September 15, 2008

The Kitchen Table

by Rick Rockwell

This author has sworn not to reveal the nature of this blog’s name. No matter what you might think, this post is not about that subject.

This post is about “the kitchen table.” Not “the kitchen sink” (which has also shown up a time or two in political discourse this year). Not “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” a saying that at least dates to the Truman era, if not beyond. No. This is strictly about the phrase “the kitchen table,” which these days seems to be a favorite of speech makers.

The phrase showed up prominently in the convention speech of Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) as he accepted his party’s nod to serve as Barack Obama’s running mate. Biden used the line to set up a zinger about how does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) decide to have a conversation of importance around the kitchen table, if he has to choose from all those tables in all those houses he owns.

Immediately, the phrase is meant to evoke the middle class heartland, a place of home and hearth. Literally, the phrase is a political and cultural tableau. Families gather around this piece of furniture to dine, to pray, to toast, and to discuss the hard times we see confronting the nation. It’s a nice piece of speech-making because it is evocative. But will it soon become the political cliché of this very political year?

Biden, someone who’s not above lifting a clever line, is not the first to use the term in political parlance this year. This month, Ted Anthony of the Associated Press noted “the kitchen table” seemed to be the one image in almost every speech supporting Sen. Obama (D-IL) and his presidential campaign. Perhaps marketers for the Obama campaign gathered voters for a focus group and that seemed to be the phrase that touched those voters best. Perhaps they were at a kitchen table during the focus group. Using the kitchen table as the centerpiece of a campaign is also a not so subtle way, apparently, to approach disaffected female voters. Although it is certainly open to question if doing so is also unintentionally sexist. (No, this is not an invitation to re-open the tempest in a teapot over Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark.)

Perhaps playing off the power of the phrase, two professors at Princeton maintain a blog called The Kitchen Table as a place to discuss politics. Certainly, many American families do that. Growing up, that's what this author remembers: the kitchen table was where all the great family debates happened.

Actually, Biden is not the first one to inject the phrase into the campaign. The roots of the phrase can be traced all the way back to the 2004 debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and the now disgraced John Edwards. Edwards had used it as a way to say the Democrats believed in middle class family values. In this election cycle, Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia (a Republican, and someone few remember was in the race) was the first to use the kitchen table line at a candidates’ forum in the summer of 2007. Two months later at a forum for Democratic candidates, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) responded to a question that used the phrase and he talked about the kitchen as a place where families hash out problems like health care costs. Obama finally used the phrase during a debate in April of this year.

Gov. Janet Napolitano (the Democrat who runs McCain’s state of Arizona) notes there’s another reason for the kitchen table imagery: "In my kitchen, that's where I pay my bills." She notes that the Democrats feel the image resonates as a reminder of a poor economy. Of course, the further subtlety here is that the image will also make voters blame McCain for that economy.

Sadly, these days, in this author’s house, no one debates, pays bills or even eats at the kitchen table. That piece of furniture has long ago been covered by mail (mostly bills); old copies of The Washington Post waiting to be recycled; and an assortment of toys and children's drawings. All those important discussions about the economy, the war, the environment, politics and the sad state of affairs still happen. But they’ve moved to the dining room table. Does that make us elitists, or just messy?

(Photo jreichert37 via Photobucket.)

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1 comment:

Jeff Siegel said...

Here's a question for you: When is the last time McCain, Biden or Obama worried about paying a paying a bill, let alone actually wrote a check to pay one?