I stay off the internet for one day – a little less than a full day, actually – and this happens:
The head of a northeast Ohio charity says that the Romney campaign last week “ramrodded their way” into the group’s Youngstown soup kitchen so that GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan could get his picture taken washing dishes in the dining hall.
Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, said that he was not contacted by the Romney campaign ahead of the Saturday morning visit by Ryan, who stopped by the soup kitchen after a town hall at Youngstown State University.
“We’re a faith-based organization; we are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations,” Antal said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “It’s strictly in our bylaws not to do it. They showed up there, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors.”
He added: “The photo-op they did wasn’t even accurate. He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.” Antal later told NBC News that Ryan had cleaned some dirty dishes; his original comment was based on secondhand information from a volunteer.
Ryan had stopped by the soup kitchen for about 15 minutes on his way to the airport after his Saturday morning town hall in Youngstown. By the time he arrived, the food had already been served, the patrons had left, and the hall had been cleaned.
Upon entering the soup kitchen, Ryan, his wife and three young children greeted and thanked several volunteers, then donned white aprons and offered to clean some dishes. Photographers snapped photos and TV cameras shot footage of Ryan and his family washing pots and pans that did not appear to be dirty.
To be fair, this is slightly better than the way the story was originally reported. Initial reports indicated that all Rep. Ryan did was to pose for the cameras fake-washing a pot that had already been washed; now, it appears as though (ahem) “some” of the dishes Ryan washed – or pretended to wash – were actually dirty.
But still. Barging into a charity, commandeering pots and pans, pretending to wash them while photographers willingly snap pictures of the farce, then hightailing it out of there as soon as all the decent PR was squeezed out of the situation … that’s just nauseating. Unsurprising, yes. But nauseating just the same.
According to the Washington Post, Ryan’s crew says it did nothing wrong:
[T]he campaign followed its usual protocol for impromptu, on-the-road stops by candidates: A staffer was dispatched to the St. Vincent De Paul Society ahead of Ryan’s visit Saturday morning and spoke with a woman in charge on site, who said that it would be fine for the congressman to stop by. The campaign did not contact Antal ahead of the visit.
But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it. These campaigns think they get to set the protocol. They get to dictate to everyone, including charities, how it’s going to go down: If their candidate wants to use you to advance his own agenda, he’s going to use you and you’re going to like it. Be grateful the candidate “bring[s] attention to the very meaningful charitable contributions” you make, and keep yer trap shut. Even if you happen to be a non-partisan charity like the St. Vincent DePaul Society and you don’t want to appear to be currying favor with one political side or the other for fear you’ll alienate potential donors.
To me, though, there’s an even more pernicious aspect to Ryan’s fake pot-washing, and it comes from last week’s vice presidential debate wherein both Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden were asked about how their Catholicism affects their political and social lives. Ryan, predictably, yammered on about abortion and contraception – issues that used to be of minor concern to American Catholics (and in the case of contraception, of literally no concern to American Catholics); and I say this based on decades of personal experience as a regular weekly mass attendee.
Biden focused instead on issues of social justice – issues which, in my forty-plus years of regular church attendance, have played a far more prominent role in the daily life of the Church:
My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who – who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.
Yes, of course, Biden addressed abortion and contraception, too, primarily to dispel the myths Ryan sought to propagate; but the Vice President’s simple statement about what’s central to Catholic doctrine – taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves – is not only accurate, at least in my experience, but actually resonates with Catholic voters, the majority of whom voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in 2008.
So it’s hard for me not to be even more cynical than usual about Paul Ryan’s dishwashing stunt at a prominent Catholic social services agency, happening, as it did, less than a week after Joe Biden schooled him on the true meaning of Catholicism. Not that I would expect today’s Catholic hierarchy to chastise Ryan over the insulting farce, as it did Biden over his defense of the Obama administration’s position on contraception (never mind that, as Imani Gandy points out, the both Church and Ryan are simply wrong on the constitutional and legal issues involved).
Sadly, the Church that I used to think highly of – the Church my aunt and my first-cousin-once-removed (the latter being my Godmother) served as Sinsinawa Dominican nuns for more than a century combined – is no longer recognizable to me. But there are good, decent Catholics like Mr. Antal and the St. Vincent DePaul Society who are working to do the real work of the Church.
And then there’s Paul Ryan, who wants to stand next to them and pretend to wash dishes, not so that their goodness rubs off on him, but so that Catholic voters might be fooled.