Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Awkward Southerner

Four years ago, I remember Mitt Romney taking a lot of grief from Southern journalists, both broadcast and print, over his efforts to appear to be one of us.

I always felt that was a mistake on Romney's part. I didn't think it cost him the Republican nomination because I never really felt he was in the running for the nomination, anyway. But I felt it was a mistake that cost him some votes in the South.

Folks from outside the South often make fun of Southerners. They think we're stupid and backward — and, OK, some of us are, but the region is not disproportionately so, and we're smart enough to know the real thing when we see it.

I grew up in the South, and I think the thing that probably matters more to Southerners than any other quality in a politician is authenticity. Is he what he seems to be?

Southerners are as susceptible as anyone else to the appeal of those with whom they believe they have the most in common, I suppose, and that would go a long way toward explaining some of their past primary preferences.

(When Jimmy Carter was elected president, I remember thinking that it would be refreshing to have a president who spoke the way most of the people in my world spoke.)

But, in the end, I don't think Southerners particularly care whether the candidate is from the South as long as they get the sense that he is genuine, that he shares their values.

The way some journalists are covering the campaign in the South — Steve Holland of Reuters, for example, writes that Romney "is laying it on as thick as a syrupy Southern drawl as he tries to court the South" — practically sneers "Insincerity!"

But that isn't really fair — either to Romney or Southerners.
"Morning, y'all," Romney told a campaign rally on Friday in Jackson, Mississippi. "I got started this morning right with a biscuit and some cheesy grits," he joked.

Steve Holland

I'm sure that gets a lot of laughs from Northern elitists, but I prefer Romney's way (and so do many of the people I know) to the condescension of a real elitist who comes here in the heat of the campaign and acts as if he is intimately acquainted with us and our ways.

That was essentially what Romney did in 2008. Most of the Southern states had primaries that year, but Romney exceeded 20% of the vote in only three and exceeded 30% of the vote in only two — although many Southerners would argue that Florida, which was one of those states that gave Romney more than 30% of the vote, didn't qualify then (and doesn't qualify now) as truly Southern because so many of its residents migrated there from other regions of the country.

But, in 2012, Romney is not trying to come across as the long–lost prodigal son. He acknowledges that his roots are elsewhere. If Romney seems disingenuous to non–Southerners for joking about eating biscuits and cheesy grits for breakfast, it's different with Southerners.

"I realize it's a bit of an away game," Romney said in Alabama the other day, and Southerners are OK with that. We know the rest of the country doesn't eat grits and that it will usually eat biscuits (or cornbread) only if nothing else is available (or it has something else wedged in the middle, like a sausage patty) — so we get the joke when a candidate from someplace else makes a point of telling us that he ate those foods. We know he doesn't eat that every day.

(Actually, in my experience, cheese is added to grits mostly to make the dish more palatable to non–Southerners. A real Southerner will eat grits with a little salt and a little butter — and come back for more. Cheese adds a little flavor, but it isn't essential.)

It's a regional point of pride, kind of like a Philly cheesesteak. It isn't to everyone's taste, and we don't expect a candidate to pledge to eat nothing else if we give him our votes. We just like to know a candidate is willing to try it when he's asking us for our support.

Let me tell you a true story.

It was a tradition at the school where I began my college career to hold a goat roast every spring. It was mostly an excuse to have a big keg party where local bands would play for hours, but one of the features was the roasting of an actual goat, and the meat was served between two slices of white bread.

I think you could add ketchup or mustard or mayo if you wished, but I don't really remember which, if any, condiments were available.

The admission price entitled one to partake of the food being offered, and attendees had the option of eating more mainstream fare if they wished — but most people opted to eat goat. My memory is that it didn't really have much flavor, and it wouldn't be my choice for a meal, but I ate it, anyway.

It was expected.

Local food specialties and politics go hand in hand in the South. I went to catfish fries and all sorts of similar gatherings when I lived in Arkansas. The food is part of the event, and guests are expected to at least try it — and, once they do, folks will sit back and listen to what they have to say.

A savvy politician will try it and, even if he doesn't like it, he will fake it.

That isn't being dishonest — or even disingenuous.

It's being a smart politician.

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