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Ride Along with Mitch


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Weekly Standard:

Can the astonishing popularity of Indiana’s penny-pinching governor carry him to the White House in 2012?
Andrew Ferguson
June 14, 2010

15-37.Well_.Ferguson_AP.jpg
AP

Indianapolis

When Mitch Daniels ran for governor of Indiana in 2004, a friend and videographer got the idea of filming the candidate in vidéo vérité style as he traveled around the state in his Indiana-made RV. In both his campaigns for governor—in 2004, when he won a close race, and in 2008, when he won reelection against the Obama tide in an 18-point landslide—Daniels visited each of Indiana’s 92 counties at least three times, appearing in places that hadn’t seen a statewide candidate in generations, or ever. If he wasn’t riding the RV, he came to town on his custom-built Harley Davidson, a solitary aide trailing behind.

He insisted on spending every night on the road in the home of a local family. Nearly all the families were strangers to him. He slept in guest rooms, family rooms, dens, and children’s bedrooms, on bunks and foldout couches, with pictures of pop stars staring from the walls and an occasional Disney mobile dangling overhead, proving to the people of his state that he could sleep anywhere. He was bit by a pig and, later, a farm dog. For his website he wrote a day-by-day account of the places he went and people he met. He paid special attention to the quality of pork tenderloin sandwiches he found in the local bars and diners. Pork tenderloin sandwiches, the size of a platter, are unavoidable in Indiana, no matter how hard you try, and Daniels made it clear he didn’t want to try. Food became a theme of the campaign. The best dessert he’d discovered, he said, was a Snickers Bar dunked in pancake batter and, this being Indiana, deep-fried.

All of this was the stuff of what became MitchTV. Daniels said he was skeptical of having his every move placed under the eye of a crew with a handheld camera and a boom mike. The first line of the first episode is: “The first thing you need to know about this is, it was not my idea.” But it was a good idea. The campaign edited the video down to half-hour episodes every week and bought time in nearly every TV market in the state, on Saturday nights, Sunday mornings, and Sunday evenings. A typical episode received a five or six share, a rating that shocked everybody and translated into tens of thousands of regular viewers.

I was alerted to MitchTV by a politically connected friend. Most of the episodes are available on YouTube. The shows are bizarrely compelling, as if D.A. Pennebaker had been let loose on the set of Hee Haw. The Hoosiers themselves​​—grizzled old farmers, bikers with attitude, housewives in floral prints, chubby kids in too-tight T-shirts—are part of the attraction. They are alternately delighted, disbelieving, and annoyed to find a well-known politician in their midst. The action, if that’s the word, plays out in county fairs and barn auctions and meetings of the chamber of commerce, against the woebegone beauty of small towns slowly sinking back into the Indiana prairie.

What ties the episodes together, of course, is the presence of Daniels. His telegenic appeal is highly unlikely. He’s 5′7″. His pale coloring is set off by his reddish gray hair, and the day is fast approaching when the combover will no longer be able to work its magic. He favors pressed sport shirts and sharply creased Dockers, public-golf-course casual. His accent is hard to place. He calls it “hillbilly hybrid,” a term he coined to describe what happens when the rounded tones of Tennessee and Georgia, where he lived as a boy, are stomped flat as a griddle by the adenoidal twang of Central Indiana, where he’s lived, off and on, since he was ten. He has a fine sense of humor—after their dog bit him he told the family he was off to a diner for his new favorite breakfast, “two eggs over easy, biscuits and gravy, and a tetanus shot”—but his manner is just awkward enough to make you wonder, when you talk to him, if you’re making him nervous.

And voters, apparently, find it all endearing. In 2008 he garnered more votes than any other candidate in the state’s history, even as Obama became the first Democratic candidate for president to win the state since 1964. Daniels won 20 percent of the black vote and a majority of the youth vote. His approval rating among voters here, in the trough of the recession, ranges between 60 and 70 percent. He is everywhere in the news all the time; when I visited Indiana last month, his picture appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis Star, above the fold, on two of the four days I was there. He is at once so visible and so self-effacing that he seems to have sunk into a black hole of personal magnetism and come out the other side, where the very lack of charisma becomes charismatic. He is the un-Obama. Republicans—notably some wealthy and powerful ones who have decided he should be president​—seem to like that.

For a MitchTV fan, nothing can quite compare to seeing the thing play out in person. Daniels said I could go along with him to a couple of weekday events north of Indianapolis, but the day before we were to leave he decided to ride his Harley, leaving me to trail him in a black Sequoia with the state troopers who are a governor’s ever-present companions. When Daniels goes by motorcycle, another trooper will ride a bike a respectful distance behind. “I can pretend, at least, I’m all by myself,” he said. “It gives me the illusion of privacy for a little while.”

Our first stop that morning was North Central High School, in Indianapolis, where the governor was scheduled to bestow a statewide academic award on a prizeworthy math whiz. Daniels grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from North Central in 1967. His grandfather, born Elias Esau, came to the United States from Syria in the early 1920s. He chose the name Daniels at Ellis Island. After a few years Elias—now called Louie—made enough money to return to Syria and find a bride. He brought her back to Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and earned a good living running a pool hall and, his grandson says, making book. Mitch’s father married his mother, of Scots-Irish descent, in the Valley, and Mitch was born there, in the same delivery room that gave the world Joe Montana. After the sojourn in the South, his father landed a job selling pharmaceuticals and brought the family to Indianapolis. “It’s the typical immigrant story,” Mitch says. “Something that could only happen in America, and it happens all the time.”

North Central gleamed. A glass elevator stood in the polished foyer, and a ramp curved up to a balcony where one wall was devoted to the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. A picture of Daniels—straight A student, president of the student council, delegate to the national Boys State convention in 1967—has pride of place, next to a photo of BabyFace, the music producer who has evidently been forgiven for discovering Paula Abdul. Later I remarked to Daniels how the schools I’d seen in Indiana all had the same gleam and polish: immaculate athletic fields, vast cafeterias, swimming pools.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s a problem.”

I’d meant to flatter him but he sounded appalled.

“When we were first campaigning, I started to notice, we’d drive through these rural counties, these very poor counties, and we’d drive up over a hill and on the other side you’d see a brand-new high school that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had just been there. Enormous gold-plated buildings. It turned out we had higher capital expenditures for educational construction per square foot than any other state. There’d be a bond issue and then the architects and contractors would run amok, spending money on things that had nothing to do with academics. I understand why it happens. The school board likes it because they get to play designer for a year. But we couldn’t afford it.”

Daniels put a 120-day moratorium on new school bond issues. “We’ve told them, if you propose a project that costs more per square foot than the national average, be prepared to show cause.”

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