x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

An average Joe caught in a media whirlwind

Being mentioned 26 times in the final presidental debate has not changed Joe Wurzelbacher, a single father and blue collar worker.

Joe Wurzelbacher walks to a neighbour's home followed by reporters.
Joe Wurzelbacher walks to a neighbour's home followed by reporters.

CLEVELAND, OHIO // A week ago, he was just Joseph Wurzelbacher. Now, he is the most famous plumber in the United States. That would be Joe the Plumber, as he is known throughout the country and across the globe, the man who catapulted to celebrity last week when John McCain invoked his story during the final presidential debate as a way to highlight the effect of Barack Obama's tax policies.

It is not surprising, perhaps, after being mentioned a total of 26 times by two US presidential hopefuls in a forum watched by nearly 60 million people, that Joe the Plumber would become a household name and a media sensation. And he has. Everyone wants a piece of Joe. Mr Wurzelbacher's phone reportedly began ringing off the hook even before last Wednesday's debate had finished. Almost as soon as it did, he was on the line with Katie Couric of CBS. The next day, there was Joe the Plumber again, appearing on the morning television talk shows and holding impromptu press conferences from his front porch for the gaggle of reporters that had swarmed to his suburban Toledo, Ohio, home.

Mr Wurzelbacher has described his instant fame - which includes a T-shirt that says "Vote Joe the Plumber '08, No More Drips in the White House" - as "pretty surreal, man", even while shrugging it off in his plain-spoken way. "I'm not famous; I'm just the next flash in the pan for a couple weeks and then it will be onward to something else," he told reporters. "I don't kid myself in this. I'm not gonna run for president; I'm not gonna have my own talk show in 30 days. I'm gonna go back to getting in the crawl spaces, getting muddy and dirty and touching things most people won't even want to think about and making my living that way."

In the past few days, the world has learnt much about Mr Wurzelbacher, starting with this: he is a 34-year-old single father who has been a plumber all his adult life (though the Toledo Blade reported on Thursday that he is not licensed, creating a minor scandal). He first surfaced in the national news when he was caught on camera confronting Mr Obama about his tax plan while the Illinois senator was campaigning in his neighbourhood. Mr Wurzelbacher had been in his garden playing American football with his son Joey, 13.

He began by asking Mr Obama if he believed in the American dream, to which Mr Obama replied that he did. Mr Wurzelbacher then explained how he wanted to buy a plumbing business, and how he feared he would be penalised, if it was financially successful enough, with a higher tax rate. Mr Obama has proposed a tax increase for those making US$250,000 (Dh920,000) a year or more, saying they can afford it and the wealth should be "spread around".

Mr Wurzelbacher, who makes nowhere near that amount right now, took issue. "I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream," he told Mr Obama in an exchange lasting several minutes. Mr McCain all but appropriated that line in the debate. He came out swinging, using Joe as ammunition. Suddenly, the bald guy who spends 10 to 12 hours a day working on pipes in north-west Ohio was an archetype for the American small-business owner.

"What you want to do to Joe the Plumber means more like him have their taxes increased, and not be able to realise the American dream," Mr McCain said to Mr Obama. While that is not entirely true - tax analysts say Mr Wurzelbacher would not fare much worse under Mr Obama even if his income rose above $250,000, unlikely given the amount of revenue the company presently brings in - the McCain camp has continued to invoke his name, even declaring Joe the winner of the debate. A new McCain web ad about Mr Obama's tax policy is called - what else - "Joe the Plumber".

For Mr Wurzelbacher, the American dream is nothing fancy. He described his view of it in an interview with Family Security Matters, a politically conservative organisation, as having "a house, a dog, a couple rifles, a Bass boat". "I believe in living life easy and simple. I don't have grand designs. I don't want much," he said. "I just wanna be able to take care of my family and do things with them outdoors and that's about it, really."

Mr Wurzelbacher said he is a "very private" person - at least until now - albeit one who is not shy to offer his political views: he considered Ronald Reagan "absolutely incredible" and finds Social Security, the social benefits programme for the elderly, to be a "joke". Although Mr Wurzelbacher has not indicated outright which candidate he will vote for - there was some question in initial news reports whether he was registered to vote at all - he sounds very much like a McCain man. He has praised the Arizona senator's tax policy and said of Mr Obama: "I don't see him helping me out." He even referred to some of the Democrat's policies as taking "one more step towards socialism".

Time will tell if he turns out to be an asset for Mr McCain, whose campaign has been trying to get Joe out on the stump. The Republican may want to rethink that, though: the newest dirt on Joe the Plumber is that he may be related to a figure in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal. eniedowski@thenational.ae