August 28, 2012 · 7 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In their New York Times opinion columns today, both David Brooks and Frank Bruni try to locate the Real Romney. Brooks gives up and instead writes a satirical biography. Best lines: “After streamlining his wife’s pregnancies down to six months each, Mitt helped Ann raise five perfect sons – Bip, Chip, Rip, Skip and Dip – who married identically tanned wives…. After a successful stint at Bain, Romney was lured away to run the Winter Olympics, the second most Caucasian institution on earth, after the G.O.P.” I gather Brooks doesn’t like Romney all that much. Bruni claims that knowing Mitt is impossible: “In the prelude to the convention, talented journalist after talented journalist set off in search of them, looking for the eureka anecdote, the tear-streaked epiphany. It was a quest as pointless and poignant as any I can recall.”
Help has arrived. I think the Real Romney comes through in those candid moments that Bruni writes are “the sorts of gaffes that a 140-character news universe spotlights.” Let’s look at a few of the more illuminating Romneyisms. His wife Ann is also helpful in this regard.
First, we should understand that despite his extraordinary wealth and privilege, Romney’s religion has caused him to spend a good part of his life being an “other.” Romney attended a tony Michigan prep school while his father George was president of American Motors and governor of the state, yet Mitt’s adherence to Mormon orthodoxy meant he could not participate in the ordinary sorts of naughty things boys do: swear, boast about sex, sneak beers. He could not even drink Coke and Pepsi, for Pete’s sake. The other rich boys drove Fords and Chevys, but Romney had to settle for AMC Ramblers. “The children of other auto executives would taunt Romney for the Ramblers he and his father drove. ‘That’s not a car, that’s a bicycle with a dishwasher for an engine,’” they would say. (Years later, Mitt would provide his wife with “a couple of Cadillacs.”)
Mitt compensated for his otherness by organizing pranks and picking on boys who were even more outside what he considered the norm. Romney’s infamous attack on a gay student – an attack he claims not to recall – is a case study in projected self-loathing. His justification for the attack, in which he led a gang of boys to physically restrain the student while Romney hacked off the terrified young man’s bleached hair, was “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” As a perpetual “other,” Romney finds idiosyncratic behavior or appearance unacceptable. This is why to this day he dresses in ordinary-looking uniforms – even if his “ordinary” tattersall shirts are bespoke and yours aren’t. Romney’s pranks tended to be vicious: he picked on a teacher whose “otherness” was extreme near-sightedness. If Boy Scouts were helping blind men cross the street, Romney was leading them into closed doors. Romney thought terrifying fellow students and picking on outcasts and handicapped people was hilarious. Where other boys asserted themselves in athletics, cruel pranks were Mitt’s way of distinguishing himself as a tough guy. His youthful penchant for bullying others continues to this day.
One manifestation of his bullying is to belittle the serious life challenges ordinary Americans face. In June 2011, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times reported, “Mitt Romney sat at the head of the table at a coffee shop here on Thursday, listening to a group of unemployed Floridians explain the challenges of looking for work. When they finished, he weighed in with a predicament of his own. ‘I should tell my story,’ Mr. Romney said. ‘I’m also unemployed.’” Of course “Unemployed Mitt” was bringing down $20+ million a year for doing nothing, while the people in the coffee shop probably had trouble paying for the coffee. (I wonder if Mitt treated.) Mitt invented another version of this weird “sympathy from above” in January of this year when he told a New Hampshire audience that he knew “what it’s like to worry about whether you’re going to get fired,” and wondered “if I was going to get a pink slip.” Sam Stein of the Huffington Post wrote that “Romney’s campaign hasn’t responded to requests for clarification on his remarks, and aides have yet to point to one of those instances.” Twenty-four hours later, Romney was more truthful when he said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone isn’t giving me the service I need, I want to say, you know, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service.” Most people who are in positions where they must occasionally fire people for cause hate that part of their jobs. The “cause” has to have some intensely malicious underpinnings for the employer to get any glimmer of satisfaction out of letting the employee go. But Romney sees service providers as tools, not as people, and when a tool breaks, you just toss it. (Actually, I’m fond of my old tools, too! If I can, I repair them.) To enjoy firing people is bullying in the extreme, even if the people weren’t performing up to expectations.
Romney’s bullying most certainly extends to his political rivals. It is one thing to run an effective negative campaign or to flood an ad market with your own spots because your campaign is better-funded. That’s politics. But his proposal last December during a Republican debate that he and Texas Gov. Rick Perry settle a disagreement with a $10,000 bet was another bullying effort. Although Mormons are not allowed to gamble, Romney suggested that bet to belittle Perry, whose personal wealth is miniscule compared to Mitt’s. A $10,000 wager was Mitt’s way of putting Little Ricky in his place.
Still, Mitt is quite willing to put ordinary citizens in their “places,” too. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker reported in 2007, “After a voter at the New Hampshire diner told Romney, ‘My daughter goes to Michigan State,’ he replied, ‘Oh, does she, really? My brother’s on the board of Michigan State.’ When another patron said that she was from Illinois, Romney told her, ‘I won the straw poll at the Illinois Republican convention!’” This year at the Daytona 500 auto race, Romney made fun of “a group of fans wearing plastic ponchos. ‘I like those fancy raincoats you bought,’ he said. ‘Really sprung for the big bucks.’ And when asked if he was a fan of the sport, he mentioned that ‘I have some great friends who are Nascar team owners,’” Michael Barbaro of the New York Times reported. Anything you can do, I can do better.
Mitt does think that we all have our places. Although Republicans continually complain about Democrats “waging class warfare,” Romney himself seems much more aware of, and at the same time more callous about, economic class than are most Americans. Infamously, Romney said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” In other words, he expects the poor to stay poor. He has no plans to help them improve their situations. They are, in Romney’s eyes, a class of people destined to remain have-nots, just as he and his family belong to a class destined to be ever-wealthy, a destiny he and Paul Ryan will ensure by pushing their thumbs down hard on the scale. As for Romney’s claim that he would “fix” the safety net, he disproved that when he hitched his wagon to Paul Ryan, whose budget plan is to decimate, not repair, the social safety net.
This was not something Mitt learned on his father’s knee. George Romney eschewed great wealth and believed in helping the underclass, especially black Americans. Alex Pareene of Salon has one theory as to why Mitt is such a chameleon:
It’s not hard to imagine that the 21-year-old Mitt Romney, freshly returned from his Mormon mission tour abroad shortly after the 1968 election, noticed that his father, a dedicated public servant with a passion for social justice, lost the nation’s top job to a notoriously unprincipled paranoiac, [Richard Nixon,] whose main qualification for the presidency was an unchecked willingness to do literally anything to reach it. The guy who didn’t believe in anything won.
Michael Tomasky of Newsweek develops Pareene’s theme in his column today:
Nixon led, and Romney is now leading, a vengeance campaign against an Other America, an America their supporters despise. Romney’s is a campaign that seeks to win, that can only win, by dividing the country into an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ I confess that I’ve been genuinely shocked by the baldness of Romney’s lies about welfare and Medicare and about the way he’s racialized this campaign. I guess that’s precisely because, whatever he seemed, he did not seem sinister like Nixon.
There is no evidence that Romney shares Nixon’s animus against Jews, blacks and other ethnic groups. But he is most certainly willing to exploit the bigotry of those who do. Both Tom Edsall and David Firestone made that clear in yesterday’s New York Times. (Edsall’s piece is here; Firestone’s here.) Ezra Klein of the Washington Post brought home their point when he addressed Romney’s debunked welfare ads in a post yesterday: first, Romney‘s “campaign is running more ads about welfare than just about any other issue” even though welfare has not been a hot-button issue for the last several election cycles. Second citing the results of an academic study, Klein writes, “The evidence suggests that the [ads] work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.” Although every prominent fact-checker has found the welfare ads to be egregiously false, Romney told Susan Page of USA Today that the ads were accurate and that President Obama had offered the states the waivers to ‘shore up his base‘ for the election. Tim Noah of The New Republic translates Romney’s claim: “President Obama doesn’t represent you; he represents a lot of people on welfare. And you know what they look like.” Noah writes,
Of course, Romney isn’t interested in the facts; he’s interested in associating Obama with black and Hispanic undesirables bent on collecting welfare benefits and robbing white elderly people of their health insurance…. Like Poppy Bush, Romney is not a racist himself. He is, arguably, something worse: A man who, because he has no particularly pronounced views himself, is willing to say just about anything to get himself elected president.
How could Romney – a religious man – justify telling such lies? His wife Ann provided part of the answer when she told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, “It’s Mitt’s time. It’s our turn now.” The Romneys are entitled to the presidency. Mitt has done the things one does to become president: he got a good education, he ran a highly-successful business, organized the winter Olympics, governed Massachusetts and ran for the presidency in 2008. Ann did her part. They reared a photogenic family, they go to church, they live in lots of nice houses and they belong to the right “class.” It’s their turn now. In a Time essay, Prof. Justin Frank links Romney’s lying to his Mormonism: “There is a long tradition in the Mormon belief system in which evidence takes second place to faith…. There are no lies, only faith-based certainty that translates as truth for which no apology is needed.” It isn’t a lie if you say something that will help fulfill God’s plan for you. In this context, there is some sense to a statement Mitt made in May: “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I’ll stand by what I said, whatever it was.” The truth is what Mitt says it is. And if “the truth” is that Mitt Romney should be president, then the end justifies the means.
This sense of entitlement also underlies the Romneys’ refusal to release several years of tax records, as is customary among presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The family’s personal finances are none of your business. As Ann Romney told Robin Roberts of ABC News last month,
You know, you should really look at where Mitt has led his life, and where he’s been financially. He’s a very generous person. We give 10 percent of our income to our church every year. Do you think that is the kind of person that is trying to hide things, or do things? No…. There are so many things that will be open again for more attack … and that’s really, that’s just the answer. And we’ve given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Mrs. Romney that her remarks are internally inconsistent. If the Romneys have “nothing to hide” in their returns, their returns also contain nothing to “attack.” Mitt Romney does, then, have something to hide. He has done a costs/benefits analysis and determined that keeping those returns secret is in his best interest. And once again, the ends justify the means. There is a sensible rationale to Mitt’s secrecy.
A number of reports have emphasized that Romney has engaged in numerous acts of kindness. For instance, he once dropped everything and shut down Bain Capital to help a Bain colleague find his 14-year-old daughter, who had disappeared in New York City. The friend Romney helped was Robert Gay, an elder of the Mormon church. Michael Kranish and Scott Helman tell several other stories of Romney’s acts of generosity. In most of the stories, the beneficiaries were fellow Mormons. But, the writers add, “Romney’s acts of charity extended beyond just the church community. After his friend and neighbor Joseph O’Donnell lost a son, Joey, to cystic fibrosis…, Romney helped lead a community effort to build Joey’s park, a playground.” That is, the people Romney helps are people like Romney. Either they are members of his church, to whom his church imposes a community obligation, or they are friends, or both. There is nothing particularly wrong with this. I’m glad he helps people. But it is instructive to realize that the people Mitt Romney helps are the people he knows. Once again, he cannot see beyond a narrow framework.
That is one reason the tax policies he proposed, and the Ryan budgets he has adopted, raise taxes on the poor and middle class but are extremely generous to the rich. It isn’t just that their plans will make Mitt richer; these tax plans are also acts of kindness to his friends. When you see his policies in this light, they begin to make a kind of sense. Add to this the high value Mormons place on entrepreneurship and business success: “according to historian Leonard J. Arrington…, 88 of [Mormon founder Joseph] Smith’s 112 revelations deal directly or indirectly with economic matters.” As you might suspect from Mitt’s acts of kindness, Mormons provide their own social safety net. But “the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity; the United Methodist Church gives about 29 percent,” Caroline Winter of Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Put this all together, and you understand why Romney is comfortable with further rewarding the already-comfortable by making everyone else pay a little more.
Romney also has a reputation as a loving father and husband, and I don’t doubt it. After all, his family are “his” people, and he believes they will spend eternity together. Still, I found Mitt Romney’s remarks in this video curious. In the video, released by the Romney campaign, the Romney family talks about Ann‘s illness. While their sons say Mitt has been very supportive of Ann, the only things Mitt says in the video – titled “Soul Mate” – are,
Probably the toughest time in my life was standing there with Ann as we hugged each other and the diagnosis came. As long as it’s not something fatal, I’m just fine. I’m happy in life as long as I’ve got my soul mate with me.
As I wrote on my Website when I first learned of the video, “Ann learns she has a debilitating illness, yet somehow it’s all about Mitt – how tough her illness is on him, how he’s just fine and he’s happy in life.” It struck me that this was “absolutely the closest Mitt could come to feelings of love and empathy for another human being. He doesn’t get close, yet evidently he and his campaign advisors – who released the video – see nothing wrong with his sheer selfishness.”
Since Mitt is a bully, it is also likely that he is uncomfortable expressing feelings of love. Tough guys don’t talk about love, or something. Besides, Mitt, being so insular, can love only what he knows. So when he returns to Michigan, where he grew up, what he likes are the trees, which strike him as being “the right height,” an assertion he made repeatedly. Nothing about the hard-working people in the auto industry he argued should be left to go bankrupt. He recognizes the landscape, but not the people who live in it. They are not, after all, “his people.”
The Real Romney may be “stiff” and “aloof,” as Frank Bruni writes, but there is reason for his diffidence. As with all bullies and many politicians, he isn’t comfortable in his own skin. He feels he is “different,” and as much as he would like to translate that difference as “superior,” he isn’t completely confident that is true. He doesn’t “connect” to ordinary people, partly because he doesn’t want to bother with the riff-raff and partly because he thinks he has nothing in common with “the common man.” He doesn’t share their anxieties because he has experienced a different set of anxieties. This campaign itself, in which he had to explain away his policies as governor and defend what he thought was his greatest asset – his years as a venture capitalist – must have been particularly disconcerting for him. He needs the support of the very hoi polloi whom he holds in such low regard. Many of those same common folks do not appreciate the “good” he has done by sucking the last nickels out of the companies for which they worked and sending their jobs to China. Ingrates! To make matters worse, his opponent, who “spent too much time at Harvard,” (actually, less time than Mitt spent at Harvard), would not sign an agreement to refrain from discussing Mitt’s business career or tax records. The road to his anointment has not been paved with palm fronds.
Given the bullying, lying and sense of entitlement it is hard not to peg Romney as a sociopath: someone who believes that rules made for others do not apply to him. This is apparent in his remark about Barack Obama’s Harvard education — he is an elitist; I was continuing my education. Greg Sargent points out another good example today: Romney has urged President Obama to remove ads with which fact-checkers found fault. But he has continued to run his own negative ads which all well-known fact-checkers have deemed untrue. Sargent notes, “top Romney advisers say their most effective ads are the ones attacking Obama over welfare, and that they will not allow their widespread denunciation by fact checkers as false slow down their campaign one little bit.” Indeed, Romney himself told the Des Moines Register earlier this month “that the fact-checkers who have criticized his recent attacks on President Obama’s welfare changes were examining the issue ‘in the way they think is most consistent with their own views.’” That is, Obama should remove his ads if any fact-checkers deem parts of them false, but Romney will not remove his ads which all fact-checkers find false because the fact-checkers are judging his ads with some personal bias.
Whatever nagging self-awareness he may harbor, Mitt Romney’s overarching inclination, his fallback first response, is to assert his own superiority. He has to. Costs/benefits analysis will get him nowhere. He cannot fire himself. He is who he is, he said Sunday, invoking Popeye. Who that someone is is not unknowable, but – unless you work your way into his circle of friends – he is not someone you would like. The feeling is mutual. He already doesn’t like you, either.
For all of his silliness in today’s column, David Brooks does home in on the Real Romney at the end of his column: “If elected, he promises to bring all Americans together and make them feel inferior.” So, if you’d like to spend four years knowing the president thinks you’re a chump who deserves the cruel gruel he force-feeds you, open wide. Mitt Romney is here to serve you.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com