Anyone who has ever been to Philadelphia will tell you there is something magical about the cheese steak. This sandwich is overflowing with taste. It is a cultural icon and a tasty piece of campaign fodder that has left several contenders for national office wishing they would have studied the meaning of the phrase "Whiz, wit" before bellying up to the counter to place an order.
In 2004, erstwhile Democrat Party nominee John Forbes Kerry (do guys with names like this even eat steak?) ventured to a South Philadelphia cheese steak eatery and ordered one of the delectable sammiches with Swiss cheese—a faux pas which was further complicated when Kerry attempted to eat said sandwich in a manner highlighting his pompous desire not to smear grease on his posh duds.
The result was a series of photographs of the windsurfing wonder gingerly easing into his sandwich like an old man into a hot bath. The photos graced the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News. The nation saw a man who wanted to be Commander-in-Chief reduced down to a fool struggling to keep his cufflinks out of his specialty cheese. Kerry lost the election, enabling Bush and Cheney to continue to grow government to wild new levels and maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq. I still pinpoint Kerry’s flub at Pat’s Steaks to be the beginning of the end of his campaign.
Fast forward to 2005 and the greatest Super Bowl showdown in recent memory when the New England Patriots battled the Philadelphia Eagles. This was a classic battle of gritty, hard-nosed teams from two of America’s greatest cities. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell offered up a sack of juicy cheese steaks against a few of Governor Mitt Romney’s finest Taxachusetts lobsters in the annual gubernatorial provisions wager. According to Rendell, Romney declined the wager because "He [Romney] said the cheese steak had no nutritional value." Despite his chic hair and classy suits, Romney came up short during his bid for the 2008 GOP nomination. Another political omen of what becomes of pols that misjudge the power of the cheese steak.
Last week GOP Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin ran afoul of my longtime colleague Michael Rovito, a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University at Tony Luke’s cheese steak repository following a homecoming football game. Deciding to exercise his First Amendment privileges—or what is left of them—Rovito asked Palin a pretty basic question for someone vying to be the second most powerful person in America.
The dialog from that point went like this (according to the tape):
Rovito: "How about the Pakistan situation? What’s your thoughts about that?"
Palin: "In Pakistan?" (no Governor, in Iceland, but we are glad to see that your journalism degree was fruitful)
Rovito: "What’s going on over there, like Waziristan?"
Palin: "It’s working with the Zardari to make sure that we’re all working together to stop the guys from coming in over the border. And we’ll go from there."
Rovito: "Waziristan is blowing up."
Palin: "Yeah, it is. And the economy there is blowing up, too."
Rovito: "So we do cross-border, like from Afghanistan to Pakistan, you think?"
Palin: "If that’s what we have to do to stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely we should."
The good news is that Governor Palin did not botch the ordering or consumption of her cheese steak. The bad news is that her response to Rovito was a direct contradiction of Senator McCain’s position on the same issue from the first presidential debate in Mississippi and a ringing endorsement of Senator Obama’s position on the issue. McCain himself accused Rovito of playing "gotcha journalism" during a Katie Couric interview, alleging that Rovito tried to ensnare his running mate with a tricky question to put her in a bad light.
One major problem lingers with McCain’s accusation. Rovito is not a journalist, nor was he trying to trip up Governor Palin. Instead, as a citizen, he was asking a routine question that should be answerable from a candidate for Vice President. Rovito says that his intent was not malicious and that he would have asked any candidate the same question because of the criticality of the issue.
"I think her response was half Freudian slip and half ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction, meaning that I think she really feels the way she answered, but she was taken a bit off guard by my question," says Rovito. "I feel that she didn’t realize what she really said until she was in the motorcade."
Asked about his reaction to Senator McCain’s attack on him as a "gotcha" journalist, Rovito feels that "Senator McCain’s handling of the situation and the way he publicly embarrassed Governor Palin on the Couric interview was an act that is, again, insulting to women, insulting to independent thought, and insulting to tax-paying, hardworking citizens of this great nation."
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a cheese steak connoisseur to recognize the larger predicament caused by Obama and Palin’s directness or McCain’s hushed, back-channel interest in pursuing cross-border agitation from Afghanistan to Pakistan. All of which leads to further American involvement in a region of the world best left alone to solve their own internal, tribal, and nationalistic affairs without meddling from any political missionaries from the U.S. spreading the gospel of democratization.
The Palin incident at Tony Luke’s coupled with recent comments made by Senators McCain, Biden, and Obama during the first two debates is indicative of the internationalist, interventionist crisis we face: unfettered support for Israel at all costs, reminders of our erroneous intervention into Bosnia in the Clinton years, the continued demonization of Cuba, saber rattling against Iran, our infinite commitments in Iraq, foolhardy verbal attacks against Russia, and the asinine idea of sending U.S. troops to interfere in Darfur.
Leave it to a visit to a cheese steak joint to remind us of the dangers we face when the only choices before us are willing to put everyone but America First.
Nathan Shrader can be reached at [email protected]