“After what he said about our barbecue, he is a dead duck in North Carolina.” A Democrat was celebrating the report that Texas Governor Rick Perry once made a disparaging remark about our favorite food. According to a news report that quoted one of my favorite books, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, Perry, when he ate Eastern North Carolina barbecue in 1992, said, “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that.”
Sure enough, after the North Carolina barbecue road kill story started circulating, Perry’s campaign, which had been sailing along at a pace that made Perry look like the sure nominee, took a nosedive.
The news reports said his debate performance was sub-par. His opponents attacked his decision to require girls in Texas to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus associated with vaginal cancer. They jumped on his advocacy for tuition support for illegal immigrants attending college in Texas. Then Herman Cain crushed him (37 percent to 15) in the Florida straw poll, and Mitt Romney did the same in Michigan (50 percent to 17).
“Don’t mess with Texas,” Perry says. Maybe he will have to learn, “Don’t mess with North Carolinians and their barbecue.”
If he wants some background about the political implications of “messing” with our barbecue, he can talk to our former attorney general and secretary of state, Rufus Edmisten. According to “Holy Smoke,” Edmisten “learned a painful lesson” when he was running for governor more than 25 years ago. At the time, somebody heard him saying, “I’ve eaten enough barbecue. I am not going to eat any more. I’m taking my stand and that is it.”
Today, Edmisten can laugh about his mistake. “Holy Smoke” quotes him, “I’d be eating barbecue three times a day for a solid year, and I got up one night and, in a very, very lax moment—the devil made me do it—I made a horrible statement. I said, ‘I’m through with barbecue.’ Well, you would have thought I made a speech against my mother, against apple pie, cherry pie, the whole mess.”
It was not a joke during the campaign. On September 20, 1983, a Wilmington Morning Star editorial, titled “Swine cooks the Rufus goose” took him to task, “If his opponents have the sense God gave a yam, they will mount Mr. Edmisten on a spit and roast him patiently on hickory coals until he is done, And then they will pick his bones.”
Now, another North Carolina commentator, Jeffrey Weeks, makes a similar suggestion in response to Perry’s “road kill” comment. “If Rick Perry wants to bring his campaign to the Carolinas we, of course, won’t reject him. We’ll welcome him with good ol’ southern hospitality. We’ll even show him how to cook real barbeque, not with a cow (Lord have mercy) but with a pig. And I know just the pig we’ll roast. ‘Governor’ Perry.”
So is Perry’s campaign mortally wounded? Is it “toast”—or, as Weeks suggests, “roast”?
Not so fast.
A couple of weeks ago former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs surprised me with his comments about Perry. Although he declined to speculate about which possible Republican presidential candidate would be easier or harder to beat, he cautioned not to underrate Perry. Gibbs thinks that Perry could be a strong candidate in the general election, notwithstanding his seemingly over-the-top positions on Social Security and North Carolina barbecue.
What Perry has, according to Gibbs, that the other Republican candidates lack, is “that he is comfortable in his boots—like Ronald Reagan.”
If Gibbs is right, Perry will not be thrown off course by his campaign’s recent downturns, and this time next year, he will be a formidable challenger to President Obama.