Pity Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher of Ohio, who in our terrifying media culture has made the term “overnight celebrity” literal. After being mentioned 15 times in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Wurzelbacher found 21 reporters and cameramen in his driveway by mid-morning Thursday. The sensation over this swing-state, aspiring small business owner says more about the perverse state of media and politics in this culture than it does about the opinions of average American voters.
Wurzelbacher, to his credit, seems to get it, humorously likening himself to “Britney Spears having a headache. Everybody wants to know about it.” Though he’s an (unlicensed) plumber, old Joe hit the nail on the head. Like Britney Spears getting into another fender-bender, Wurzelbacher has become an obsession of the Internet for no apparent reason. People want to know all about him, though he has nothing to do with any of us. What do we get out of it?
Now, there are stories by major international news organizations with in-depth quotes from Wurzelbacher on the biggest issues facing this country. How long before we see an interview with one of his ex-girlfriends from high school talking about what a cheapskate he was? If Wurzelbacher isn’t careful, he could find himself next week on a VH1 reality show or as the celebrity guest plumber on Extreme Home Makeover. One week after that, a brief mention on Access Hollywood when he enters rehab. Such is the phenomenon Andy Warhol foretold.
But what I find most grating in the Wurzelbacher phenomenon is how, as modern presidential elections come down to the handful of undecided voters in fading Rust Belt cities, candidates act as though, if they can repeat the first and last name of a middle-class person, they understand that person. I’m aware this is not a novel observation, but I can’t help being reminded of it after hearing John McCain relentlessly mention “Joe The Plumber” in last night’s debate: “Joe, you’re rich. Congratulations.” Wow, that’s exactly how I talk to my friends! After I push the bill for lunch over to their side of the table.
Democrats do it too. In the vice presidential debate Joe Biden name checked Home Depot and a little place called Katy’s Restaurant that, apparently, has never operated on Union Street in Wilmington, Delaware and has been closed for years. It’s a wing joint now. But Biden’s street cred remains.
So Wurzelbacher, I hope you’ve got a decent suit to dust off. You’re going to need it for your inevitable appearances on myriad cable talk shows over the next few nights. And be thankful these presidential debates were so oppressively boring. If they hadn’t been, you might not be in the spotlight. Use your newfound celebrity to your advantage – if you’re smart, it could do a lot more to launch your new business than either of the candidate’s tax plans.
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