Commentary

I Cried That I Had No Bread Bags For My Shoes -- And Then I Met A Man With No Feet

To be fair, all politics is theater, and certainly a televised occasion like the State of the Union speech, and its follow-up, is all performance.  It’s a chance for the president to take a victory lap, and essentially offer a greatest-hits concert in the most august, closest-to-royal setting he gets.

Whereas the follow-up part of the ritual — the ostensible honor of being chosen as the official responder to the State of The Union — appears increasingly to be a curse.

I’m always shocked when this calamity happens. I mean, these speakers are carefully handpicked. And in order to get elected, haven’t they already weathered thousands of speeches and hundreds of television appearances? 

Still, in 2013, Marco Rubio famously achieved Albert-Brooks-in –“Broadcast News”-level flop sweat, resulting in his awkward grab for the  water. It wasn’t his fault that the bottle was not only out of frame, but also comically tiny.

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This year, in Joni Ernst’s case, I now see her appearance partly in a don’t-be-a-Rubio context. She got criticized for the extreme stiffness of her hair  (so it wouldn’t stray or fall in her face ) and the robotic delivery (control).

But Ernst wouldn’t seem to need any artificial additives to appeal to conservatives. Unlike Sarah Palin, she has the education and boots-on-the-ground-in-Iraq bona fides to back up her bad-ass, Harley-riding, gun-toting image.  And she knows how to use it. She got elected based on a campaign ad opening with the now-famous “Hi, I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

Still, when she got to the honest bread-bags message in her speech, I nearly choked.  Here it is in its entirety: “You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.”

Recounting the bag scenario in such detail, adding the unlikely bit about climbing on the bus to see “rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags on their feet,” really took the story to sci-fi movie-level. Imagine, in the middle of a corn field, the bus suddenly exploded with plastic-baggie-footed pod people.

Certainly, the concept has lit up social media. There are people who attest to wearing such bags, but more of them said they were worn inside the shoes.  Or, given the “Wizard-of-Oz”-style farm imagery, and the idea of slopping pigs, wouldn’t Ernst have had a pair of mud boots, or old-fashioned galoshes so she could carry her “good” shoes in a plastic bag?  (Walk dryly and carry your shoes?)

What most people reacted to was the ham-handed pandering to a simpler time that seemed to harken back to the Dust Bowl and the Depression, although Ernst was born in 1970.

Interestingly, I first thought she'd said “Wonder Bread” bags. She didn’t give the bags a brand name. But Wonder Bread is so basic, American, yet so artificial, that it seemed perfect.  The Midwest is America’s bread basket, and she really hit on something elemental and biblical. (“Give us this day our daily bread": Matthew 4:6) It stands for sustenance, manna, a means of survival. But especially in the 1970s, it was a slang term for money.

To me, it was surprising that the one-upsmanship about how poor but proud she was would come so earnestly from someone so relatively young.  Certainly, the concept has been a subject of surefire satire for a long time, going back to the 1967 Monty Python sketch of “the Yorkshiremen”: “We had to live in a hole in the ground, covered by a sheet.” And the response: “You were lucky! We were evicted from our hole in the ground and had to live in a lake.”

At base, her line about having only one pair of shoes resonated so deeply because it so closely echoed Richard Nixon’s famous line in his Checkers speech. He said, “Pat wears a good Republican cloth coat, not a mink coat” when he was being criticized for taking campaign kickbacks.  This was in 1952, and by talking directly about his lack of wealth on the new medium of television, he managed to hang on to his place as Eisenhower’s running mate.

Whereas Ernst was using the bread bags to throw the red meat of being non-elite to the Tea Party base, to underscore the idea of  hard work, self-sufficiency and thrift -- and, most importantly, of not needing government handouts.

Partially funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, Ernst still believes in making Washington’s big spenders “squeal.”  She has rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act for women, opposed a raise in the federal minimum wage, and wants to abolish the Department of Education.

But since her rebuttal, it has come out that Ernst’s family received hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009, and that her father received $200,000 in government contracts for his construction company while he was a county auditor.

So this time, it wasn’t sweat or a jumpy-eyed reading of the teleprompter that did the speaker in.  It was her “Little House on the Prairie” story that now seems all the more out-of- sync and absurd.

Still, Ernst went for it, and cast her bread bags upon the waters.

Told you it was a curse.

26 comments about "I Cried That I Had No Bread Bags For My Shoes -- And Then I Met A Man With No Feet ".
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  1. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, January 23, 2015 at 8:03 a.m.

    President Obama's performance was, on the other hand, worthy of Brando. Doing Gilligan's Island. Ernst needs work in front of a camera, reading teleprompter, all the rest of the political claptrap. If you want to see a state of the state message by someone without script or teleprompter, check out Governor of Michigan talking on camera without notes, without a net.

  2. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, January 23, 2015 at 10:23 a.m.

    Lord, I love reading you. You always put into words some niggling impression I couldn't quite get to the front of my mind. And you always make me laugh. One note: Albert Brooks' famous "flop sweat" occurred in Broadcast News rather than Network. It always makes me laugh, too.

  3. Alex Miller from ViaSat, January 23, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.

    I thought her response was utterly surreal, not to mention entirely void of content and meaning. What was the point?

  4. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, January 23, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.

    I used plastic bags (although they weren't bread bags) as recently as last fall. It keeps my toes warmer when I'm bicycling. Lots of cyclists do this.

  5. Jon Maas from Medulla-Oblongata-Glutz Pictures, Inc., January 23, 2015 at 10:33 a.m.

    Nice piece, Barb. The truth is it's insanely hard to give a response to SOTU and this year the various factions of the GOP chose to give 5 - count 'em 5, so Joni was already at a disadvantage. But to make matters worse, they packaged her in a sweetened and airbrushed version of her life that (to quote Thelma Ritter in ALL ABOUT EVE) had " everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end..."

    And typically they are now refusing to answer any questions about her. They never learn, do they?

  6. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION, January 23, 2015 at 10:37 a.m.

    "Partially funded by the billionaire Koch brothers..." is about all we need to know. Because, all else follows per script: Defund public education. More guns everywhere. Refuse Federal laws. Pollute as much as you like, wherever you like, no worries. Her plastic hair is a dead give-away: she's taken the short-end bribe money, so it makes perfect sense she'd be selected to deliver the GOP 'rebuttal'.

  7. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 23, 2015 at 10:39 a.m.

    Red meat, check; billionaires, check; minimizing a political trend by attaching it to a base labeled as kooky, check; disdain for flyover people, check; cherry-picking policy anecdotes, check. Oh, no, we're not political or ideological--that's the other side. Why not just frankly compete? (Want to talk about Python's Dennis Moore and the lupins?)

  8. Steven Schreibman from Finish Line, January 23, 2015 at 10:56 a.m.

    I've been anxiously awaiting the Ernst fallout, and she delivered. All it took was corn-pone pandering dipped in lies. And bravo to Wonder Bread for ending up owning what was a non-existent product placement opportunity!

  9. Edward Shain from EMS Associates, January 23, 2015 at 11 a.m.

    Really? All this shock at the SOTU response? C'mon. It was pure talking points discipline, as always. That response isn't supposed to be a reasoned rebuttal, only a re-affirmation of how the party wants its message out there.

    There's plenty to object about the message, but its style is right out of politics 101.

  10. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, January 23, 2015 at 11:11 a.m.

    I have nothing to add...just want to say again...another great column

  11. david marks from self, January 23, 2015 at 11:37 a.m.

    One of your best, Barbara! I’ll say it again, from every rooftop that will have me: Ernst is one of the last of The Stepford Wives, and she looked oddly old and weathered, as if a storm had bumper her on the way in. Of course, during her self indulgent manifesto of a rebuttal, what came to me was an old chime dandy, The Rime of The Ancient Mannequin. Love your piece!

  12. Kevin Gaydosh from O'Brien et al, January 23, 2015 at 11:44 a.m.

    Oh, yes. Totally agree. This was really a much worse flub than admitting to being "... not only dead broke but in debt ..." and having to "... piece together the resources for mortgages for houses ..." Ernst will never get to $500K a speech with a performance like that. But now, back to the bread bags!

  13. david marks from self, January 23, 2015 at 11:55 a.m.

    One of your best, Barbara! I’ll say it again, from every rooftop that will have me: Ernst is one of the last of The Stepford Wives, and she looked oddly old and weathered, as if a storm had bumped her on the way in. Of course, during her self indulgent manifesto of a rebuttal, what came to me was an old chime dandy, The Rime of The Ancient Mannequin. Love your piece!

  14. Patrick Harrelson-Keyes from The Bounce Group, January 23, 2015 at 12:41 p.m.

    It might be best if someone, perhaps you?, devise a different measure of success for the SOTU rebuttals. Less about how smart or cogent the responses, more about how amusingly absurd they are on some sort of a Monty Python scale of 1-5. By that measure Senator Ernst was the night's biggest winner. Best, pk

  15. Leslie Singer from SingerSalt, January 23, 2015 at 12:49 p.m.

    Right on as always Barbara. Ernst was/is a disaster. I'm curious what all these Republican women who vote against the equal pay act tell their daughters. And I wonder if they are getting the same pay as the men in Congress? If so, I recommend they vote themselves a pay decrease and put their money where their f*****g mouth is.

  16. Benny Thomas from Rise&Shine&Partners, January 23, 2015 at 1:20 p.m.

    I don't know whether to be amused at the obvious pandering and rickety logic of Ernst's statement, or frightened by the fact that none of it will probably matter to the deluded Tea Partiers she seems to be talking to.

  17. Dorothy Crenshaw from Crenshaw Communications, January 23, 2015 at 1:47 p.m.

    Ernst's bread bag line made me laugh out loud. But not as hard as the title of your post! Thanks, Barbara. Brilliant as usual.

  18. Patricia O'Connor from Non Profit, January 23, 2015 at 2:36 p.m.

    While she was wearing bread bags over her shoes, my steamfitter father was keeping warm with asbestos blankets that the contractors provided. He has asbestosis to thank for his inability to breathe well and no government subsidies to help him secure oxygen. The contractors all filed bankruptcy and so the class action suit was a moot point. Their saved retirement money all goes to his medical care.

  19. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, January 23, 2015 at 5:31 p.m.

    Terrific read! I too remember Monty Python — "A cardboard box? We used to dream of a cardboard box. We lived in a paper bag. In a sewer." I'm sorry, it was horrifying. She looked like a first grade teacher explaining to a group of six-year-olds how to one plus one equals two. It was slow, pedantic and irksomely patronizing. And she told the kind of of tale no one under 90 has ever told (we used to have to carry our lunch in a metal pail a mile and a half to school every morning). And worse, she never said a thing about the speech she was supposed to be rebutting.

  20. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, January 23, 2015 at 8:47 p.m.

    So, according to Joni Ernst, the whole time she was growing up, she only had one pair of good shoes? One pair? She never outgrew her shoes? The mind boggles. I was waiting for her to say she walked to school in the snow, 5 miles, uphill in both directions. But she had a bus to ride in. The larger issue (at least to me) is that her speech was billed as a response to the SOTU. Instead, she rolled out a campaign stump speech. She didn't respond to one single thing that Obama discussed in his speech. Not. One. Thing.

  21. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 24, 2015 at 10:11 a.m.

    Marla and Jonathan--for logistical reasons, that's the way it always is with responses that follow almost immediately. Not enough time to respond to the particulars. The speechwriters work in advance with the speaker (just as is done with the president's speech) and have to address likely themes and policy contrasts that are already known.

  22. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, January 24, 2015 at 11:36 a.m.

    I vote this the headline of the year! That said, Ms. Ernst outperformed Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio by miles. Putting aside my political views (left of center), she was as good as you can be in that insane position. Following a charismatic lame duck president with opposition party for rest of his tenure--NOTHING TO LOSE--is a spot I wouldn't give to a leopard. But she aced it IMO. Since I'm against pretty much everything she stands for I'm afraid of her in a way I couldn't be of Sarah Palin. She'd neutralize the woman-card in a Hilary Clinton election. Jeb Bush and Jodi Ernst could get it done for the Republicans. So I sincerely hope that doesn't happen.

  23. Jim English from The Met Museum, January 24, 2015 at 1:05 p.m.

    Not the Ernst in EY (formerly Ernst & Young), but Joni still tied to big money. Thanks for letting us known about the Koch Brothers connection to her campaign. No, Joni Ernst not female Abe Lincoln.

  24. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, January 24, 2015 at 3:59 p.m.

    CeCe-- I agree that the responder is at a huge disadvantage --like a contestant in a game show who has been kept in a sound proof room, and is brought back out on stage as the only one not in on the joke. You'd think that in this insta-Twitter culture, the standards would change and the rebutter could respond to the speech.
    And while the bread bag anecdote she referred to probably happened in the late '70s, or early 80s, and might be the technical truth, she should have added: "Of course, later on in the 90s, all of their thrift and hard work paid off, and with the help of the perfectly legal farm subsidies that we were able to get through the government, my family prospered. But then she'd have to redo her cost-cutting stance.

  25. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, January 24, 2015 at 4:47 p.m.

    Everyone had a copy of Obama's speech in advance. It was widely circulated via social media. All the attendees in the room had printed copies, some of which Obama signed as he exited. All the news organizations had the speech in advance, as well. Ernst deliberately chose not to respond; she stated as much at the outset of her 'response'.

  26. John Grono from GAP Research, January 24, 2015 at 11:39 p.m.

    It reminds me of an Australian comic character from the '70s called Norman Gunston (search YouTube for him - such as the Frank Zappa interview so you get the picture) who used to like recounting such homilies and never quite get them right. In one instance he said ... I used to think I was poor because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet - so I took his shoes because he wouldn't be needing them.

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