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.
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.