Ten years ago there was a little story during the SLC Olympics that most Americans are not familiar with. There was a traffic jam of sorts, and Mitt jumped in to fix it. Problem was, the local law enforcement didn’t appreciate his help. Fixit-Mitt taking on a traffic jam is no surprise, but apparently he got ticked off and dropped the F-Bomb a couple of times. To this day, he strongly disputes that he used such language.
I tend to believe him, though part of me wishes we’d see more of Ticked-off-Mitt. The New Republic did a profile last November talking about “the peculiar anger” of Mitt. It didn’t generate much buzz, probably because most people had the reaction, “Yeah, he’s a real firecracker, that Mitt.” We’ve seen him get testy in debates, but usually it is in the way the teacher’s pet whines about kids cutting in front of him in the lunch line.
Romney has, as we all know, an “authenticity problem.” Part of it comes from taking temporally inconsistent policy positions (aka, flip-flopping), but I think most of it is personal and visceral, the way people react to his demeanor, the pitch and texture of his voice, the smile that looks like it was painted on his rugged, handsome face as the finishing touch by a make-up artist. He is always trying to please, to make people like him, to tell people what they want to hear. Of course that is the nature of electioneering. The trick in politics is to craft a finely-tuned, polished message that pushes as many positive buttons as possible and, at the same time, seems genuine and heart-felt. What people see with Mitt is the craft, which makes him seem, well, crafty.
But to me, Mitt’s supposed inauthenticity can be interpreted as a deeply genuine, deeply held aspect of who he is as person. An inauthentic politician is one who pretends to be one thing, say a good family man, while behaving in quite another way when out of the public eye [insert favorite sex scandal here.] That is not Romney (nor is it Obama, for that matter). Romney’s attempt to please, to iron out wrinkles, or to give ground is not a façade covering a bitter, nasty ambition. It is his ambition. He is a fixer, a problem solver, a negotiator, a worker, a pragmatist. He is confident and driven, but he is not an ideologue or a visionary.
Romney spent two and a half years in France, trying to get people to accept his exceedingly chaste, teetotaling Mormon religion. This is sort of like trying to get cats to stop licking their fur. Essentially, being an LDS missionary involves being nice all the time. Missionaries focus on the message and the people they encounter. This is a 24/7 effort and a period of extraordinary selflessness in an extraordinarily self-centered world. It can also be liberating and joyful to lose oneself in the cause of bringing souls to Christ, rather than building one’s ego. It teaches patience and perseverance. After getting abused, ignored, ridiculed, disappointed, and endlessly fatigued, most of life’s social interactions seem to be pretty small potatoes. This is why former missionaries often do well in sales and business. They are polite, honest, diligent and almost always nice—sort of the Del Carnegie super-achievers—and they are accustomed to mountains of failure punctuated only occasionally by sweet success.
Romney also spent many of his adult years as a lay ecclesiastical leader, while at the same time time getting degrees in business and law from Harvard and raising a large family. The Mormon church has no paid clergy or staff, except at the highest levels. Local leaders spend an enormous amount of time organizing meetings and activities, counseling with people, and running a congregation with the help of volunteers. It is a second full-time job with no pay. There is an element of big-fish-in-a-small-pond social status in it, but that is swamped by the enormous amount of time and work. The Bishop (pastor) is the guy in charge, but he is also the guy who has to take everyone’s crap. And believe me, people have an enormous amount of crap. Being a pastor (in most denominations, I imagine) is about persuading, cajoling, encouraging, listening, waiting, praying, worrying. As LDS scripture reads, leaders in the church are supposed to lead “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”
That is a tall order. But I find the degree to which local leaders accomplish this to be truly remarkable. Romney went on to be a Stake President in the church (which is roughly equivalent to the Bishop of a Catholic diocese), where he oversaw a number of Boston-area congregations. This involves more of the same: trying to lift people’s burdens, ministering to their needs and, again, dealing with all their crap. A typical stake president is a successful professional (my current one is an orthopedic surgeon) who volunteers countless hours to church administration and ministry. If you were to meet one, you would likely find him an accomplished person, a dedicated family man, and one who might strike you as overly-nice or friendly to a fault. Someone a lot like Mitt Romney, in fact.
But my message is that the niceness is almost always genuine. It is authentic. It has been groomed and refined through years of personal, intimate interactions with people from all walks of life. These include many happy, pleasant, inspiring interactions but also many efforts to help people who are burdened by sin, who are struggling financially, who are spiritually unsettled, who are pathetic in myriad ways. The goal is treat all of these people the same way, with the same warm heart and good will.
In the brutal world of presidential politics, nice usually comes in last. The Romney campaign knows this and has been as negative and brutal as anyone else. And he will take his licks, too. He will be hated and reviled—sometimes for his politics, but often just for who he is and what he stands for. I was struck by some of the bitter, negative commentary that surrounded the Romney Clan’s recent family vacation in New Hampshire. They played in the water and had competitions that involved sawing logs and hammering nails. Including his kids, in-laws, and grandkids, there are 30 Romneys in total. They take syrupy sweet pictures like this one:
Do the people, in this photo have vices and problems? Undoubtedly. Do their matching outfits and smiles make them fake and inauthentic? To many in the media, an authentic family outing is one undertaken by that other famous Massachusetts family. It wouldn’t be a Kennedy gathering, after all, if someone didn’t end up inebriated, raped or dead. For the Bill Mahers and Lawrence O’Donnells of the world, that is authenticity. It is what they get. To the extent they even understand what is truly nice or good or wholesome, they hate it.
Yes, Romney is always putting on his best face, trying to please, trying to mollify, trying to convince. In a sense, this is a mask because it (usually) covers that he undoubtedly feels anger, contempt, malice, and other negative emotions. But it is a mask that is indelibly part of who he is. It is genuine. It is authentic.