#TBT: How a Philly Cheesesteak Destroyed America
The humiliation of John Kerry over a bad sandwich order tells you a lot about how the media covers politics.
The famous sandwich. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty
Welcome to POLI-TBT-ICS, a recurring column where we will take a look back at the weird political moments of our past that are still relevant to the present day.
In 2003, Cheese Whiz broke America.
When John Kerry came to Philadelphia that August, there was a lot at stake. The public was still riding high on post–9/11 war fever, and the United States was five months into what would become a 15-year project of shredding Iraq. The Bush administration was full of corruption and ineptitude—earlier that year, George W. Bush appointed the comically unqualified Michael D. Brown to lead FEMA, where he would, in due time, help grind New Orleans into the mud. Meanwhile, fat and drunk on a deregulated financial sector, the country was a few years away from one of the biggest economic crises in its history.
Despite all that, Bush, it was thought, was a shoo-in for re-election. By that time, it was already clear that the 2004 election wouldn’t be a substantive one. It would be an election about brands. That wasn’t new, of course, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time. What was remarkable about 2004 was the way the media embraced Bush’s frame for the election, his narrative assumptions, even when they didn’t really like him. It’s a useful reference point when considering the 2016 presidential election, which featured yet another matchup between an out-of-touch northeastern senator and an opponent whose sole consistent policy position was that he wanted to make America’s enemies experience pain.
The main contention of Bush’s 2004 campaign, his frame, was that Democrats were kinda pussies and kinda gay. They were pussies because they didn’t love war enough, even though most Democratic legislators had voted for both of the wars. They were kinda gay because Bush had taken up the mantle for “traditional marriage” to great effect, and also because they were effete, fruity, Birkenstock-wearing nerds, as they were conventionally described on talk radio. They had gone to Oberlin and probably experimented while they were there. They were prissy and weak-wristed and didn’t know how to wave the flag.
Bush, on the other hand, the scion of America’s most successful political dynasty, a man cosseted his entire life by an almost inconceivable level of privilege and wealth, was a man’s man. You knew this because occasionally he would return to his adopted home state of Texas and cut down trees with a chainsaw. That image had been carefully crafted over many years—W., as the political journalist Wayne Slater once said, “always liked to picture himself as the Bush with a bass boat and not the Bush with a sailboat.”
Democrats, being Democrats, attempted to outflank these perceptions by leaning into them very hard. They promoted figures like Wesley Clark, a retired general, to rebut the idea that they were weak, only to look desperate when it turned out Clark didn’t seem to have any kind of meaningful ideas. Then there was the handsome, charismatic and heterosexual John Edwards, who it turned out loved women who weren't his wife a little too much. Also running were Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and Howard Dean, who ran a relatively substantive campaign that came to an effective end when he famously made a mildly strange noise on stage.
Then there was John Kerry, whose apparent strength was that he was a decorated war veteran. He had volunteered for service in Vietnam at the same time Bush had dodged the draft, and then came home and opposed the war. That sounded promising. But he was also from Massachusetts, which at the time, thanks to its legalization of same-sex marriage, was America’s gayest state. He spoke French. He had gone to Harvard. He had a stentorian, upper-class voice. And his wife was rich. This was a year in which political consultants were obsessed with the votes and orientation of two classes of people they called “NASCAR dads” and “security moms.”
And then, in August, the Incident happened.
“If Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential aspirations melt like a dollop of Cheez Whiz in the sun, the trouble may well be traced to an incident in South Philadelphia on Monday,” wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post. Kerry had gone to Pat’s, a Philly mainstay, and asked for Swiss cheese on his cheesesteak, instead of the Whiz or the American or provolone usually consumed. Then it got worse: “If that weren't bad enough, the candidate asked photographers not to take his picture while he ate the sandwich; shutters clicked anyway, and Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich, another serious faux pas,” Milbank wrote.
The picture spread widely on the early internet. Milbank interviewed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan, who called the act of requesting Swiss cheese evidence of “an alternative lifestyle.” In reference to what Milbank calls Kerry’s “dainty bites,” LaBan offers advice on the manly way to eat a bad sandwich. “Obviously, Kerry's a high-class candidate, and he misread the etiquette. Throwing fistfuls of steak into the gaping maw, fingers dripping—that's the proper way."
The story originated with the Inquirer, who printed it as a fun local item. But Milbank helped boost it to national prominence. In doing so, he participated in a very old pundit game, popular among the Millbanks of the world. They seize onto a “gaffe”—usually something that no real person could possibly care about it, or at least shouldn't—and publicize it on the grounds that while it isn’t very important but that it could be important to somebody.
But when you reduce yourself to making people’s reactions to meaningless events the story, you’ve created a system that’s easy for bad actors to game. In 2004, conservative media—Fox News, talk radio, and blogs—were flexing their muscles, demonstrating their ability to manufacture and amplify narratives, and the press embraced that narrative as one side of “the story.”
That’s the truck that hit Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Conservatives kept talking amongst themselves about Clinton’s email server—a minor scandal at best—and that kept the media talking about what conservatives were talking about, which incentivized the conservative media to push harder, and it became a feedback loop. By October, it was the dominant story about Clinton, shoving other items out of the news. At the Trump rallies that I attended, people would just shout the word “emails.” Just “emails.”
The “emails” of 2004 was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, which spread lies about Kerry’s military record on behalf of the Bush campaign, and the media covered that “controversy” in a similar way. But Cheez Whiz persisted—it became, in due course, a shorthand for the conservative narrative that Kerry was too limp-wristed to be president, too sissified to oversee the continuing dismantling of the Middle East. When listing other complaints, commenters would sprinkle it in. Remember the cheesesteak?
A year later, everything had gone to shit. Kerry was the nominee, and his greatest biographical strength had been made a weakness. In early life, he had been most proud of his opposition to the Vietnam war—now, boxed in by war fever, he ran on his pride at having merc’ed a lot of Vietcong with heavy machine guns. Yet the narrative—originating with the White House, tolerated by the media—was that he was a coward and a liar, and Bush, the draft-dodger, a warrior and hero.
The image of the cheesesteak kept popping up: not just a coward, an effete coward. When Bush campaigned in Pennsylvania during the general election, he made sure to tell reporters that “I like my cheesesteaks 'Whiz wit,'” referencing to a local neologism he had probably been alerted to by an aide. A few days later, an enterprising reporter from a local paper figured out the Bush campaign had actually ordered their cheesesteaks with American.
The powerful and immense stupidity of the 2004 presidential election has started to fade from the collective memory, which is a kind of blessing—except that we’re forgetting what led us to the current moment. Matthew Dowd, for example, the chief strategist of the Bush campaign that year, has reinvented himself as a mournful, saintly independent, calling out the crassness and degeneracy of contemporary politics. But his name is fairly prominent in the long list of people who got us stuck in the septic tank. The Bush administration and the conservative media expended extraordinary effort to bully domestic critics while much of the media retired from its responsibilities in separating truth from fact, and meaning from bullshit.
On election day Kerry lost, of course, but he didn’t lose Pennsylvania—he won the state by two points, after winning it by a comfortable margin in the primary. There’s no evidence that anyone in Philadelphia ultimately cared about the long-faced man’s consumption of bad cheese. All Milbank had done was birth a meme, a particularly damaging one, which proved useful to bad and dishonest people. The moment that picture captures—the Senator at pains to shovel the sandwich in his mouth, en route to electoral humiliation—is timeless. We live there now.
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