Consider the diner. It has been with us for a century or so, offering a reliable meal at 3 a.m., a refuge from the crowded interstate, a reason for Guy Fieri to dye his hair in the morning. It’s also the single most clichéd place for politicians and their press corps to visit, soaking up the wisdom of ordinary Americans like so much sausage gravy.
The diner, as an institution, has earned some infamy in the Trump era. It’s where reporters go to discover that a basically unpopular president remains popular with some people—specifically, the people who eat at diners. CNN, seeking wisdom on the forgotten man, recently located “the Table of Knowledge inside Darrell’s Diner in Monticello, Iowa.” The New York Times had got there first, finding wisdom all around the aforementioned table. (“He got Congress to turn themselves around with one tweet”—boom!)
No diner? Buddy, you’ve got yourself a metaphor, as Politico found when it visited Johnstown, Pennsylvania—ground zero for the Forgotten Man—and learned that the shuttered Hey Day Diner, “a greasy-spoon staple since 1916, once a go-to for round-the-clock shifts of steelworkers, closed this past summer.”
Why do we—by we, I mean the people who cover politics for a living—love the diner? It’s one of the last places to find what used to be “the man in the street,” before everyone moved from car to office to car to drive-through to home. The voter in the diner has a little bit of time on his hands, and is probably in a decent mood. It’s hard not to be, when offered bottomless coffee and six ways to prepare your eggs.
Let me be honest: I’ve done useful, anecdotal reporting in diners. It’s an easy place to start a conversation, and if there’s a TV running, the conversation may get started for you. (“Boy, do you think that guy really took $10,000 from child molesters just to run for the county commission?”)
Unlike the voters who schlep themselves to campaign events, they can have a low-to-middle amount of information about politics. In a few minutes, you can learn what is sticking, and what isn’t. My general sense that the public blows off most specific Trump scandals, but is uneasy about how he keeps making them, is informed by diner conversations.
There is a way to do this wrong. Fox News has become particularly maladroit about diner journalism, sending its correspondents to areas where the president is very popular, and presenting some diner clientele as a focus group. One such segment found no Democrats in Virginia, right before the party won its biggest landslide in state—sorry, commonwealth—elections since the Reagan era.
It’s good to talk to people. It’s good to keep those talks in perspective. Diners are perfect for that side of this business.
Waffle Houses work, too.
Dave Weigel is a national reporter for The Washington Post. He was previously a reporter for Slate, where he ran a political blog and hosted an interview podcast, and helped launch the new Bloomberg Politics site as a roving reporter, covering everything from the decline of Southern Democrats to the reasons why some practitioners of transcendental meditation support Rand Paul.