Political entrée

You are what you eat, particularly if you’re a politician on the national stage.

With an explosion of media coverage feeding the public’s huge appetite for presidential politics, candidates’ taste in chow is more than color for the occasional profile piece. Food is not simply a way to the heart, but a window to the soul.

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Take President Obama’s recent jaunts to local burger joints. The first — an unannounced visit to Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., in early May — generated an enormous amount of media attention. The most recent — in which the president delivered takeout from Five Guys to a group of White House staff — became the centerpiece of NBC’s primetime special about a day inside the Obama White House, and led The Washington Post to run the headline “President Obama, Burger Guy.”

Why all the fuss over a president with a hankering for hamburgers? In politics, the personal gulf between a candidate and the electorate can be wide. Most politicians are far wealthier than the average American. Their modes of transportation — for reasons of comfort, security and time management — rarely put them in contact with ordinary citizens. And for many — particularly those with several staff members — meal options are far greater than those who live the ordinary life.

As a result, the food choices made by a candidate can become iconic — something average people can use to help assess the personality of someone they will probably never meet and almost certainly never know.

Obama’s penchant for visiting local burger joints might reflect his oft-expressed desire to escape the “bubble” of the White House. Former President George W. Bush declared as his favorite sandwich the childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly (presumably, given his advanced age, with the crusts still firmly intact.) To Bush’s supporters, the PBJs were A-OK — a sign of his ability to connect with average Americans. To critics, they became a metaphor for Bush’s unsophisticated view of the presidency.

When Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) ran for president, he was derided not only for the way he ordered his Philly cheesesteak (substituting Swiss for the traditional Cheez-Whiz), but also the manner in which he ate it. Instead of digging right in, like a guy from the neighborhood, Kerry nibbled at his sandwich. Opponents used that photo-op to fuel their meme that the occasionally aloof Kerry was out of touch with working-class America. Kerry’s case wasn’t helped when, after accompanying running mate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth to their traditional anniversary meal of Wendy’s fast food, it was revealed that additional sustenance was waiting for the candidates on the campaign bus. The secret five-star fare reportedly included shrimp vindaloo, grilled diver sea scallops and prosciutto-wrapped stuffed chicken. Not exactly what Joe Six-Pack would scarf down for lunch.

Before she launched her presidential campaign (or perhaps in the earliest stages of it), 2000 Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton faced a hard-boiled New York press corps. Reporters had pounced on Republican Rick Lazio’s admission that he didn’t care for sausage sandwiches, a delicacy in the Empire State. One week later, in a visit to the same state fair at which Lazio had committed his grub gaffe, Clinton happily dug into the messy sandwich, savoring the sausage, peppers, onions and barbecue sauce while cameras rolled. It wasn’t a contrast in ideology. But to voters, the moment demonstrated that the so-called carpetbagger understood local customs better than the guy who’d grown up in New York.

During his campaign for president, Bill Clinton was said to be quite familiar with the menu at McDonald’s, inspiring an unforgettable “Saturday Night Live” parody. To his critics, it was a sign of Clinton’s lack of discipline. Elites derided him for lacking the sophistication and style they associated with presidents. But average Americans related to Clinton’s craving and found it humanizing. And it was that connection to working people, perhaps as much as the economic distress of the early 1990s, that protected Clinton from an avalanche of attacks on the candidate’s character — helping him unseat an incumbent president whom many perceived to be unapproachable. The list goes on. From Ronald Reagan’s love of jellybeans to George H.W. Bush’s aversion to broccoli, food is a factor in the public’s perception of presidents.

Politics is always influenced by unscripted moments that no handler can predict, like the unfortunate words aides wish had never come out of the candidate’s mouth. But as long as voters hunger for authenticity during national campaigns, it’s important to watch what goes into the candidate’s mouth.