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Cheez Dunce

For tourists, no trip to Philadelphia is complete without stops at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. For presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, the crucial photo-op takes place a mile or so to the south, near the intersection of Ninth and Wharton Streets: The block occupied by Pat's and Geno's, the dueling cheesesteak titans of South Philadelphia. Where the independence-era sites represent the secular shrines of a nation, the cheesesteak corner reflects the more localized civic religion of unhealthy eating.

Ritualized though it may be, the cheesesteak grip 'n' grin occasionally makes news. In 2003, John Kerry visited Pat's and opted to have Swiss cheese, rather than the traditional Cheez-Whiz, on his sandwich. Photos depicting the Massachusetts Senator daintily nibbling at his steak made it clear early in the race that Kerry was missing some key strand of man-of-the-people DNA. The spectacle quickly became a joke--was he sucking up to Philly's famous Swiss-American voting bloc?--and a preliminary glimpse of the supposedly effete Senator Republicans would so easily lampoon in the general election.

By all rights, Rudolph Giuliani's trip to the same corner last week ought to be just as defining. Or, perhaps, more so: While Kerry's encounter with a steak sandwich showed him to be a guy who didn't know when to hide his highbrow tastes, Giuliani's visit showcased a former mayor willing to pander to the lowest common denominator of immigrant-bashing.

All that in a cheesesteak? Well, yes. Giuliani, you see, ate at Geno's.

Like so many other once-innocuous things in American life, the corner of 9th and Wharton has become thoroughly politicized in recent years. Last year, a local controversy erupted after Joe Vento, who owns Geno's, put a sign in his window advising patrons to order in English. The kerfuffle followed predictable lines: Critics remonstrated, referring the matter to the city's human relations commission; defenders flocked to the restaurant clad in t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan the controversy had made famous: "This is America--Now Speak English."

A born showman, Vento mugged for the cameras all the while. He told a reporter that Mexicans carry disease into the U.S. because they "play and drink out of the same water." He defended himself against critics with a quick recourse to that last refuge of the demagogue: "I say what everybody's thinking but is afraid to say." When the cameras finally left his restaurant, he took his show on the road, traveling to a rally in the northeast Pennsylvania town of Hazleton, where GOP mayor Lou Barletta championed anti-immigrant ordinances that have since been struck down in federal court.

Vento's fame might have presented a certain challenge for a non-immigrant-baiting Republican like Giuliani. Go to Geno's and you look like you're playing to the know-nothings; go to Pat's and you look like you're dissing the guy who got famous for saying what a lot of the GOP electorate appears to think.

But in the case of his trip to South Philly, Giuliani's choice showed more than a willingness to pander to a guy he not so long ago might have rebuked. It also brought up another common knock against the man who foisted Bernie Kerik on the nation: He's a lousy judge of character. On the surface, Giuliani's camp likely saw Vento as an example of the outer-borough sort he once wooed as mayor. Before he put up his English-only sign, Vento's most prominent political statement came in outfitting Geno's staffers in t-shirts calling for Mumia Abu-Jamaal's execution. In interviews, Vento has maintained that his own ancestors were disadvantaged because no one ever forced them to learn English on arrival from Italy. A veteran big-city pol like Giuliani might well have admired his ability to waltz from white ethnic griping to high-minded public policy reasoning. A little staff work, though, ought to have demonstrated that Vento was more than just another simple restaurateur with his mind helpfully focused on integrating non-English speaking immigrants into the modern U.S. economy. They might, for instance, have simply checked out his arm, which has a tattoo of the confederate flag. Vento says it's an homage to the old cartoon character Johnny Yuma, the rebel. He must have liked that show a lot, because he also had the flag on several of the Harley-Davidsons he keeps across the street from his restaurant.

Imagine the outrage if some Southern conservative--Trent Lott, say--had made a pilgrimage to an unapologetically rebel-flagged sort like Vento. But Giuliani, whose New York background serves as a surprisingly effective shield against the charges of intolerance that once punctuated his mayoral administration, managed to make the trip looking less like an actual bigot than a shameless panderer. And once he got there, he lived up to it. "Whenever I'm at Geno's, I order in English," Giuliani told a local TV reporter. If he's lucky, GOP voters in South Carolina caught glimpses of Vento's tattoos as the pair mugged for cameras.

But in the event that a candidate Giuliani finds himself tacking back towards the center next year, that picture may yet come back to haunt him--just like the one of Kerry hoisting his Swiss-cheese steak at the apolitical joint across the street.

Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer