Opinion

Alex Beam

Faux fanfare for the common man (or woman)

In this Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, photo Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand eats at Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, S.C. Gillibrand spent three days in the state as part of her effort to introduce her potential presidential campaign to the state’s heavily African-American Democratic primary electorate. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Meg Kinard/AP
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand eats at Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 9.

A few days ago, presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand blotted her copybook by failing to engage with fried chicken in the proper proletarian fashion. On a campaign stop in South Carolina, the US senator from New York attacked her chicken with a knife and fork, until the proprietress of Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles affirmed that Common People generally use their fingers.

These little kerfuffles are standard campaign fare. The New York media go berserk when anyone, be it Mayor Bill de Blasio or visiting Ohio governor John Kasich, eats pizza with dining utensils anywhere in the five boroughs. A campaigning John Kerry stubbed his toe asking for Swiss cheese instead of the inherently disgusting Cheez Whiz atop his cheesesteak during a presidential campaign stop in Philadelphia.

Everyone knows these fake demotic filters are inane. Why would Gillibrand, a graduate of the posh Emma Willard prep school, who played an aristocratic varsity sport (“a closet squash goddess” — Vanity Fair) at an Ivy League college be familiar with down-home chicken eating? Why would the equally top-drawer Kerry know what sludge to apply to his Philly grease bomb?

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Closely related to the faux gastro-gaffe is the pompous Ordinary Person Quiz, e.g., how much does a quart of milk cost? (I’m saying $2.69, without looking.) Same church, different pew would be TV newsman Andy Hiller’s famous pop quizzes sprung on unwary pols. While campaigning for president in 1999, George W. Bush memorably failed to identify the leaders of India and Pakistan.

These moments always make the evening news and provoke some partisan tittering. No one dares to answer, “You know, my spouse does the shopping,” or “My secretary of state will be dealing with Pakistan.” The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.

Is that who we want to be our next president — Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Just Regular Person?

The most recent presidential race that pitted an American aristocrat against a purported person of the people was John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Kennedy, scion of a family fortune with homes in Brookline, Hyannis, and Palm Beach, Fla., was the polar opposite of Nixon, who graduated from Fullerton Union High School in California and won a full scholarship to Duke Law School.

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It’s probably no accident that that election was a virtual tie. Americans are of two minds when forced to choose between plutocrats and “average” citizens.

The myth of the common man or woman is alive and well on the campaign trail — Senator Kamala (Everywoman) Harris smoked weed and listened to Snoop Dogg! Yet our greatest presidents have been the most uncommon: A savvy, self-made railroad lawyer named Abraham Lincoln; a polio-stricken mama’s boy educated at Groton and Harvard, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Who wants Joe the Plumber in the White House? He could fix the commode next to the Oval Office — and then what?

It’s strange that we cling to these “normal person” filters when they have so obviously failed us. The 2004 presidential election featured two well-born candidates who not only attended the same Ivy league college, Yale, but were also members of Skull and Bones, a tiny, selective secret society.

Look what we got in 2016! A candidate who didn’t pretend to be likeable, who surely hasn’t shopped for milk in half a century, and who probably has no idea what continent Pakistan sits on. And he won.

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We need to start asking different questions.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.