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Obama, the politics of Iowa Fair beer, tipping and doughnuts

August 15, 2012|By James Rainey
  • President Obama has a beer with Mike Cunningham II, left, and another worker at the beer stand during a visit to the Iowa State Fair, in Des Moines.
President Obama has a beer with Mike Cunningham II, left, and another worker… (Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo )

Politicians trying to play the authenticity card can get in trouble. They can look inauthentic. Or they can disrupt business as usual.

The operator of the Bud Tent at the Iowa State Fair said this week that President Obama’s stop at the popular beer pit-stop cost him a lot of business — as the Secret Service choked off the flow of customers by securing the area and screening everyone who wanted to come in for a cold one.

The Monday drop-in by the president initially appeared to be a win-win: Obama looked like the Buddy-in-Chief when he bought beer for 10 fair visitors. He posed for pictures, including with beer tent operator Mike Cunningham II.

Obama reportedly left the tent (operating at the fair for 65 years) to friendly chants of: “Four more beers! Four more beers!”

But proprietor Cunningham later told the Des Moines Register that the visit cut down on traffic during a prime evening business hour. He guessed that he lost as much as $25,000. "I was in a position to make a campaign donation against my will," Cunningham told the Des Moines Register. The Republican businessman added: "I wouldn't have voted for [Obama] before. I won’t again.”

The kerfuffle might provoke memories of another Iowa campaign incident. When then-Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Maid-Rite cafe in 2007, waitress Anita Esterday said she never got a tip. The Clinton campaign insisted it had left $100 on behalf of Clinton and her contingent. Esterday said that no one had ever shared the money with her. A staffer returned to the restaurant and gave the waitress $20. That episode made national news.

What is it about Iowa and awkward dine-out moments? In June it happened again. Romney greeted voters at a cafe in the Hawkeye State. As he prepared to leave, he gestured at a plate of doughnuts and suggested he wanted one. Only he couldn’t come up with the name of the sugary fried food.

“Can you see that one of those chocolate … uh, uh … chocolate goodies finds its way to our ride?” Romney bumbled. This amused many people, including David Letterman’s writers, who came up with a Top 10 list of euphemisms for doughnuts. (No. 8: “leavened batter globules.")

Obama’s Beer-gate incident appears to be blowing over quickly.  Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley had helped kick off the tiff by suggesting via Twitter that the Bud Tent lost $50,000 during Obama’s less-than-an-hour visit. Owner Cunningham cut that number in half. Still, fair regulars had to wonder if even the popular Bud Tent could ring up some 4,000 Buds, Bud Lites—at $6 a pop—to create such a big loss in so little time. A regular businessman at the fair (slogan: Nothing Compares) told Politics Now that 1,000 beers an hour would be really good business. That would come to a loss of $6,000, assuming no one had a beer during the presidential photo op. But we digress.

Even the receipts-deflated Cunningham conceded that it was a bit of a kick to have a president of the U.S. of A. at the fair. His great-grandfather had served as an Iowa fair official greeting Dwight D. Eisenhower  during Ike’s 1954 visit.

Iowa State Fair Chief Executive Gary Slater said he got a few hours’ notice that Obama planned to drop by Monday. He asked the president’s contingent to keep in mind that fair concessions count on making all their money during a short, 11-day run.  “They said they would do what they could do,” Slater said Wednesday of the president’s entourage. “But they also have to do what they do to keep the president safe. And we understand that, as well.

"It’s certainly an honor to have the president of the United States and the leader of the Free World come to Iowa and to the Iowa State Fair,” Slater concluded. “That is huge, no matter what your politics are.”

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