, which led some to call it “shameful 9/11 politicking,” in light of how he had said just a few days after the Twin Towers were destroyed that “they only became great upon their demise last Tuesday.” Comments like this are far from what most would consider to be New York values.

On the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had some trouble with the subway system. Both have New York ties (Clinton moved there and immediately ran for Senate after Bill left the White House, and Sanders was born there), but it’s clearly been a while since either of them took public transportation, which is something that most New Yorkers do on a daily basis.

For Hillary, the bad news kept on rolling. Her campaign was trying to prove how she is one of the people, and so they sent her on the subway. After not one, not two, not three, but five tries, Hillary was finally able to get past the turnstile. I have to give her credit for at least trying to use public transportation; she hasn’t driven a car since 1996.

Unfortunately for her campaign, this incident didn’t just end with her now viral attempt to swipe her card. Transit rules in New York prevent anyone from getting on a train from engaging in “nontransit uses,” but this would be far from the most serious law Clinton stands accused of routinely violating. To make matters even worse for her campaign, SNL mocked her campaign for its seven consecutive losses and her inability to use a transit card. When she first ran for Senate in New York, Hillary had to prove that she was an authentic New Yorker. It now looks like she had to try to do so once again.

Sanders was not immune to criticism from New Yorkers about subways either. He was unaware that commuters now use prepaid cards, and he wondered aloud, “what do you mean, ‘how do you ride the subway these days?’ You get a token and you get on.” Unfortunately for him, that hasn’t been true for over ten years. This is far less significant of a gaffe for him because no one identifies him as New Yorker, so it is forgivable that he failed to recall how New York transit works (although it is a reminder that he is 74 years old, which is a fact that Clinton surrogates have willingly reminded voters of in the past).

Fortunately for these candidates, incidents like this are far from unheard of in the course of a presidential campaign. In the 2008 campaign, Rudy Giuliani was off by a few dollars when asked about the price of milk. In the 1976 campaign, President Gerald Ford bit into a tamale without unwrapping it in “The Great Tamale Incident,” and who could forget Rick Perry eating a corndog at the Iowa State Fair?

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents, but at the same time it’s also helpful to remember that we are voting for people, not robots. When all we tend to see are staged events put on by candidates, we tend to forget that even the best campaigns have bad moments, and what defines a campaign is how it rolls with the punches. And sometimes people (even the ones running for president!) have bad days.

This cycle has seen gaffes, ones that would normally cause long- term damage to candidates, that don’t seem to matter at all (who can forget Rick Perry’s “oops” moment?). In New York’s aftermath, both Clinton and Trump can argue that those who know them the best support them, although the case is weak for both of them because the only district that Trump lost is the one that he lives in, and Hillary only won three counties outside the southern parts of New York. In American politics, we love to feel like we know candidates on a personal level, yet at times we react far more harshly to slip-ups on their parts than we would if our actual friends had done the same thing. When given a choice between a perfect candidate and one who allows us to see ourselves in their actions, I know I’d prefer the latter.

The image featured in this article is licensed by Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Matthew Foldi