Mae’s October Surprise
It was pretty much accepted as fact that Mae Wilkins had cost the President the election.
And though she went to her grave denying it–or at least not speaking about it–everyone who knew her knew she had done it on purpose.
Not “on purpose” as in a coordinated conspiracy, mind you. It hadn’t been planned. Mae was many things, but organized was not one of those things.
She was, however, good at thinking on her feet and turning even the most potentially awkward or embarrassing situations to her advantage, and that is exactly what she did that day.
It was about a week before the election, and Mae was at the grocery store, minding her own business and doing her shopping. As she steered her cart around the corner, she looked up from her list, and there at the other end of the aisle was the President, his entourage of Secret Service, journalists, and onlookers in tow.
Until that moment, Mae had forgotten that she lived in one of the so-called “battleground states”, and she had been actively tuning out all the noise. It wasn’t a battleground to her. She had already made up her mind which candidate was getting her vote, and it was not going to be the President.
And she sure as hell wasn’t going to be used as a prop in one of his photo ops.
But it was too late to turn around. She stopped and pulled a can off the shelf nearest her, pretending to examine it, hoping the crowd would acknowledge she was absorbed in her fake comparison shopping and leave her to it.
A familiar voice interrupted her play-acting.
“Hello there, good to see you.”
She looked up to find the President not two feet away, hand extended, the crowd now pressed in around them as close as they could get without invading either of their personal spaces.
She took the President’s hand and blinked profusely amidst the torrent of camera flashes.
“That’s good stuff there”, the President said, indicating the can Mae still held in her free hand. “We give that to our little guy–he loves it! So, what breed of dog do you have?”
The President released his grip as Mae looked at the can.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Mae considered her options.
One, she could abort mission–leave her half-filled cart in the middle of the aisle and make a break for it. But she’d have to literally fight her way through the crowd to escape. That, and she’d be henceforth known as the Crazy Grocery Lady in an eternal loop of news footage.
Two, she could make up a breed of dog and pray that there were no follow-up questions from the President. Thinking up a breed would be bad enough; she wasn’t sure she would be able to improv a dog’s life story.
Or three, she could be honest.
She chose option three.
“I…don’t own a dog.”
For the briefest of moments, Mae’s burning, flushed face began to cool and time sped up again. Now she wouldn’t have to explain to all her friends and family why she’d created a fictional dog during her chat with POTUS.
But time started to crawl again and her temperature started to rise after she noticed the flash of confusion in the President’s eyes, then saw him recover and heard him ask, “Ah, so you’re doing some shopping for a friend or neighbor, eh?”
And again, Mae was faced with options.
She could lie, say “yes”, and again pray there were no additional queries.
She could come completely clean and explain to the President that she had been so flustered at seeing him live and in person at the Shop-N-Save that she pretended to keep shopping and grabbed the first thing within reach on the shelf, which happened to be a can of dog food, which was ridiculous because she doesn’t even own a dog.
Instead, Mae chose a third option.
“No…this dog food is for me. Me and my husband. He lost his job, and we have to live on this now, because…because of you. And your policies. We eat dog food because of you! Shame on you, Mr. President! Shame on you!”
And then, amidst a few audible gasps and another barrage of camera flashes, Mae began to sob. And the sobs were actually sort of real–she had honestly worked herself up.
The President awkwardly tried to half-hug her, but clearly he had been thrown off his game. The moment was broadcast worldwide almost instantly. Within twenty-four hours, “Dog Food Lady” had changed everything, and in a race as tight as that one had been, everything was more than enough to seal the President’s fate. He went down to defeat; afterwards, the Monday morning quarterback pundits were pretty much in agreement: “Dog Food Lady” had been the death blow to the President’s re-election campaign.
And while the dog food story wasn’t a total fabrication–Mae’s husband Bob had been laid off from his job a few months before–all of the important parts of it were.
Heck, even the true parts of it were sorta kinda fibs–Bob had been laid off, sure, but he was close to retirement anyway, he had significant savings, and he had been given a generous severance package. Bob and Mae, in reality, were doing just fine, as a number of the President’s supporters related to various news outlets during the drop-dead panic in the aftermath of “Alpogate”: “Their trash man says he’s never seen dog food cans in their garbage!” “Their daughter says they’re doing fine–she even says they send her money to help her out!” “This so-called “Dog Food Lady” and her husband were spotted just last week having dinner at Red Lobster–RED LOBSTER!”
But the spin was too little, too late. The incident had happened close enough to the election to affect it, but too close for the President and his crew to formulate a proper response to and refutation of it. By the time the American people went to the polls, most had seen the incident–or at least had heard about it–but hadn’t had enough time to reflect on it or consider its legitimacy.
And that was that.
As for Mae, she was thrilled the President lost. At least, that’s what can be assumed from what’s been told by those who knew her. She kept a low profile after the event, never crassly capitalizing on her fifteen minutes of fame…but also never opting to set the record straight.
Rumor had it Bob–by most accounts far more moderate than his wife–desperately wanted to snitch but had been kept from doing so by a constant stream of threats from Mae. And conveniently for her, he passed away before she did (a fact which started a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theories within the larger cottage industry of Dog Food Lady Theories itself). And rumor also had it Mae had pretty much disowned her daughter Jane ever since Jane had done the very first interview with CNN casting doubt on her mother’s story.
If Mae had ever felt any kind of moral ambivalence over what she had done and the things she had said or left unsaid, she never showed it. Ever.
Most who knew her both before and after Alpogate said it changed her, that she actually believed the hype, that she honestly believed she was no longer Mae Wilkins: Middle-aged, upper middle-class homemaker. She was Dog Food Lady: The dirt poor, desperate, and forgotten woman who found the courage to speak truth to power and changed the course of history.
And they’d also tell you that with that mindset and those guiding principles, she totally could’ve run for office if she had wanted to.