A French Frisson With Joe the Plumber

Joe Wurzelbacher spoke to Senator Barack Obama about taxes while the candidate campaigned near Toledo, Ohio, last week. [Photo: Jim Young/Reuters/NYT]
Joe Wurzelbacher spoke to Senator Barack Obama about taxes while the candidate campaigned near Toledo, Ohio, last week. [Photo: Jim Young/Reuters/NYT]

Something may have been lost in translation. Maybe there is a French idiom about orality that Americans really need to know. I love how Dominique Dhombres wrote in Le Monde that Joe the Plumber didn’t keep his tongue in his pocket.

Who is it? It’s the Plumber!
By Dominique Dhombres | LE MONDE | 16.10.08 |
Translated by Daniel B. Suits

Joe Wurzelbacher became, in the space of an evening, a man very much in demand. He obtained, without wanting to, the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol predicted that would be accessible to everybody. If you don’t know who Joe is, you must really live far from screens. Joe is the plumber from Ohio whom John McCain mentioned more than twenty times Wednesday night at his final televised debate with Barack Obama.

It all began Sunday when Joe called out to the Democratic candidate during a visit to Toledo. Joe has been a plumber for many years. He works hard, ten or twelve hours a day, and dreams of buying the firm he works for. Yes, but voilà! He heard Obama say that he wanted to increase the tax on corporations that earned more than 250 000 per year. That would be precisely his case if he buys the place. So he doesn’t like Obama’s program, and since he didn’t keep his tongue in his pocket, he sharply let him know.

McCain, trailing in the polls, realized that this was his chance to regain the advantage. At the final televised debate, at Hofstra University, he resorted to the most melodramatic procedure imaginable. Forgetting his Democratic adversary, he ostentatiously turned away from him and addressed himself directly to the plumber, fixing the eye of the camera. “Joe, I want to tell you. I will not only help you to buy the firm where you have worked all your life. I will keep your taxes at a low level, and I will provide you with appropriate cheap medical coverage for you and your employees. And I will not advocate an increase in taxes on the earnings of small business,” the Republican candidate solemnly declared. Great art!

Obama was accused of wanting to kill the American dream represented by the plumber by raising his taxes. The Democratic candidate replied that the tax increases that he had in mind concerned only businesses that made profits above 250 000 dollars per year, and that 98% of American enterprises were below that threshold. He aimed at Exxon, that had earned 12 billion dollars in profit, and not at Joe the plumber. Joe, asked by all the American TV chains, did not say he was convinced by what he had heard. He continues to think that Obama’s program would keep him from buying his firm. He still believes that McCain is right, even though he played coy by not saying how he was going to vote.

“It’s a matter between me and the button,” he says. Only the voting machine will know. In the meantime, the hero, it’s Joe.

Dominique Dhombres may not have heard that Joe kept some back taxes, if not the tongue, in his pocket. That’s the American Dream, too. Is there a juicy French idiom for tax evasion?

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