True story. Just read a recent Mark Kirk campaign press release, which shouted “Mr. Giannoulias’ family real estate portfolio is financed by a French bank known for its investments in Iran’s energy sector and connections to Iran’s Central Bank.”
The release is couched to reflect concerns over Giannoulias' Broadway Bank problems, but it's really a follow-up to the Republican National Committee's infamous “Tony Soprano” ad, in which a goombah narrator let us know that Giannoulias had loaned money to mobster Michael "Jaws" Giorango and received an appointment from ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich on the recommendation of Tony Rezko.
“Alexi Giannoulias,” the ad ended. “He’d make Tony Soprano proud.”
As if to say: just look at the people he associates with. Serbs! Italians! Syrians! French! Iranians! Other Greeks! They don’t use sunscreen. They worship in churches gaudy with crucifixes and icons, fragrant with incense. They live in the big city. Their taste in menswear begins with Armani and ends with Exchange!
This WASP vs. the shady white ethnic is a Republican trope that reached its peak in the 1928 presidential election, when Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith, the Roman Catholic governor of New York.
For a long time afterwards, it was an element of suburban revulsion toward the Chicago Machine. Real Americans voted Republican. Hyphenated Americans voted Democratic. It hasn’t been an important element in politics for decades. But Mark Kirk is bringing it back.
Mark Kirk is a nice Protestant boy from Kenilworth. He went to New Trier. His name is easy to pronounce. It doesn’t end in an “-ich,” an “-oulias” or a vowel. He’s a Naval Reservist who wears regimental ties straight out of The Official Preppy Handbook. Kirk doesn’t boast about any of this. He doesn’t have to. It’s written all over that smooth, apple-cheeked baby face of his.
We once assumed that John F. Kennedy ended prejudice against white ethnics in American life. In a way, he did. Irish, Greek and Italian stereotypes are now considered comic, not vicious. That’s why Kirk could get away with the “Tony Soprano” ad. Imagine if Kirk were running against a Hispanic and tried to link him to Latin American drug runners with the line “Tony Montana would be proud.”
Unfortunately, Giannoulias can’t really fight stereotype with stereotype. He can’t run an anti-Kirk ad narrated by a Thurston Howell III sound-alike, showing men in plaid pants on the putting green at the Onwentsia Club. He can’t say “George H.W. Bush would be proud.”
That’s because Giannoulias is filthy rich. And no one tries to stop rich Greeks from joining country clubs or moving to the North Shore anymore. America has gotten far enough beyond ethnicity for that.
But not so far that a candidate for the Senate can’t make us wonder, “Just how did those Greeks get so rich?”