Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Red dirt, political speeches, and cabin dwelling means it's Fair time again

First appeared in the July 25, 2013, of the Laurel Chronicle.

It's that time of year again - The Fair!

No, not the one with the corn dog stands where folks like my brother serve you fried meat on a stick, nor the kind of carnival where the laffy taffy is served up to people like my mother who love its taste but hate its can't-get-it-out-of-your-mouth chewiness.

I'm talking about THE Fair - the one where you're more likely to see a politician's face on a stick (being used to fan his or her political supporters) than fried meat. But hey, this fair has that too.

I'm talking about the Neshoba County Fair, of course, an event revered among the state's political class. The yearly trek to this Mississippi political mecca is made by nearly everyone who considers themselves to be even remotely politically inclined.

When I first dabbled my toe into the state's political waters (see: Barbour For Governor 2003), I had no idea what this supposed "fair" was. To use an old Haley Barbour phrase, I was just a pup back then.

My, how times have changed. These days, it's a rare year when you don't see me clearing my calendar to attend at least one day of the Fair.

The Fair is the hottest (both figuratively and literally) place to be in politics, especially during an election year. In attendance are the Who's Who of political operatives and their elected official bosses; in fact, I'd bet one of the requirements for making the "who's who" list is mandatory attendance. You simply can't be involved in Mississippi politics without a love of the Neshoba County Fair and its hot, steamy, and dusty fairgrounds.

While off-year fairs like this one are sure to be enjoyable, the election year fairs are not to be missed. Incumbent politicians and candidates flood the fairgrounds with campaign push cards, yard signs, and throngs of youngsters wearing "vote for my guy" t-shirts. Sometimes debates between candidates are held. Press conferences are scheduled on the front porches of fair cabins. If you're really lucky, you'll get to see a fight or two between rival campaign staffers who might have sipped a little too much from their red Dixie cups.

The Fair is where political legends are made - or, at the very least, where controversies take hold. At this gathering, politicians are expected to get their hands as dirty as your feet after a day's worth of trekking through the red clay. (Side note: If my years of experience is any indication, Neshoba County has more red clay per capita than any other county in this state, let alone nation.)

One of my favorite off-the-cuff comments is now a bit of Fair legend. It came from - who else? - former Governor Haley Barbour.

In his 2007 re-election campaign, Gov. Barbour was challenged by lawyer John Arthur Eaves, Jr., who was wealthy enough to finance his own campaign but not politically savvy enough to run an effective one. To make it for its lack of effectiveness, the Eaves campaign often made outrageous claims about Gov. Barbour's record in office, going so far as to liken the governor to Biblical "moneychangers in the temple." (I never fully understood that one.)

According to some news reports, the Eaves campaign allegedly told supporters that Eaves' new wife (from his second marriage) would "restore dignity to the governor's mansion."

By the time the Fair rolled around, well, let's just say the Barbour campaign had had enough of this slander, and the Governor's opening comments reflected this frustration. Here's the way it went down:

Governor Barbour, in typical fashion, opened his speech with something along the lines of "Hi, I'm Haley Barbour." He then brought former First Lady Marsha Barbour on stage, thanked her for their 35 years of marriage, and said the following: "That's right. I got my trophy wife the first time."

Bazinga!

The crowd went wild, as I recall, and I watched with both amusement and fascination. Admittedly, there were mixed reactions to this statement later. But it really brought back the flair - the thunder, if you will - of Fair speeches made by politicians from days gone by. Politics isn't for the faint of heart, and speeches at Neshoba aren't for those who are easily offended.

Now, I highly doubt we'll witness any real verbal jabs this year. I chuckled when I read a reporter's comment on Twitter a few days ago, in which she laments that "unless we can get a cage match" between politicians, the Fair "looks a little pale this year."

In case you go - and I highly recommend it - here are a few things to know. First, know your schedule (which can be found on neshobacountyfair.org). The political speaking lasts a couple of days, and you can catch folks like Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and State Auditor Stacey Pickering on Wednesday, July 31. Gov. Bryant along with Speaker Philip Gunn will be speaking the following day, along with a litany of other elected officials.

Second, make friends. Fair regulars all know each other (I'm not kidding), especially those who have cabins on the fairgrounds. Cabin dwellers have established Fair communities closer knit than their neighborhoods back home. Endeavor to make friends at the Fair because it's easy...and beneficial. You'll find kindred spirits in fellow fair-goers and, if you're lucky, free food and drink. After all, that is the Fair way.

Third, despite my gushing about Fair politics, this event really is for everyone, not just the politicos. The Fair's schedule includes arts and craft shows, horse races, a beauty pageant, concerts, and even an all-night gospel sing. Who can forget the traditional fair part - rides, lemonade stands, corn dog sellers, and cotton candy?

Whether your interest is political or you're simply looking to experience something uniquely Mississippi, the Neshoba County Fair is the place for you. It's political; it's relational; it's gustational; it is, quite simply, magical.

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