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April 08, 2014 1:41 PM Pseudo-Populist “Narratives”

By Ed Kilgore

Speaking of Jack Kingston, whose ad campaign has fatuously featured an old station wagon he owns as a token of his hardscrabble conservative values (his net worth as of 2012 was $2.9 million), the New York Times’ Mark Liebovich has an amusing piece today about the “narratives” rich candidates seek to create to give the impression they are the very salt of the earth. They often do so by “borrowing” the life experiences of their parents and grandparents.

Candidates have been spinning Horatio Alger stories since the days of Horatio himself, or probably even the days of Great-Great-Grandpa Alger, who for all we know worked his nails to the nub scrubbing the decks of the Mayflower¬≠. But politicians of the 20th century were far more likely to have actually struggled than today’s crop — they might have fought wars, grown up during the Depression or at least worked in a family store or on a farm. They were also less likely to have attended college or, if they did, were more likely to have helped pay for it themselves. Harry Truman, who graduated from only high school and fought in World War I, rode a compelling “story” of an Everyman “give ’em hell Harry” who transcended a run of failed business ventures. John Kennedy’s war-hero status mitigated his privileged family background.
Absent real hardships, modern politicians have simply gotten creative, or at least what passes for creative in the anesthetizing cosmos of cookie-cutter campaign hell. They especially love tales of dishwashing. Senator Ted Cruz could finance his own presidential campaign if he had a penny for every time he mentioned his penniless father who “washed dishes for 50 cents an hour” after fleeing Cuba for Texas. Hillary Clinton checked the dishwashing box during a summer stint, in 1969, working in an Alaskan lodge. Leon Panetta washed dishes in his father’s restaurant, John Boehner (the second-youngest of 12 kids!) in his father’s bar, and Ronald Reagan in the girls’ dormitory at Eureka College in Illinois. Rod Blagojevich, the incarcerated former governor of Illinois, reportedly worked six days a week washing dishes in the kitchen of a federal prison in Colorado. Once Blago makes his inevitable comeback, you can count on hearing more about those dishes.
Paul Ryan touted his dishwashing background at the Republican convention in 2012 and then reinforced it a few weeks later by washing dishes with his family at an Ohio soup kitchen. Sure, this was criticized as a cheap photo op — the dishes were suspected to be clean to begin with — but the shutters clicked regardless. In the end, Ryan’s point was made and his narrative was driven home: This son of a prominent Wisconsin attorney knows how to wash dishes!

Jack Kingston may be missing an opportunity here. Surely someone in his family washed dishes.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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