Saturday, August 18, 2012

What's on the President's Plate These Days (and in his glass)

Hops, from an edition of Lonicer's Kreuterbuch, circa 1590
Speaking of President Obama and meals, there is a fine blog that allows you to keep track of his conspicuous consumption, from sumptuous state dinners to the more staid fare of the state fair: Obama Foodarama, by Eddie Gehman Kohan, calls itself "The Blog Of Record About White House Food Initiatives, From Policy To Pie." (So, there's some serious stuff there, too.)

Naturally, I am interested, among other things, in the beer coverage (all part of being a cultural historian). One report noted that the President consumed a Bud Light at a pub in Cedar Falls, Iowa. This preference for an insipid, mass-market substitute for real beer concerns me because it forms part of a disturbing and well-established pattern: in Amherst, Ohio (of all places!) last month, Mr. Obama also had light beer (one Bud, one Miller), as he did at the so-called "beer summit" of 2009 at which he brought together distinguished African-American scholar (and Massachusetts resident) Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who arrested him in a notorious case of racial profiling.

Evidently there are experts who worry about what sort of beer the leader of our nation and the free world should drink. It's just that they're not beer experts. So, it seems that a "light" beer is seen as the safest, healthiest, and politically correct choice, a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to present Mr. Obama as a (suitably restrained) man of the people. (Not that Mr. Romney would be any more successful, for some similar reasons as well as some very different ones.)

Still, we find both hope and change in the knowledge that the White House has, since 2011, been producing its own signature malt beverage, which our leader takes with him on these campaign outings. As the blog—which broke the news—also observes with some frustration, the information about the Presidential mini-brewery has in fact been out there for all with eyes to see for quite a while, but the mainstream media somehow just never bothered to absorb and cover it. (In that regard, I suppose it's a bit like the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.) But news of the POTUS private stock is not an unmitigated blessing. Obama Foodarama worried, "The President's regular-guy beer drinking image was dismantled somewhat on Tuesday by the revelation that he's toting White House homebrewed beer aboard Ground Force One."

I'll say. But again, the analysts got things wrong. I would be worried about the President's image less because this is an "elitist" craft brew than because it is an effete "Honey Ale" that should not pass muster as real beer with either the toiling masses or the zymurgic cognoscenti. Bud Light is lousy beer, but it does convey a simple, no-nonsense populist message. "Honey Ale"?  Come on.

What should the President drink, then? I think a classic American India Pale Ale would do the job. Not one of those faddish ones so overhopped that drinking it feels more like a masculinity test than a social and gustatory pleasure; that's more reminiscent of George W. Bush's brutish and blustery foreign policy. Instead, a well-balanced IPA, medium-bodied and highly but not heedlessly hopped, would convey just the right message of strength and sophistication befitting a superpower comfortable with its status, neither pusillanimous nor posturing.

I mean, seriously: Are you surprised that Netanyahu felt there was no cost to rebuffing Obama's demands? Do you think Assad and Ahmadinejad lie awake at night worrying about a guy who drinks "Honey Ale"? Seriously. Now, photograph Obama with a "Victory Hop Devil" in hand, and you'll see world leaders start to show him some respect.

Back to domestic politics. As for that "man of the people" thing: forget it. It's a lost cause, and the worst thing you can do is try to pretend to be something that you aren't. (Romney and Obama in blue jeans? Dukakis in a tank?) So, even if the President served this White House Honey Ale at his Superbowl Party, it just doesn't quite give off that "normal guy" vibe.

President Obama redeemed himself (sort of) as a populist on two occasions, first by giving one of those special homebrews to a resident in Knoxville, Iowa, and then, at the State Fair, by buying a round for ten people, who were chanting, "Four More Beers! Four More Beers!" (Who says we Midwesterners are slow thinkers lacking wit and humor?)

This was of course a play on words on "Four More Years!" But for those of us possessed of historical knowledge or direct experience of the Nixon era, this slogan first became prominent in the ill-starred electoral campaign of 1972, which took place under the growing shadow of the Watergate scandal. The appropriately nicknamed "CREEP" (Committee to Re-Elect the President) came up with the slogan, which was widely circulated, even on buttons and stickers in the languages of the various ethnic constituencies that the Republicans had wooed away from the Democratic Party.

Thank God, we've come a long way since the Nixon era, in more ways than one.

Speaking of which: the President himself has got a long way to go before he can be a real man of the people. That populist publicity stunt in Iowa came at a cost: literally. In the words of Obama Foodarama:
But the State Fair beer was reportedly an expensive cup, and came with a foamy head of criticism: Secret Service essentially shut down the fair for the President's visit. Mark Cunningham II, 39, a Republican and the third generation owner of the 65-year-old Bud Tent where the President enjoyed his brew (they were photographed drinking together), later complained to the Des Moines Register that the President's photo op cost him $25,000 in profit.
And the President has a really long way to go before he can catch up with the late Czech President Václav Havel. Havel, although a scion of one of the wealthiest families in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia, was nonetheless a man of the people in a way that Obama never can be. And when he wanted to go to the pub for a beer with the guys, he wasn't about to have his security forces clear the guys out.

As Radio Praha explained:
Ex-President Vaclav Havel may be the best spokesman beer has ever had in the Czech Republic, at least in public office. Havel loves to take visiting politicians to pubs. He once skipped a function in the U.S. to go drink beer and watch John Cale. In fact, one of Havel's plays is based on the time he spent working in a brewery before the Revolution.
It quotes Havel as saying (1995):
"I suppose that drinking beer in pubs has got a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than for example wine, vodka or whisky and therefore people's political chat in pubs is less crazy." 
Given the nastiness and lies of the US Presidential campaign at this stage, "less crazy" sounds pretty good. Maybe it's time that we all just relax and enjoy a good Czech beer.


19 August: I was pleased and amused to see that our friends at The Propagandist cited this post, adding a fine video of President Obama at the Iowa State Fair, ordering up that round of beers for his supporters (and denying one to the guy with the Romney sign).


Historical context:

• the recent post on the problem of student drinking in Amherst also describes the historical drinking habits of the early American republic (including politicians and clergy), which may come as a surprise

• the habits of a famed British wartime leader, by contrast, will come as no surprise: "Winston, Churchill: Smoker, Drunk, One Tough Dude—With Good Judgment"

Our colleague, @AmyMittelman, has both a book and a blog
about beer and (in the latter case) other matters (mostly political), as well.

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