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Leaders of the free world need junk food, too

August 08, 2012|By James Rainey
  • Mitt Romney carries a bag of McDonald's as he boards his charter plane in Centennial, Colo.
Mitt Romney carries a bag of McDonald's as he boards his charter plane… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

Mitt Romney used a speech at a Chicago fundraiser Tuesday to make a point about individual initiative and entrepreneurship. To do it, he used the example of McDonald’s, the family-owned burger stand that grew into a worldwide behemoth.

What could be homier and more American than enjoying a little McDonald’s and the company’s success story? Politicians like cozying up to fast food because, well, they might actually like it, but it also gives them a chance to show they can be just regular folk.

That stance can seem a bit incongruous with both Romney and his rival, President Obama, because both men are fitness fanatics, known for their commitment to a workout routine. Still, Romney occasionally grabs McDonald's on the campaign trail or has his staff supply the traveling crew with Chick-fil-A. (Despite some reports that he fastidiously pulls the cheese off his pizza, Politics Now has witnessed him gobble the entire slice.) Obama dines on burgers with world leaders, and has been photographed more than once downing a hot dog.

In the story he told supporters Tuesday, Romney made it clear his family’s fast food commitment dates back at least a generation.  He told how his father, George, provided some early assistance to the fledgling McDonald’s chain.

“I found a little paper card, a little pink card, and it said this entitles George W. Romney to a lifetime of a hamburger, a shake and French fries at McDonald’s,” Romney said. “It was signed by the hand of Ray Kroc. My dad had done a little training lesson or whatever for McDonald’s when there was just a handful of restaurants and I saw this thing and was like, ‘This is a gold mine, Dad! What are you doing?’ ”

Romney seemed a little charged up, decades later, that his dad had been in on the ground floor of a company that became such a huge success. As with his previous comments on NASCAR, the Republican’s connections tend to be with the ownership end of many any enterprises. But still, fast food is real Americana, even if the owner is paying. Romney had the lifetime burger card laminated for his father.

The politics of food become a little more complicated once you take up residence in the White House. At least for the Obamas.

The president downed a dog with British Prime Minister David Cameron during the NCAA basketball tournament and had a burger with former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev a couple of years back. But those regular-guy gestures ran afoul of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in May.

The nonprofit advocacy group asked the White House to knock off photo ops of the consumer in chief dining on junk food. They said such habits can lead to cancer, obesity and other problems. Then a food service group came to Obama’s defense, saying the president should reject the ridiculous “vegan agenda.”

Obama did not comment for the record but delivered his rebuttal in June. While visiting Atlanta, he stopped at The Varsity — a favorite haunt of locals and visiting politicos — and bought a load of high-calorie fare for his entourage:  five chili dogs, four regular dogs, and one hamburger.

First Lady Michelle Obama may head an anti-obesity, healthful eating campaign, but the president must be making a couple of other calculations: 1) real Americans like other Americans who like their fast food and 2) a chili dog may be hard on the arteries, but it’s good for the soul.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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