My wife and I were driving in Arlington, Virginia last week when our journey was interrupted by a huge traffic jam and a crowd gathered across from a rundown strip mall. Yellow crime-scene tape was stretched between light poles, aiding dozens of police who kept back onlookers and directed traffic as their radio cars and motorcycles half-blocked the roadway. An ambulance was on hand, evidence, we feared, of a terrible accident. But there was no sign of damaged vehicles or injured people. And the crowd appeared relaxed, not grim.
The tip-off was the group of black Chevy Suburban SUVs parked near the police cars. To anyone living in the Washington area and familiar with its countless motorcades, they spell S-E-C-R-E-T S-E-R-V-I-C-E, a clear signal of a VIP visit. "The president or vice president must be around," I guessed out loud.
I was more right than I thought. The president AND vice president were both around, on a cheeseburger outing to an eatery called Ray's Hell Burger. Chomping on 10-ounce cheeseburgers at $7.95 each, Obama and Biden were demonstrating that despite their exalted stations they could shrug off White House formalities and prove they are, at heart, just ordinary folks like you and me (although not ordinary enough for much cheaper McDonald's or
Wendy's ground beef ).
But because right-wing radio and television talkers are on the job 24/7, it is not easy for a Democratic president to be seen as an ordinary person. Democrats are by nature elitist, they insist, even if they are black, brought up fatherless and needy enough to receive not just college, but high school scholarships. In this case, the proof of Obama's elitism was his request for Dijon mustard on his burger.
Several wingnuts went nuts. Sean Hannity charged that Obama had ordered a "fancy burger" with " a very special condiment." Laura Ingraham demanded: "What sort of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?" And Mark Steyn, guest-hosting Rush Limbaugh's talk show, professed to find the president "amazing," adding that the great elitist "John Kerry couldn't get away with that stuff, but he [Obama] makes it seem like just a regular thing to do."
All three pointed to a television commercial for Grey Poupon mustard that ran a few years ago, that shows two wealthy Britons, each in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, one relishing a dish topped off with Grey Poupon and the other asking if he, too, can have some. Kraft Foods, which makes the Dijon mustard, wrote a tongue in cheek letter of support to the president, assuring him that "The right to choose condiments freely is quintessentially American and embodies the spirit of our democracy." But a blogger named Alex Balk dinked their condiment, denouncing it as "the processed cheese of mustards" and "the fucking Velveeta of faux-French products."
Perhaps Balk is being too harsh on Grey Poupon. Perhaps asking for Dijon mustard in a hamburger joint is a clear sign of elitism. But then what do we make of the dynamite new revelation from the Bush White House website that George W. and Laura use Dijon in their recipe for deviled eggs? Or that Hannity is a regular consumer of Boca Java gourmet coffee, available only by mail, whose proud makers describe it as "in stark contrast to common marketplace coffee?" Boca Java's various flavors sell for between $15 and $38 a pound, plus $5 or more for shipping and handling. Talk about elitism, Sean!
As for Steyn, he's a Canadian with a sometime sense of humor. But he can be heavy-footed as well. One of his articles inspired a critic to say of his writing style that Steyn "lifts his leg and relieves himself with the force of a Clydesdale..." When he guest-hosted Limbaugh's radio show, Steyn did something like that in describing Obama. Speaking of the president's getting away with something Kerry never could, Steyn added: "That was yesterday, Barack Obama had a hamburger. I don't know what he may do today to prove -- to pass for human." Imagine that, a man can be subhuman and elitist at the same time. And all for requesting Dijon mustard on his burger.
All of which makes me wonder how Steyn would describe the man for whom he was guest-hosting. And before whom he, Hannity, Ingraham and dozens of other right-wing talkers bend the knee and bow the head. Fortunately, we know a good deal about Rush Limbaugh's lifestyle from an article in the New York Times Magazine last July. Limbaugh invited the writer, Zev Chafets, to his "secluded beachfront mansion" in Palm Beach, Florida. Limbaugh, who had recently signed a multi-year, $400 million contract renewal, has five homes on the property, the largest of which is 24,000 square feet, which he shares with his cat. His salon, he told Chafets, "is meant to suggest Versailles. His main guest suite...was designed as an exact replica of the presidential suite of the George V Hotel in Paris."
Talk about elitist cars. Forget those Brits with their phony accents and cheapie Rolls Royces, pretending to be rich. Limbaugh drives a $450,000 Maybach 57S, and keeps half a dozen more of them around for his guests and because "I happen to love fine automobiles." His newest airplane is a Gulfstream G550 that cost $54 million. At Trevini, one of Limbaugh's favorite Palm Beach restaurants, a pepperoni sandwich costs $15.95 at lunch, and dinner entrees run to $40. Talk radio's great man smokes $7.60 La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Chisel cigars, each one just a few cents less than the elitist Obama's single cheeseburger. El Rushbo is even more serious about his capitalism than his conservatism. "Conservatism didn't buy this house," he told Chafets. "First and foremost I'm a businessman. My goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates." Ditto-heads take note of this real man of the people.
As for Ingraham, so exercised by Obama's eating habits that she cried out on the air: "I don't even like the way the man orders a hamburger!" what can anyone say? Perhaps the liberal author and teacher Eric Alterman had it best years ago, remarking that "this woman was more full of shit than just about anyone I had ever met." Perhaps he had in mind Ingraham's sharp criticism of "liberal elites," who, she wrote, "live in palaces invisible from the road outside, and fly in private jets." Funny, that sounds like a perfect description of Limbaugh's lifestyle.
UPDATE: A week or so after Obama and Biden had lunch at Ray's Hell Burger, we ate there to see what all the fuss was about. The burgers were very large, very juicy, and good -- although not out of this world. And, I can report that next to the the dispensers marked KETCHUP and MUSTARD and MAYONNAISE is one that's just as clearly labelled DIJON.