Presidential Campaign Coverage Always Includes What Does the Candidate Eat

From a Washington Post column by Paul Waldman headlined “I don’t care if DeSantis eats pudding with his fingers”:

We recently learned something shocking about Florida’s governor and all-but-announced presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis. Not his zeal to remove books from schools and turn state universities into outposts of conservative indoctrination. Nor his propensity for using state power to punish those he sees as his enemies.

No, the revelation was equally disturbing: He once ate a cup of pudding with three fingers. Not only that, “He would sit in meetings and eat in front of people … like a starving animal who has never eaten before,” said a former staffer.

This is not a knock at the Daily Beast reporters who uncovered this information. Had a source told me the same thing, I would have printed it, too. It’s colorful and paints an amusing picture, at least if you don’t like DeSantis. Campaign coverage can’t be all policy papers and finance reports.

But why is it that people seem to think the way presidential candidates eat provides insight into who they are deep in their souls?

It’s a regular feature of campaign coverage. In 2019, it was reported that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) once ate salad with a comb for some reason. The same year, there was a story about another Democratic contender, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and her momentary uncertainty about whether she should use utensils to eat fried chicken.

Sometimes, as with DeSantis, the story concerns a private meal reported by an anonymous staffer appalled by the candidate’s table manners. Other times, it happens in public: The candidate ventures into unfamiliar territory, finds some local delicacy thrust upon them, and all the assembled reporters lean forward to see if they chow down in the appropriate manner.

And if they don’t, there will be hell to pay. Multiple candidates have come under assault for not ordering properly when they come for a photo op at Pat’s or Geno’s, the two legendary cheesesteak purveyors located on the same corner in South Philadelphia. When Democrat John F. Kerry ordered his with Swiss cheese, from reporters’ reaction you would have thought Swiss was an obscure and spectacularly expensive variety of cheese available only at Versailles. It only proved to them what a pampered toff the senator of Massachusetts was.

Twelve years later, Republican Scott Walker was hammered for ordering American cheese rather than Cheez Whiz and for not finishing his steaks (though the Wisconsin governor did order two, one each from Pat’s and Geno’s, which you’d have to be Joey Chestnut to down in a single meal).

One reporter wondered whether Republican Jeb Bush’s paleo diet would alienate him from the gluttonous American public. Fox News was outraged when President Barack Obama ordered a cheeseburger with Dijon mustard. Bill de Blasio’s tenure as mayor of New York was ruined when the Democrat was spotted eating pizza with a fork and knife, a sin also committed by Republicans John Kasich, when he was governor of Ohio, and Donald Trump before he ran for president.

And when poor President Gerald Ford was offered a plate of tamales in Texas, he grabbed one and bit into it without shucking it, supposedly proving to every Hispanic American that he couldn’t care less about them.

These stories are supposed to show that there’s just something off about the candidate. Reporters gravitate to them not just because it’s something novel to talk about in the repetitive grind of the campaign, but because it supports one of the foundational narratives of campaign coverage: These candidates are a bunch of phonies trying to conceal their true selves behind a wall of artifice and manipulation. We, the intrepid press, will show you who they really are.

But the search for “authenticity” winds up rewarding only the candidates whose staffs are best prepared and whose acting skills are finely honed. If a candidate walks into a local food establishment they’ve never been to, orders the most popular item on the menu and then eats it just the way people there do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can relate to ordinary folks. It could just mean they were extensively briefed beforehand. Which tells you nothing about who they “really” are.

Yet we continue to search for anything peculiar about candidates — uncool musical tastes, a close relative with an arrest record, a propensity to eat pudding with their fingers — and present what we find as if it calls their candidacy into question. On the surface, it seems to be about getting to know them, but it actually serves to dehumanize them.

The truth is that weird food habits are just about the most human thing there is. I have one or two that my family and friends find deeply strange, and you probably do, too.

So it’s fine to laugh at a candidate for the way they eat; there are few things more small-d democratic than mocking your leaders. Just don’t forget that it doesn’t tell us anything about what sort of president they would be.

Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for The Washington Post.


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