Political hot potatoes

There has never been a vegetable presidential election in American history, though some presidents may have acted like spinach. Bush the Elder once famously declared, “[now] I’m President of the United States … I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,” (or cauliflower, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, all of which he detested) but he left that comment until he was safely in the Oval Office and the broccoli lobby, famously powerful, could do nothing about it.

This year might prove the exception to the rule, not to the extent that veggies are up there with unemployment, foreign wars and the price of petrol as pivotal issues, but they are at least visible in the form of Michelle Obama’s campaign to persuade Americans to eat healthier, exercise more and thereby become less fat, which they undoubtedly are.

Even the US Supreme Court, lords of the law, now seems to have a vegetable complex. Last month, during oral arguments over the constitutionality of healthcare reform, Justice Antonin Scalia, the rock-ribbed conservative, wondered aloud why the government should not compel the people to eat broccoli if it also required them to buy health insurance. The judicial answer will be forthcoming in a couple of months.

Objectively, it is hard to argue with the First Lady and her “Let’s Move” campaign. Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years, with nearly one in three kids seriously overweight, carrying that extra poundage into adulthood with the diabetic and cardiac problems that inevitably ensue, adding an estimated $147bn a year to the national health bill. Obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.

And the government does have skin in the food game, as it were.

It subsidises school lunches to the tune of $11bn a year and has to fight influential lobbies every step of the way to change what is on the daily menu. Last year, Congress blocked proposals to reduce the starchy content of school meals, placed no restrictions on servings of potatoes and insisted that tomato paste, even when thinly spread across a pizza base, remain classified as a vegetable. Government guidelines earlier this year to double the amount of fruit and vegetables served, to stipulate that all milk served be low fat and that more of the grains used be whole grains, will doubtless be challenged. The National Potato Council has already sniffed that spuds are considered “a second-class vegetable”.

Broccoli: reviled by George Bush

Of course, politics is not an exercise in objectivity. To the legions on the right, Mrs Obama’s campaign is just another thin end of the wedge whereby the dreaded government is going to control every aspect of citizen life in a nanny state liberal utopia. As Mark Levin, a notorious rightwing radio ranter puts it, “You can’t sit down and have a meal without calorie counts being thrown in your face.” Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative polemicists, rarely lets a day go by without uttering something similar along the lines that socialism and America are incompatible. To Sarah Palin, who likes to “field dress” (or disembowel on the spot) dead moose, Mrs Obama “is telling us she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families, in what we should eat”. (That comment persuaded Jamie Oliver to call the former governor of Alaska a “froot loop”, but then he has his own campaign to improve school meals.)

Believe it or not, these are quite mild expressions of discontent. The outer reaches of the blogosphere are alive with reports of “Michelle Obama’s food police” handcuffing kindergarteners in the Carolinas for bringing to school insufficiently nutritious homemade lunches or of her pictured stuffing her face with hamburgers (which, taken with Dijon mustard, happen to be among her husband’s favourite meals) or serving deep-pan pizza with crisps at the White House Super Bowl party. When she visited a military base in Arkansas earlier this year to promote healthy eating among soldiers (“Don’t worry, you’ll be a vegetable guy soon,” she told one GI) she was assailed for undermining national security. Persuading Walmart, the retailing giant, to support her efforts was tantamount to putting dynamite under the private sector.

Her organic vegetable patch in the White House gardens is the subject of constant derision, though she is hardly the first First Lady to embark on such a project. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt dug one in the same place as a symbol of her wartime Victory Garden campaign, interestingly over the objections of the US Department of Agriculture which thought farmers might be adversely affected. For once, the bureaucrats were right; by the end of the war, some 20m home gardens supplied 40 per cent of the produce consumed in the country, but this was fine because the farmers were off in uniform fighting somewhere. And if Rosie the Riveter could keep America’s factories at full tilt in wartime, then Gertie the Gardener was doing her bit, too.

First Ladies are permitted to have their causes. Nobody objected when Betty Ford waged her war on addiction to prescription drugs or Laura Bush went around promoting literacy, or even when Jackie Kennedy patronised European haute couture, which led, after all, to an American fashion renaissance. But in a country as politically and socially polarised as America is today, Michelle Obama finds it harder than they did to get away with promoting healthy eating.

Obama: fond of the odd hot dog

It so happens the Obamas do like to eat well, as affluent yuppies of their generation typically do, and have catholic tastes. In Washington they go out quite a lot to the better restaurants, as they did when they lived in Chicago, sometimes on date nights or with their daughters or friends, and, yes, sometimes with campaign donors, mostly specially chosen modest ones, not the fat cats. But the president was not above taking out his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to Ray’s Hell Burger, an excellent suburban spot serving the American national dish, or smooching at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local institution renowned for the toppings on its hot dogs.

Presidential eating habits over the years have covered the full gamut. Thomas Jefferson was, naturally, a gourmet (he had lived in Paris) as was Chester Arthur, the first to recruit a real French chef to the White House, while William Howard Taft, the fattest president, was a true gourmand. John Kennedy, for all his style, was more of a clam chowder and sandwich man. Bill Clinton notoriously shovelled everything down, but now, after heart problems, says he is a near vegan. Bush the Elder fancied the Peking Gourmet Inn, a suburban Chinese place, for eating out but his son, though fond of Tex-Mex cooking, rarely ventured out, preferring to be tucked up by 9pm (he did once nearly choke on a pretzel though). Jimmy Carter’s peanuts and Ronald Reagan’s jelly beans added to the snack mix. Washington has only become a serious food town in the past 30 years, so most presidents, if they went out, were more likely to eat in private homes.

Campaigning to be president, also known as the rubber chicken circuit, is enough to turn anybody off food. It also has pitfalls for the unwary. In 1976, Gerald Ford memorably encountered his first tamale and ate the husk. The Iowa state fair, a mandatory pit stop for all politicians, features fried ice cream and innumerable things on a stick and coated in butter (there is even a life-sized cow carved in butter). Mitt Romney apparently gets by on a diet of chocolate milk, turkey breast, rice and, yes, broccoli, but he is a bland sort of chap anyway. Ron Paul’s addiction, according to his wife’s cook book, is to cheese soup made with Velveeta (a processed cheddar), plus Thousand Island dressing on everything, which does not sound very libertarian. Michele Bachmann chews celery constantly, which explains her thinness, though not her red meat politics.

It used not to be that bad, for candidates and the travelling press corps alike. We of the dirty raincoat brigade were not above planning our travels around restaurants as much as rallies (the old Benson Hotel in Portland for Pacific salmon, regardless of whether the Oregon primary was important; Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach, for example, where “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary speaker of the House, liked to hang out). If our source for political intelligence was Willie Brown, the Nostradamus of California, we would take him out to whatever restaurant he fancied in San Francisco, where he had been mayor when not running the state legislature – and his taste was fancy. In the Deep South, there were certain unmissable barbecue joints, in Michigan in-season cherry pies. Party conventions in New Orleans were particularly popular with the press, for all the obvious reasons, those in Detroit less so.

But it is different now in the age of the cellphone and the insatiable demands of filing copy for the web around the clock. In a Facebook posting earlier this year, one reporter lamented that her typical campaign meal was a Subway sandwich eaten on her lap in her rental car. She wept when I told her how it sometimes used to be.

Still, if President Obama is re-elected, much more will, and should be, heard about eating right, even if it is broccoli. If Mitt Romney wins, then chocolate milk rules. America faces an existential choice.

Jurek Martin is an FT commentator based in Washington


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