The first rule of political pandering: Know what you're talking about.
The classic example: In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, trying to bolster his regular guy image, spoke of Green Bay's hallowed ";Lambert Field." It's Lambeau Field. Ten dork points for Kerry.
This week, Michelle Obama walked into a culinary version of the Lambert gaffe.
In an e-mail congratulating Charlotte, N.C., on being named host city for the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Obama mentioned that Charlotte has "great barbecue." As someone who grew up an hour from Charlotte, I can tell you that few natives would say that. Nobody travels to Charlotte for the barbecue. It might have a good barbecue restaurant or two, but the really good stuff is outside of the city.
Obama's been mocked for the obvious pander, as she should have been. But to me the offense wasn't her ignorance of North Carolina's barbecue geography. It was her blatant violation of the second rule of political pandering: Don't pretend to like something you don't.
Michelle Obama is America's No. 1 Food Nanny. Her top priority as First Lady is to end "the epidemic of childhood obesity in America." When she launched that initiative a year ago this month, she announced the creation of letsmove.gov, which provides tips to parents and community leaders on making kids healthier. One recommendation to municipal officials is: "Create a healthy food promotional campaign, and offer a 'healthy eating' designation to restaurants who offer healthier food and beverages and reasonably-sized portions."
There isn't a self-respecting barbecue joint in the South that could win that designation. North Carolina barbecue joints sell hush puppies (fried cornmeal) and sweet tea that's close to equal parts tea and sugar. And you don't want to think about the calorie count in a single slice of pie or dollop of banana pudding.
Michelle Obama praising Carolina barbecue? That's like Gandhi praising mixed martial arts fighting.
Despite the hypocrisy, Michelle Obama means well. She really, earnestly wants to save America's children from lives spent savoring the joys of Twinkies, but missing out on the joys of scoring the winning goal or leaping, à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and exclaiming, "She said I'm cuuuuute!"
And to Obama's credit, she has said that it's OK to indulge now and then in a sweet or some high-fat food. But that implies that it's not OK -- as an absolute rule, not a matter of choice -- to have a burger, ice cream or barbecue sandwich often, or at least more often than a government nutritionist -- even a self-appointed one -- would recommend.
As even-handed as she has tried to sound, Obama has pulled the government further in the direction of dictating our eating choices. She already recommends that government officials tilt the playing field in favor of restaurants that offer state-approved "healthier" options. She has pressured Walmart into offering more healthy foods. It is one small step to the government actively limiting what we eat.
Also last week, a group of self-designated food police launched a national campaign to "retire Ronald" McDonald because, they say, he's making kids obese. And this comes shortly after San Francisco passed an ordinance banning the inclusion of toys in fast-food kids' meals on the theory that kids wouldn't like chicken nuggets or French fries if they didn't come with a cheap, plastic toy.
In her speeches, Obama makes a greater concession to free will than the activists and San Francisco supervisors do. But she doesn't fully endorse the idea that families ought to be free to make their own decisions about what to eat. She thinks the government should tell us what kinds of foods to eat, when, and in what quantities.
She doesn't say the government should force those decisions on us, but wittingly or not she is laying the groundwork for that. And given that her husband just forced all of us to buy health insurance, there is nothing legally or intellectually standing in the way of this administration proposing federally mandated healthy diets. The only obstacles are political: the president wants to appear moderate, and Republicans control the House. But should Democrats win big in 2012, what is to stop them from banning Happy Meals and forcing barbecue joints to sell only unsweetened tea and soy-becue? Certainly not their ideology.
I would believe Michelle Obama's compliment to my home state's unofficial state food if she actually stood up and defended my right to eat it with whatever quantity, frequency and sauce I wanted. Until then, I'll take mine with slaw, no sauce, and hold the First Lady's opinions, please.