Party Time

The state fair and the GOP convention: How to tell them apart

Because this year’s state fair segues so neatly into the Republican National Convention (the fair runs August 21 to September 1, the convention September 1 to 4), and because these two iconic American shindigs have more in common than a person might think, it seems incumbent on me, as a longtime student of both fairs and politics, to offer a timely FUBNUQ to those who might be planning to attend one or both events.

If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, that’s okay; it just popped into my head two minutes ago. A FUBNUQ consists of Frequently Unasked But Not Uninteresting Questions. It’s like a FAQ, but more speculative, more expansive, more fun. Besides, while the FAQ business is crammed with experienced practitioners, the FUBNUQ game is wide open. In this economy, you’ve got to make your own opportunities. You’ll probably hear that sentiment expressed by numerous speechmakers at the Xcel Energy Center—and at the fair, out on the Midway, by a guy who wants you to wing a softball at some milk bottles. So here we go:

Q: Hey, are those carny games rigged?

A: Sorry, that’s a Frequently Asked Question. We’re all about the FUBNUQs here.

Q: In that case, since we’re conflating the Grand Old Party and the Great Minnesota Get-Together, didn’t beloved Republican president Theodore Roosevelt once wrestle a moose at the Minnesota State Fair?

A: Sadly, no. Roosevelt—a born-and-bred Republican who in his later years got disgruntled and headed up a short-lived splinter group called the Bull Moose Party—did attend the fair, though he was vice president at the time. The date was September 2, 1901. Not uninterestingly, this was just four days before President William McKinley was assassinated. In any case, Veep Teddy’s visit to the fair is remembered today because of something he allegedly said while orating there. Most historians will tell you that Roosevelt, addressing a star-struck throng of Minnesota fairgoers, set forth his view of America’s role on the global stage by using the expression, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This certainly seems plausible, as he subsequently became quite fond of that phrase. However, to a growing cadre of contrariohistorians, it seems equally plausible that his topic that day was not international relations. These maverick scholars contend that Roosevelt was simply telling Minnesotans how to get the most out of their state fair. According to them, what Roosevelt said was “Eat toffee and various things on sticks.”

Those who hew to the revisionist line defend their position with such arguments as these:

“On the day in question, T.R. was, in point of fact, speaking softly. He was also carrying a big stick—one of those wooden yardsticks that businesses give away as promotions at the fair. So you can see where some confusion might arise.”

“The guy was a toffee freak. Huh? Well, nobody ever proved he wasn’t.”

“Just look at 20th-century history. Did America, as a nation, ‘carry a big stick’? Sure. But did we ‘speak softly’? Not so much. Now look at the Minnesota State Fair over the same period. Since Roosevelt’s speech, foods on sticks have increased exponentially. Coincidence?”

Q: Why in the world is Hillary Clinton’s head being sculpted in butter? Shouldn’t it be John McCain’s?

A: If you’re watching butter sculpture at the fairgrounds, then the subject is not Senator Clinton—it’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way or one of the runner-up dairy princesses. Each gets her noggin rendered in glorious 3-D by an artist working with a 90-pound block of golden creamery goodness. Funny thing about butter, though; as a sculptural medium, it has certain limitations. You have to work in a fridge, for instance. Worse, the raw material seems to exert undue influence over the finished work. In other words, no matter whose likeness you attempt to carve out of butter, you end up with something that looks more or less like Hillary Clinton. Go to the fair on Labor Day this year, check out all the sculpted princesses, and tell me if I’m not right.

Now, if you’re watching butter sculpture at the convention, it’s possible that the artist was going for a McCain but ended up with a Hillary. Or maybe somebody’s just doing effigy practice for a future election.

Q: So where are the giant tractors? I was told there would be giant tractors.

A: Alas, Machinery Hill at the fairgrounds is no more. Well, it’s still there, but nowadays it’s carpeted with snowmobiles, ATVs, hot tubs, and kiddie rides. But down at the Xcel Center, where the Minnesota Wild play their games, there is a giant piece of machinery: the Zamboni. There are rumors—as yet unconfirmed—that when John McCain makes his grand entrance on the night of his nomination, he will be seated at the controls of this awesome apparatus. Some of his advisers believe quite strongly that America will be powerless to resist voting for a man who can handle the big Zambon’. “The pristine ice sheet of the American dream needs a good resurfacing, and John McCain is just the man to do it”—that sort of thing. We shall see.

Q: Help! I’m surrounded by barnyard animals in the last throes of parturition: cows calving, sheep lambing, pigs, um, pigletting. What the—?

A: Relax. You’ve probably wandered into the fair’s most popular free attraction, a barn in which city folks can see where steaks, sweaters, and bacon begin. It’s called the Miracle of Birth Center. It only sounds like something you might find at a Republican convention.

Q: Oh. My. God. Did you see the outfit on that woman over there?

A: Again, that question is way too frequently asked to be of interest to a FUBNUQer like me.

Okay, yes, I saw her. Whoa. But did you see the guy with her? With the knee-high lace-up platform roller skates and the silver thong and all the body piercings? Thank goodness he was wearing an extra-large McCain button.

Q: It’s evening, and all of a sudden, in the midst of hilarity and comradeship, I am awash in sadness. What has happened to my euphoria, to my patriotism, to my beautiful carnival buzz?

A: Poor you. You’ve come to the place where human gatherings—fairs, conventions, tournaments, revivals—all go sour. You’re weary, slumped on a bench, your shoes buried in a drift of confetti and burst balloons and crumpled Tom Thumb Donut bags. You’re probably a little bit drunk. Your body and mind have absorbed all the cheese curds and partisan rhetoric they can. In a moment of alcoholic clarity that you won’t recall tomorrow, you understand that after a certain point, celebration is indistinguishable from denial. It’s a way of pushing off awkward truths and weaseling out of chores. You admit to yourself that you need to go home. You need to sleep it off, suffer the hangover, and get on with things.

Then again, there’s always the Midway. They stay open later out there. The rides keep grinding, the neon tubes hum, you can still smell diesel fuel and cooked sugar and beery promises. You can still play a game, maybe win something. A big pink elephant for your kid, a purple teddy bear for your darling. Pick up that softball. Get a good grip. Why does it seem that if you can just knock over those milk bottles, you will gain the whole world? Don’t think about whether the game is rigged. Any minute now, the black sky will be filled with fireworks. Make yourself an opportunity. Throw the damn thing.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson wishes you could watch vice presidents wrestling moose at the state fair.