Image Politics: Everybody Lies About Sex, But Who Knew They Lie About Food, Too?

For those exhausted with Clinton-Obama debates I thought I’d comment on the recent Cindy McCain “farfallegate” recipe scandal–you can scroll down to the end to see the evidence:

Cindy McCain was probably clueless that an intern on her pugnacious war hero husband’s campaign staff had rifled through recipes published on the Food Channel’s website and presented several as Cindy’s own on Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign website.

Dubbed “farfallegate” in honor of the recipe combining farfalle pasta with turkey sausage (of course in today’s health conscious world, a low cholesterol recipe gets extra points), mushrooms, and peas that busted Mrs. McCain and docked the non-pay of the unlucky intern tasked with selecting just the right recipes to position Cindy as happy homemaker, the food scandal was bound to come to the attention of the ever-voracious press.

It’s hardly surprising that the campaign wanted to soften the eerily unreal image projected by her Stepford Wife eyes and shellacked hair as she stands ramrod straight as though at perpetual attention beside the senator, whose political career was calculated and in no small part brought to us by her wealthy beer distributor daddy. And what better way to warm up a candidate’s wife than to conjure a vision of the little lady in her conservative Republican apron stirring up some dinner?

Did the intern ask her whether she cooks and if so what her actual favorite recipes are? If so, were his entreaties ignored or rejected? Or was he simply afraid to approach her, so he defaulted to the virtual kitchen where he could construct his own preferred image via the recipes he chose to represent the particular brand of gemutlichkeit he was asked to produce by campaign handlers?

Politicians in the crucible of public attention, with the help of their guru-consultants who often delegate the actual implementation to enthusiastic young staff, spend as much time and energy concocting their images as they do serving up the substance of their platforms. A candidate and his/her spouse are so handled and managed that it is a real question if anyone ever knows who their true selves are. Sometimes least of all themselves.

Who wants to bet Cindy McCain rarely cooks dinner herself in real life? I mean, when does she have time to whip up that passion fruit mousse she was credited with anyway? (Note that this link takes you to the New York sun, which published recipes of McCain, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, but neither of the male candidates or Bill Clinton.)  And if she doesn’t cook for whatever reason, why doesn’t she just acknowledge the fact and go on? Many women and men would relate to that. Or if she is one of those rare people who actually cooks using Food Channel and Rachel Ray recipes verbatim, she should say that. Using a recipe that’s published precisely so people will use it is hardly a scandal of Spitzer-esque proportions. Who would care? Why be devious about it?

Judging by Hillary Clinton’s much reproduced oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe (coming from the woman who during her husband’s first campaign was creamed by the press for saying she wasn’t a cookie-baker, or at least that cookie baking didn’t define her), laying hands on food could be the female gendered equivalent of the tacit campaign requirement that male candidates lay hands on guns.

But voters can’t lay at the campaigns’ feet the entire fault for whatever lack of authenticity results from such aggressive image-making and buffing about things that have little impact in the grand scheme of making policies that affect our daily lives profoundly.

We Americans have always placed impossibly bifurcated demands on our leaders. We want them to be celebrities, we want them to be regular people. We demand they have soaring vision but we want them to be down to earth bowlers and cookie bakers and farfalle makers who can relate to our daily lives and struggles.

Food is after all second only to sex as our most universally humanizing experiences, and universally guilty pleasures.  Wanna bet Bill Clinton still throws back a greasy Big Mac now and then? Pass the French fries please.

GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The LeadPeople has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”

As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.