There was a stretch, a few weeks back, where it was Mitt Romney's detractors in the lib'rul media, led by Frank Rich, who were working overtime to try to divine the "real Romney," the tormented soul hidden beneath the America the Beautiful exterior. Now it is apparently the turn of Romney's admirers to go plumbing for the true Mitt, in an attempt to coax a more genuine and likable candidate to emerge. Take today's column by Kathleen Parker, a loyal Mitt booster who has of late grown slightly despairing about his diminished standing in the public eye. Under the headline "Dear Mitt: Let's Get Real," Parker writes:
In the spirit of neighborliness, herewith a few thoughts to consider as the wolf sniffs at the sliver of light beneath your door:
First, your wall is too high. You have constructed a barrier around you, perhaps to protect yourself from the cruelties of a world that remains skeptical of what’s at the core of your being, and that’s your religion. Or maybe it is a function of always trying to get everything just right. Sometimes too careful, you’ve also made yourself remote and concealed your best stuff. People feel that distance no matter how rolled-up your sleeves are or how many pancakes you flip. Relax. Stop trying so hard. Find the strength and humility you express so beautifully after losses, and bring it on now.
First, let's start with that last part - "the strength and humility you express so beautifully after losses"? Um, which campaign has Parker been watching? Romney's speeches after defeats have been striking for their utter lack of self-awareness and reckoning with the resistance he is encountering in the GOP electorate. Instead, he simply pushes the same bash-Obama buttons as his stump speech does, with the rhetoric dialed up a bit more than usual. Take his speech the night of his worst loss, in South Carolina. " I firmly believe this election is a battle for the soul of America. It's a choice between two very different destines for America. President Obama wants to fundamentally transform America. We want to erstore to America the founding principles that made this country great and the hope of the earth...The president has adopted an appeasement strategy. He believes America's role as a leader of the world is a thing of the past." And so on. Where's the "strength and humility" there? It does not exactly conjure up memories of the great defeat-speech of 2008, Obama's "yes, we can" litany after his setback in New Hampshire.
More broadly, though, Parker's advice to Romney to open up prompts the same thought from me as did Rich et al's search for the real Romney: namely, what if we're seeing now is more or less all there is? After all, Romney has been at this for a while now -- he's been running for office since 1994, when he literally ran for office, trying to chase down women in the street as part of his awkward glad-handing. Really, what exactly is this "best stuff" that Parker imagines Romney withholding from us? Remember, this is someone who, when given a hanging-curveball opportunity at a recent debate to correct a "misconception" about himself, lacked the self-awareness and depth to even come up with an answer. I come back to the conclusion in my recent review of The Real Romney, the new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman:
What if it is hard to divine the deepest recesses of Romney because those recesses simply do not go all that deep?
This is, after all, a man who decided that he was going to devote at least the first half of his adult life to making an enormous pile of money. Even after the Kennedy race, which he later said had only heightened his interest in politics, Romney went right back to Bain Capital, for what would prove to be his most lucrative years of all. It is perhaps uncouth to say so, but does not Romney’s fixation on a line of work that amounted to high-stakes data-crunching and paper-shuffling suggest a rather constricted view of the world and a shallow sense of greater purpose?
Kranish and Helman quote Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime aide, saying of Romney that he is “not a very notional leader. He is more interested in data and what the data mean.” It is, they conclude, a revealing line about Romney. “What he has struggled with, in politics, is exactly who he is, with decoding his political DNA,” they write. “For years, he could just operate in his father’s shadow or avoid those hard questions in the private sector, getting by on brains and leadership alone.” His father, too, was hard to pin down politically, a fact that is often forgotten in the glowing accounts of George Romney. But surely Romney pere’s more forceful and rounded personality had something to do with the fact that the economy in which he made his money was so much more, well, real. This is partly a function of the times in which the men worked—Mitt’s rise happened in the flush of the “greed is good” years. But it’s also a matter of choice. Mitt could have chosen a line of work of which it would be easier to say what he said of his father: “Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.”
The constrictions of Romney’s sheltered life go beyond his Monopoly-money loot. His biggest filial rebellion was to sneak back from Stanford to Michigan to visit his sweetheart and eventual wife Ann. At Stanford, he turned against the incipient anti-Vietnam protests before leaving them behind for his missionary stint in France. His marriage to Ann, soon after his return, was literally sheltered—her parents were barred from the religious ceremony inside the Salt Lake temple (though George and Mitt converted not just Ann but her two brothers, to the chagrin of her proudly irreligious father.) As a married couple, the Romneys say they have never seriously argued—Mitt’s reaction against the sparring between his vivacious but querulous parents, according to Kranish and Helman. And as a business partner, Romney kept to himself and his family—no dallying for drinks after work for him. It is often said that Americans like to elect presidents they would like to have a beer with. But what to make of a candidate who has not only never had a beer, but says he has never so much as quarreled with his wife?
Romney’s sheltered existence extended to the most mundane of duties on the home front—Ann spared him having to change any of the messier diapers for their five sons because, he has admitted, “they gave me dry heaves.” Reading this, I thought back to a passage earlier in the book spoken by Romney’s charming mother Lenore, who gave up a Hollywood career to marry George, and later ran unsuccessfully for the Senate herself. “Politics is like washing diapers,” she once said. “You want the baby so much, you don’t mind washing his diapers.” Mitt Romney was spared washing the diapers. Maybe he would be a better politician if he had not spared himself some of the messier work of politics.
It may not be Romney who needs to get real. Romney is who he is. It's the people who keep persist in persuading themselves, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is an entirely different man inside of him, just straining to burst forth from the chrysalis.
follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis