The Ballad of Pat McCrory, Governor of Memes
Charlotte's former mayor became North Carolina's governor, and now he wants to be a U.S. Senator. His track record is mixed, except for one thing: He is an excellent generator of memes. Why?
There is a piece of video that would make a perfect Pat McCrory meme, but I am certain it no longer exists. I know that it happened, though, because I saw it with my own eyes. Years ago, when McCrory was still mayor, I was producing a hour-long television special centered around the Fourth of July fireworks show at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte. To kill some time before the explosions, legendary weatherman Larry Sprinkle (for the millionth time, it’s his real name) was interviewing some cute children on live TV. Larry would ask the kid his or her name, then ask them if they were excited. Then the camera would pan over to another kid, and Larry started again. He did this with three or four children before getting to the end of the line. And there, on his knees, down at child height, was Pat McCrory, making a goofy face.
“What’s your name?” Larry asked.
“Pay-at,” he replied.
“And what do you do?”
“I’m the may-yer.”
He’d smooshed his hair forward, smiled a lopsided smile, and was clearly trying to out-kid the kids. A moment later, McCrory broke character, stepped into mayor mode, and gave a wholly forgettable interview. (Fact check: True. I don’t remember a thing about it.) The moment itself vanished into the ether. But had it been recorded, and had this been the modern era of out-of-context clips pulled from every conceivable source, I can guarantee you that it would have been added to the McCrory canon. In fact, I probably would have added it myself.
A quick recap of the Pat McCrory meme catalog
My contributions to the McCrory oeuvre are thus:
A GIF of McCrory hugging then-mayor Anthony Foxx. I was actually in the room where it happened, sped back to the TV station with the video, and immediately made a GIF, which later ended up on BuzzFeed.
One year, as a hurricane approached North Carolina, McCrory had this advice for the citizenry: “Don’t put your stupid hat on.” The line was basically the only soundbite that every TV station pulled from his press conference. The governor, sensing a hit, ran with it over and over again. Reporters would take bets on whether he’d utter “stupid hat” whenever he had something to say about storm safety. I, obviously, did not invent that phrase. I did, however, remix that phrase to the tune of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.”
In 2004, McCrory referred to part of South Boulevard as a “corridor of crap,” and then did the same again in 2007 to talk about the area around the Eastland Mall. To his credit, it was a quippy way to refer to an area of decomposing strip malls created by bad zoning and lax regulation. But the description and phrase made for a great soundbite/scarequote combo, which I put into a newscast in 2007. He, um, did not like this.
I could go on. And, at some point, I’m sure I will. If you haven’t already seen, McCrory announced yesterday that he’s running to replace Richard Burr in the U.S. Senate. My friend Mike Graff has a good summation at Axios Charlotte.
Already, McCrory’s potential opponents are clowning him:
How did we get here?
At some point, though, you’ve got to stop and wonder how it is that Pat McCrory became North Carolina’s most meme-able governor. And, honestly, I think his political upbringing has a lot to do with it.
If you’ve been around Charlotte long enough, you’ve heard about Mayor Pat. Before he was governor, McCrory served seven two-year terms as the figurehead atop the largest city in the state. That service earned him a portrait upstairs at RiRa, but it also sort of endeared him to the populace in a way that’s hard to envision now. He was a Republican in a city that was heavily Democratic and, as you may know, wielded little power. The mayor of Charlotte was, and still is, a part-time job, and McCrory was still “working” at Duke Energy during his entire term. Plus, he had to sort of align himself with the Democratic city council to get anything done, a posture which made him appear tolerant and bipartisan. But on top of all that, Mayor Pat just really enjoyed being the mayor. He’d ham it up with business leaders. He’d show up wherever TV cameras were. And during a city council meeting, in maybe his most endearing moment, he told a man who was ranting about rogue helicopter pilots to tone it down, because he was scaring the Boy Scouts in the audience.
McCrory was mayor during a time when Charlotte was more potential than hard reality, when everything was on the upswing. After he left, he ran face first into the state Republican party, which in 2010 had gerrymandered itself into a lock on North Carolina’s politics for the next decade. Those hard-to-lose districts often produced politicians who tossed aside any moderate instincts they had to win elections that were largely decided during GOP primaries. But while the legislature itself lurched to the right, McCrory won a statewide race in 2012, in a place where both parties were close to a 50-50 split. Hence, he was, if you can believe this, once a more moderate Republican than the aggregated lawmakers of his own party, who sometimes took it upon themselves to override his vetoes. Once, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times asked then-senator Tom Apodaca whether McCrory would have a role in some upcoming budget negotiations. “No,” Apodaca said. “The governor doesn’t play much of a role in anything.”
Very quickly, McCrory found that being Mayor Pat did not work in the capital city. He’d led caravans to Raleigh several times as mayor, each time to complain that the people in state government were ignoring the needs of North Carolina’s largest city; a city that, arguably, was an ATM of tax dollars that fed the rest of the state. As governor, he started off in a very Mayor Pat way, vowing to rise above the partisan fray as a man who’d “step on the toes of the left and the right.” But, of course, the Republicans in the General Assembly found out very quickly that they could go around him with little consequence. Hence, he was the head of state without necessarily being the head of his state party. To get his ideas out, he had to do what he’d done as mayor. Talk. A lot. Often in a casual, folksy way. McCrory put a lot of raw material out there. In other words, the McCrory meme mine ran deep.
That’s great and all, but why can’t we meme other governors?
The short answer is: They just don’t put themselves in position to GET meme’d. McCrory, however, would insert himself into awkward situations with some regularity. An example: he held a press conference with Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith in 2014, where Smith proceeded to playfully extort him in front of reporters.
Even Richard Petty, who once ran for office himself in North Carolina, knew enough to be quiet.
Unlike McCrory, the last few governors have all come out of the state legislature or from the council of state. That meant they were fairly shrewd about how to pull the levers of power, and do it in a low-key way. Think about it: When have you ever seen a good Roy Cooper meme? You haven’t. (I know this particular Twitter account has tried, but they just don’t approach McCrory level.) Bev Perdue never really went viral. Mike Easley did give us a few moments. He wrecked a car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He bragged about his ability to take a 26-second shower. And, he appeared in a makeshift Canadian tuxedo while he made a walnut side table on public television. In that last case, though, it’s hard to rip on someone for genuinely loving something. And as someone who has interviewed Mike Easley, I can tell you that the man cares deeply about woodworking.
Easley, however, was governor before the modern, meme-cherishing version of the internet was in place, and in any event, he wasn’t trying to go viral. In fact, there is only one governor who actually WANTED to be meme’d, and he was around long before anyone knew what that a meme was. Luther Hodges, who served during the postwar boom, once wanted to showcase all of the stuff that was being made in North Carolina. So in 1956, someone from his office called up Life magazine, which came out and took pictures of ol’ Luther just hamming it up. There’s a picture of him showering in a suit. (It was made from genuine North Carolina quick-drying fabric!) In another image, he’s feeding a cat. And, in one shot, he models underwear made in Asheboro. YOUR GOVERNOR, IN HIS SKIVVIES! Hodges went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, but before that, he was a businessman, and knew the power of a stunt.
(Also, for some reason, I once stumbled upon a picture of him on a private plane, trying to keep it together while a man with a guitar just pours out his soul next to him. I gave this picture the Curb Your Enthusiasm treatment.)
In Hodges’s case, he was being silly for a very specific purpose. McCrory, however, just really likes to talk. After he ran against Bev Perdue in 2008 and lost, he became a panelist on FlashPoint, a local politics round table on WCNC-TV. After Roy Cooper beat him in 2016, he landed a talk-show gig on WBT radio, which he used on Wednesday to announce his candidacy for the Senate. And if you listen to him talk, you know how far he’s moved to the right since his early days. Hence, that screengrab from earlier where he — A FORMER GOVERNOR — tried to paint himself as an outsider was described by the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman as one of the “ways in which folks are gonna try to grab Trumpy energy without being totally Trumpy.” His radio show is run directly from the right-wing media playbook. It’s a far cry from the McCrory who was the seemingly carefree mayor, who could pretend to be a child on live television and get away with it.
So, who’s the man behind the memes?
I’ve met McCrory in person on a few brief occasions. But my most memorable encounter with him came in 2015, when I randomly rode up an elevator with him at a Carolina Panthers game. Other than the security detail, he was fairly unguarded:
I finally caught up with Governor McCrory at an elevator, and we started talking about television and the Panthers and whatnot. I’ll say this: If you’re going to meet Pat McCrory, this is exactly the situation you want to meet him in, because he was as loosey-goosey as I’ve seen him. It’s obvious why: He’s back in Charlotte, and he’s not here on business. He’ll talk to everyone who so much as glances at him. He’ll start at least one sentence with “Back when I was mayor here…” He isn’t spitting out opinions on policy, or bristling at a question. He was wearing a really busy button down shirt. He chatted up an old lady and the elevator attendant. He was Mayor Pat again, which was the Pat that everybody in Charlotte thought they were going to get when he became governor, before he inevitably had to turn into a Republican politician with talking points (“stepping on toes!”) and, you know, actual stands on things. This man could have been mayor for life. He could have been Charlotte’s Richard Daley, but, of course, going on to bigger roles requires that you change your game. You don’t use your high school playbook when start playing college ball, and so Mayor Pat had to become Governor Pat, and that leaves anyone who’s followed his career trying to figure out which one of those characters is actually closest to Real Pat. I’d guess Mayor Pat is, but I don’t know him well enough to actually know.
Others have described him as genial but thin-skinned, and he did have a tendency to call up reporters directly to complain about stories, or, sometimes, to just shoot the bull. He was extremely chummy, which once played perfectly in an extremely chummy and corporate Charlotte. As fellow reporters can attest, he’s more knowledgeable about politics than he might let on, and he’s savvy about building buzz around his next moves. (A video hinting at his 2012 gubernatorial run got some advance publicity from the media, although some of it had to do with a gaffe where McCrory seems to call his dog two different names). The radio show gave him a place to talk, sure, but it also kept the door open to something.
It’s unclear how his senate race will play out. He’s facing extremely-Trumpy former congressman Mark Walker, and Lara Trump might get into the race. Whoever wins will likely face a strong Democratic challenger in fall of 2022. But we’ve got a long way to go until the primary, and in an era where Republicans are trying to meme their way to public office, it’ll be interesting to see how things break for a man who, before Madison Cawthorn, was North Carolina’s most polarizing internet plaything. If he wins, hopefully he will take this lesson to heed: With a great GIF comes great responsibility.
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