Ross Douthat – the Etch-a-Sketch Columnist

May 31, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Romney Etch-a-Sketch

By Marie Burns:

For the past nineteen weeks, Steve Benen, now of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” has been documenting “Mitt’s Mendacity.” Every week, Benen produces a new list of Mitt Romney’s lies of the week, with links to stories and data that convincingly refute Willard’s latest whoppers. Meanwhile, Benen and a phalanx of left-leaning bloggers have been wondering what it takes to get the mainstream media – like the New York Times – to call Romney out on his lies.

Comes now Ross Douthat, a bona fide New York Times columnist (though elsewhere identified as David Brooks’ houseboy) to address Mitt’s troubles with the truth. Last December, the houseboy acknowledged that Romney was a “transparently insincere panderer,” and he let on he found Romney’s pandering pretty troubling: “Because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.”

What a difference a nomination makes. In a post published early Wednesday morning, Douthat again takes up the case of Mr. Romney’s past prevarications and concludes that nowadays the Mountebank of Massachusetts (or is it Michigan? or California? or Utah? or New Hampshire?) is “endearingly honest.” You read that right. With a shake of his own Etch-a-Sketch, Douthat has overcome his earlier misgivings about Romney’s “insincerity.” In his latest post, Douthat rehabilitates the GOP’s new unofficial standard-bearer”: “Mitt Romney’s campaign has distinguished itself by being weirdly, even endearingly honest about its political calculations. Throughout the presidential selection process, the Romney camp has repeatedly pulled back the curtain of highmindedness to acknowledge more cynical realities.”

Ignoring the hundred-plus Romney lies Benen has documented, Douthat concentrates on what pundits commonly call “gaffes” – defined by journalist Michael Kinsley as remarks in which “a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Instead of reading Romney’s gaffes as goofs, Douthat sees them as honest-to-gosh cynicism. Cynicism is so refreshing! Douthat provides examples:

Romney’s famous debate explanation for why he fired a landscaping company after learning they were employing illegal immigrants (‘I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals!’), or his attempts later in the primary season to defend delaying the release of his tax forms, which emphasized the hay that Democrats might make with them….

And just this week, according to Douthat, Romney demonstrated his essential honesty once again when he embraced Donald the Birther – but not his birtherism – because “I need to get 50.1 percent or more and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

It isn’t just Romney who is refreshingly honest; it is his entire campaign! To wit, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom described Romney’s shift from pandering to the right during the primary season to pandering to the center during the general election period as an “Etch-a-Sketch” moment. Ferhrnstrom’s remark, Douthat declares, was “unusually honest.”

Let’s recall a few more of the candidate’s unusually honest, endearing gaffes, ones Douthat inexplicably omits:

Corporations are people, my friend.”

“I like being able to fire people.”

I’m not concerned about the very poor.”

“I’m also unemployed.”

“There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”

“My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs.”

“I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.” Romney earned $374,000 in speaking fees in one year; the median annual U.S. wage for 2010 was $26,364; i.e., “not very much” is more than 14 times what a typical American worker makes

“I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners.” In response to being asked if he followed NASCAR

“I like those fancy raincoats you bought. Really sprung for the big bucks.” Making fun of NASCAR fans wearing plastic ponchos at the Daytona 500

Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process.”

“I understand how the economy works because I lived in it.” We are all economists now.

“I think it’s fine to talk about [income inequality] in quiet rooms.”

“I’m Mitt Romney – and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.” Actually, no, his first name is “Willard” according to his birth certificate (assuming that’s a “real” birth certificate)

I’m not familiar with precisely what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”

This last remark is consistent with Fehrnstrom’s Etch-a-Sketch analogy. Each is essentially an admission that Romney is serially untruthful. Whatever he said during the primary, in Fehrnstrom’s construction, simply gets shaken away. Romney didn’t mean what he said then. Romney will be telling voters entirely different things now. He will be contradicting his earlier remarks.

If Romney wasn’t telling the truth then, what assurance do we have that he is telling the truth now? Well, none. Should Romney become president, he would be yet again in a different circumstance, so remarks and promises made during the general election phase would no long apply, just as remarks made during primary season have been “disappeared” with a flick and a shake of the old Etch-a-Sketch. Because Romney does not now nor has he ever actually stood by his word, naturally he cannot remember – is not even “familiar with” – what balderdash he might have said a few months past. He “stands by … whatever,” because none of his statements has a shelf-life longer than a stage of an election cycle.

The “whatever it was” in the question of the moment was an attack on Obama as an acolyte of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Doing a segment of Fox “News”’ Hannity show in February 2012, Romney brought up Wright unprompted: “I’m not sure which is worse: him listening to Rev. Wright or him saying we must be a less-Christian nation.” A few weeks ago, however, in the wake of broad criticism of a billionaire’s plans to run a $10 million ad campaign featuring Obama’s ties to Wright, Romney decided to distance himself from the anticipated slur campaign, which he was now calling “the wrong approach.” Attacking Obama for his association with Wright was right in February when Romney did it, but wrong in May when someone else planned to do it. Etch-a-Sketch. Whatever. It is clear from this incident that what Romney means when he says, “I stand by what I said,” can be/sometimes is, “I have reversed course 180 degrees.” Everything he says is meaningless.

Ross Douthat characterizes the unbearable lightness of being Romney as “endearingly honest.” Although he does not use the term “gaffe,” Douthat admits that the “honesty” he so admires in Romney and his campaign erupts in the form of gaffes. Of Romney’s explanation for the raison de Trump, Douthat writes, “Most politicians no doubt sigh inside and think pretty much exactly this when they’re embarrassed by a crank…. But Romney can’t help himself: He comes right out and says it.” Douthat asserts that Fehrnstrom’s Etch-a-Sketch gaffe was “unusually honest, saying out loud what most campaign operatives would only say behind closed doors.” That’s the definition of a gaffe.

Douthat is making two arguments that boggle the mind at the same time they demonstrate the right’s depraved indifference to any recognized normative standard of moral rectitude. The first argument is that we should admire a man – should even elect him president – because he is sometimes accidentally honest. The second is that there is an underlying, admirable honesty in admitting your candidate has been lying through his teeth and is about to tell some new whoppers.

I think I understand why Romney lies. He is reportedly a religious man who follows a faith tradition that views lies as abominations so terrible they sentence the liar to hell. So I think Romney must “believe in telling the truth.” What I suspect Romney’s serial lies say about him is that he has so little regard for ordinary people that he feels we do not deserve the truth. Fibbing to people of no merit is not the same as “really lying.” Everyone agrees, for example, that if a person had been kidnapped, it would be perfectly all right to lie to the kidnappers to effect an escape. So Romney views it as A-okay to lie to voters who hold his fate in their hands. We might not be kidnappers, but we are “unfairly” holding Romney hostage – potentially denying his right to live in the one mansion he can’t just buy outright with a check on one of his Caymen accounts – the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That is Romney’s excuse. Now, what is Douthat’s?

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (2)

  1. john_wright says:

    I believe Douthat’s excuse is that he needs to earn a paycheck.

    The way Douthat does this is by staying “on message” for the masters that are paying him.

    Now the message of the masters may change as Mitt Romney moves in and out of favor, and Douthat will dutifully craft his words to follow the new message.

    I actually believe many columnists are probably intelligent and reasonable and understand complex issues more than they seem to.

    But fundamentally, they are paid to do a job and if they stray too far “off the reservation”, their paychecks will shrink.

    Now there are other columnists that don’t need the money, for example, the special case of Tom Friedman. His addiction to fame may drive him to write the junk he foists on the public.

    One needs to lower one’s expectations for columnist behavior.

    I find it less upsetting to view most of the WaPo and NYtimes columnists as entertainers attempting to keep their acts fresh with each column.

  2. Ormond Otvos says:

    Well, it’s worse that that!

    Columnists write drivel because people want seemingly important statements over breakfast toast and coffee that won’t depress them and give them acid stomach all day.

    There really isn’t that much to say about what’s going on in the world. If you choose “Readers’ Picks” after any David Brooks or Paul Krugman column, the ten best of either will tell you all you need to know, for the readers know what’s going on.

    Nonetheless, DB ignores the comments (I seem to recall him saying he doesn’t read them at all, but he didn’t say why.) The facts have a liberal bias, and the NYTimes isn’t supported by liberals, although it does try pretty hard to report facts without honestly interpreting them, which I suppose is a conservative (old style) bias.

    Commentary is essentially boring after a while.



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