When I finally get Dale Peterson on the line, he tells me to wait a minute. He’ll talk politics, sure, but at the moment, on the porch of his farmhouse in Shelby, Ala., he is in the middle of a snack. “When I was in the Marine Corps, everybody used to refer to this as cream of wheat. No, man,” he laughs. “They’re grits. Stick them together, throw a little cheese in there, some bacon and eggs, and yummy. What do you want to know other than how to cook grits?” Well, Dale, I say, lots.
Before last month, Peterson was an unknown 64-year-old political novice running for Alabama agriculture commissioner. Then, in early May, this retired cop, livestock judge, and former industrial-laundry-facility owner made a campaign spot. Almost immediately after being released, it became an online sensation, and it has since generated more than 1.7 million hits on YouTube. In it, Peterson, clad in a Stetson beside his horse, speaks directly to the camera in a thick, spitfire Southern drawl: “Listen up! Alabama ag commissioner is one of the most powerful positions in Alabama. Responsible for 5 billion dollars. Bet you didn’t know that. You know why? Thugs and criminals!”
Peterson goes on, in between quick, Quentin Tarantino–like camera cuts, about how his opponents “don’t give a rip about Alabama.” Toting a .30-30 Winchester rifle, he promises to “name names and take no prisoners.”
Those 71 seconds are, according to the Washington Post, “what many consider, either in awe or terror, to be the ultimate American political ad ever.” Conservatives mostly got a kick out of it, and liberals mostly rolled their eyes. The “overall effect,” as Gail Collins of the New York Times grumbled, “is like being cornered at a party by an eccentric neighbor who thinks the garbage man is spying on him for the federal government.” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann called Peterson the “worst person in the world.”
Peterson lost the primary, but his 15 minutes seem to be far from over. Last week, he released a second Web ad, which is climbing the YouTube charts. The video captures Peterson on his llama farm — boot on a bale of hay, rifle on shoulder — telling folks to “listen up” and support John McMillan, one of his former primary opponents. McMillan is facing off against Dorman Grace — a man Peterson apparently detests — in a July 13 runoff. Send “that dummy [Grace], with all his illegal campaign contributions . . . back to his chicken farm,” Peterson barks.
Suddenly, spying a man messing around with a McMillan campaign sign, Peterson fires a bullet into the air, yelling, “Hey you, get away from that!” He then locks, loads, and warns: “I better not catch any thugs and criminals stealing his yard signs.” The tone of it all is classic good ol’ boy; think High Noon or Winchester ’73.
Ladd Ehlinger Jr., a conservative filmmaker and creator of both ads, tells us that the “best reaction to it was on an online message board that simply said: ‘Dad?’” Peterson, he says, is “a Jungian archetype” who was more than happy to make a Web video “that may make a liberal in New Jersey squirm.” Filming it was easy, says Ehlinger, an aficionado of New Wave cinema, Orson Welles, and John Ford: “Dale told me not to write out dialect, just to write the damn script, and to not go William Faulkner on him.”
“Ladd dreamed it up,” Peterson explains. “He’s a young guy, a genius at this kind of thing. I just followed instructions. We had to do so many takes, though, because I kept laughing.” Critics find the ads campy, and Peterson says that’s kind of true, since he was “just trying to have a little fun, and get a boost in the polls,” which he did. He went from “Dale who?” to 28 percent of the vote by mid-June.
“People are fed up with these little weenies we got called politicians,” Peterson says. “They’re all so interested in what they can get elected to next. They’ve lost their focus. While I’m serious about what’s happening to this country, politics has to have a sense of humor, too. It’s 17 hours a day, seven days a week. I’ve probably lost 20 pounds running. If I had knew it was this much fun, I’d have started a long time ago.”
So can we expect another Peterson run? “I’m not going away,” he says, “but I’m not really sure what that means. Maybe the big guy upstairs will give me a clue in a little bit. At this point, I don’t have a clue, but I’m hoping for whatever.”
Some friends, he says, have said that he should consider running for president in 2012 — that he’s just the kind of rugged pol the GOP needs. “I’m not the most gifted speaker,” he cautions. “Put me up there with a panel of these wanna-be presidents and they’ll chew me up like an old piece of raw meat.” They’d only be scared, he reckons, “if I brought my rifle with me.”
That said, Peterson believes that the GOP needs a strong candidate to go up against President Obama. The president, he believes, is “middle management . . . a president, not a leader, who is not what this country was looking for, but just what it was hoping for, when he ran.” And about the veep? “His back-up guy, Biden? My God.”
He thinks Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, should be the frontrunner for the GOP ticket. “He could be good. People are starving for that Reagan-type leadership,” Peterson says. Put someone like Christie up, “not someone from the same, old crowd,” and Republicans will have a real shot, he adds. Much better than John McCain’s chances in 2008: “Jesus Christ could have run as a Republican and he couldn’t have won.”
“Sarah Palin, she’s been ridiculed by the press, but she has more experience than the dim bulb we got now,” Peterson says of the former Alaskan governor. What about Mike Huckabee, another Southern man? Peterson is not so sure. He says Huckabee’s show on Fox News has become boring. “He was like a new fish in the goldfish bowl: Everyone was excited about the different-colored fish. And I like ol’ Huck, but he ended up running around in the same circles.”
Obama, Peterson says, runs a government based too much on “Nobel Prize guys and experts.” That governing style, he says, is full of problems, which have all been revealed by the BP oil spill: “People who run businesses do not teach in college. What we have now is a group of folks who think theory will always work in practice, when that’s rarely the case. People who know how to get things done know that. You can have all the Nobel Prize winners you want, but maybe it’s best to put some flippers on them and tell them to plug the hole.”
I mention that Peterson may have a future in acting, much like Fred Thompson, another Southern-fried political character, who starred on Law & Order as a district attorney. “I like Fred,” Peterson chuckles. “I’m a little old for acting, but maybe not. I take a lot of vitamins, and look pretty good. TV show, running for Congress, I’m open to it, but I don’t know what that means.”
This week, Ehlinger will be shooting another ad with Peterson in Montgomery, along with, he says, “other viral notables from Alabama and the South.” You’re more than welcome to come to the taping, he adds. “I think it might make a good story for you.”
Though I can’t be in Alabama for the shoot, no worries, I say. It already has.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.