Mitt Romney, Hollow Man

It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney’s inner life. Even if you presume that he has one (which is not entirely obvious), guessing as to what form it might take seems like the sort of challenge better suited to, say, science fiction writers who specialize in telling stories about alien cultures than it does magazine profile writers or literary novelists.

Getting inside his head is a job that no one has yet been able to accomplish; it’s easier to imagine Romney as some sort of administrative system made flesh, or perhaps living software, with code and programming instructions rather than recognizably human thoughts and personality.

Yes, there is ample evidence that Romney is in many ways an individual worthy of respect, perhaps even admiration, at least for his private sector accomplishments. By all accounts, he is dedicated and hard working, intelligent and rational, deeply devoted to his family and religious community. People I’ve spoken to who have known Romney personally or studied his career all praise his work ethic and his value as a business partner. But there is little to suggest what, if anything, lies underneath that perfectly polished exterior.

But that isn’t stopping publications with the words “New York” in their titles from attempting to crack Romney’s code. In New York Magazine and The New York Review of Books, Frank Rich and Michael Tomasky respectively attempt to solve the mystery of the man who will probably be the Republican party’s next presidential nominee. What is Mitt Romney’s dark secret? It turns out he’s a Mormon...with a father.

In a piece titled “Who in God’s name is Mitt Romney?,” Rich argues that the key to the man must be his murky background as a Mormon lay minister:

He seems to have no cultural passions beyond his and his wife’s first-date movie,The Sound of Music. He is not a sportsman or conspicuous sports fan. His only real, nonnumerical passions seem to be his photogenic, intact family, which he wields like a weapon whenever an opponent with multiple marriages like John McCain or Gingrich looms into view—and, of course, his faith.That faith is key to the Romney mystery. Had the 2002 Winter Olympics not been held in Salt Lake City, and not been a major civic project of Mormon leaders there, it’s unlikely Romney would have gotten involved. (Whether his involvement actually prompted a turnaround of that initially troubled enterprise, as he claims, is a subject of debate.) But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns.

When the Evangelical view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult threatened his 2008 run, Romney delivered what his campaign hyped as a JFK-inspired speech on “Faith in America.” This otherwise forgotten oration was memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once.In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to “the same church.” But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. Which leaves him unable to talk about the very subject he seems to care about most, a lifelong source of spiritual, familial, and intellectual sustenance. We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

And in the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky takes the Darth Vader route and pins Romney’s emptiness on his determination to learn from his father’s mistakes:

For men like Romney, everything comes back in one way or another to father. Mitt was the “miracle baby,” the fourth child born nearly six years after the last of the other three, and named in part after J. Willard Marriott—like George, a nationally prominent and respected Mormon. He “grew up idolizing” his father, write Kranish and Helman. He walked the factory floor with him at the American Motors Corporation, which the elder Romney made profitable; he listened closely to his father’s religious and civic lectures; he wanted to become his father.

His pursuit of the presidency surely has much to do with the fact that his father didn’t make it there, torpedoed by his famous comment about having been “brainwashed” about American progress in the war by generals on a visit to Vietnam.George Romney didn’t back down from that remark, made to a Detroit television interviewer in 1967. He never backed down, not even to Nixon, with whom, asHUD secretary, he had numerous skirmishes. The son—unable even to view the “brainwashed” clip, Kranish and Helman write, until thirty-nine years later—seems to have decided that backing down is often a pretty good idea.

Commentators have spent countless hours speculating whether Romney is “really” moderate or conservative. The answer is that he is neither, and both. The lessons he learned from watching his father fail to make it to the White House are: don’t stick to your guns; be flexible; suit the needs of the moment. And so, in order to complete his father’s unfulfilled destiny, he has decided to become his father’s opposite.

I find Tomasky’s explanation more convincing in part because it reaches essentially the same conclusion about Romney that I did in my March cover feature: Romney’s path to success has always benefited from flexibility over ideology, narrow problem-solving acumen over larger principle. And while pinning Romney’s pandering on his father’s daddy issues might smack of psychological gimmickry, it’s also probably true to some extent: His father may have been a moderate, but he was a deeply committed moderate, and he lost his shot at the presidency in part because of that commitment. No doubt this served for young Mitt as a powerful early illustration of the dangers of stubborn commitment. In response, Mitt Romney has spent his life committed only to avoiding any kind of ideological commitment.

In the end, however, both Rich and Tomasky recognize that there’s no solving the Romney riddle. Whoever he is, or isn’t, we’ll probably never know, and even the most intriguing Theories of Romney tell us little about what’s actually important, namely: how he might govern. In fact, as I argue in my story, at this point, the best way to view Romney’s long-running campaign for president is not as a window into who Romney is, but as a reflection of the divided and uncertain party he’s trying to please. It may be impossible to truly understand Mitt Romney, but his campaign tells us an awful lot about the conflicted inner life of the GOP. 

Pick up a copy of Reason’s March issue on a newsstand near you, or catch a special early online preview of the story. And if you’re not a subscriber, well, why not

*Post updated to make a few edits and clarifications. 

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  • Almanian||

    Frist?

  • ||

    But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns.

    That's because it's too hard to defend the indefensible.

  • ||

    I was about to say that "any criteria that makes Mormonism indefensible would also apply to most other religions" but then I saw your link was written by Hitchens, so I have to admit that he would indeed apply it to other religions.

  • ||

    I agree with you completely. My not mentioning other religions was merely the result of my laziness. But I do make a distinction between someone who contemplates the possibility of God and one who follows and organized religion. I'm quickly approaching middle age and am no where close to figuring out the universe and most likely, never will. So while I do leave open the possibility that there is a supreme being, I do not know for certain and think that it is just as likely that there isn't one. Label me agnostic if you will, but I prefer call myself a practicing human being.

  • ||

    Check out www.lds.org It's really not all that difficult.

  • Gus||

    I dated a morman chick and had Family Night with them on Sundays countless times. My take was that all of the men had been brainwashed. And like Romney, they seemed souless.

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    Mormons are just bland. Look at the Osmonds, for example. But who cares? Nothing wrong with bland.

  • Gus||

    No, it's a countenance / visage thing.

  • ||

    You may want to check out your lenses.

  • ||

    "Mitt Romney has spent his life committed only to avoiding any kind of ideological commitment."

    I don't like Romney much, but given the ideological commitments that many of our previous presidents have had, this may be a feature and not a bug.

  • kraorh||

    Though I believe that George Romney was defeated by Richard Nixon in 1968, not Goldwater, who wasn't even running. And in fact, I think Romney may have even gotten out of the race before New Hampshire actually held its primary.

  • Liberty||

    Don't worry, Mitt! We'll be right here for you at Reason, shilling for you just as soon as you make eyes at Ron Paul. Just say the word, good buddy.

    We're libertarians, Team Red's Cheap Date. :)

  • kraorh||

    Right. Just like the magazine shilled for Bush 43 and McCain. As I recall, in 2008, the editorial staff here was nearly evenly split between Bob Barr and Barack Obama, and only one or two people said they intended to vote for McCain.

  • o3||

    im gonna use that "team red's cheap date" line w/o attribution.

  • o3||

    wonder what happened to marty feldman's eyes? great screen name

  • ||

    We're still here.

  • kraorh||

    "But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name."
    Though to be fair, Mr. Rich, it's not like most candidates talk about their churches by name. They generally just spout generic Judeo-Xtian God talk. I'm guessing that even many of their voters, for example, are aware that Gingrich and Santorum are Papists. That's one of the strange, unnoticed things about this race... the only certifiable WASP in the major leagues, at this point, is Ron Paul. And maybe it's a credit to cultural progress that this seems to have escaped the notice of most people.

  • romulus augustus||

    Barry O sure doesn't name his denomination!

  • ||

    Hey, he's the bestest, most Christian Christian in the history of Christendom!

    Just ask him.

  • ||

    Why does it matter what Romney's personal inner life is like?

    I don't particularly care for the political positions he has taken (at least two on every issue), but I really don't care if he dreams of weightlifters in tights.

    I do care whether he is going to spend the USA into Zimbabwe II or is going to start Gulf War III [or is it IV or V? ], but his personal demons don't bother me at all.

  • kraorh||

    Err, should read: "I'm guessing that even many of their voters, for example, AREN'T aware that Gingrich and Santorum are Papists."

  • RoboCain||

    Actually, that's spelled with an "R".

  • o3||

    newt's a johnny-cum-lately papist.

  • Gus||

    They pay you by the word, Suderman?

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    DON'T ANY OF YOU REPLY TO TONY. Just have the discipline to ignore it, please.

  • RoboCain||

    Not even for a Hollow Man dick joke?

  • Tony||

    Fuck you. Who put you in charge? You can't handle dissenting voices on an Internet message board and you think you'll like a quasi-anarchic society out in the real world?

    This is why libertarians are so fucking ridiculous. In your utopia you smarmy pasty white nerds would be the first hung on pikes by roving gangs, assuming you didn't starve to death first after incredulously wondering how jerking off to Ayn Rand doesn't actually deliver the harems and riches you assumed you were getting.

  • Oso Politico||

    No, actually, Tony, I would prefer a totally anarchic world to what we actually have, which borders on chaos.

  • pmains||

    For a second, I thought you were suggesting that Gus was actually Tony. Good to know that shunning Tony, or even discussing the possibility, instantly turns the little fella into a feces-throwing chimp.

  • Tony||

    I swear to god, every libertarian I've ever met looks exactly like James O'Keefe. You should call yourselves translucent-Americans.

  • Oso Politico||

    I assure you that I look nothing like that fellow you mention, but thanks for playing.

    Question: Why do you hang around here?

  • Tony||

    If you go by what he's saying, he's going to raise taxes on the poor and middle class, lower them on the rich, and turn the country generally into a tea party shithole.

    But then, nobody actually thinks that he believes what he's saying. How Romney would actually govern the country is a truly interesting question--one of the few interesting questions I'm OK with never learning the answer to. He doesn't seem particularly concerned with thinking through policies in a serious manner. He's just a pander-bot. The most likely scenario, then, is that the usual suspects behind the Republican party will simply use him as their puppet like they did Bush.

  • RoboCain||

    You're just hoping he shows his penis like Kevin Bacon.

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    I've only seen the Hollow Man on television. Is there really Bacon penis in it?

  • Killazontherun||

    Wild Things, you can't miss it.

  • RoboCain||

    Yes.

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    I can't figure out, for the life of me, why anyone on this planet gives a shit what Frank Rich has to say. This is the guy who compared the Tea Party to "Kristallnacht". He's on Alex Parnee or Ezra Klein-level of "fucking retarded".

  • ||

    On the other hand, Rich did uncover the fact that Romney's a Mormon. That's gotta be worth something.

  • BoscoH||

    I was in Paris when Hollowman reached the French market. Of course, it wasn't called Hollowman. They had to give it a French name L'homme sans ombre, which literally means "Man without a shadow". A better title would have been "Movie without a point".

    (I need a rimshot for that one...)

  • Killazontherun||

    I couldn't help thinking while reading the above article that if you substituted the name John Kennedy Jr. for Romney that you would have a perfect fit for a People magazine piece from the mid nineties.

  • Killazontherun||

    Does he have his father's gravitas?

    Lol! Who even buys into that kind of thinking, right? Mythologies, how do they work? Something about Kronos and Zues, or Odin and Thor, or JFK and John Jr, or George and Mit; anyway, I just didn't think Reason indulged in that kind of crap.

  • ¢||

    Why does it matter what Romney's personal inner life is like?

    When a candidate has no positions, or an apparently random mess of positions, or basically the same positions as his opponent, you're just voting for or against some dude (and/or TEAM!). If you're the type to judge strange dudes by their conjectured "inner lives," then...that's how you'll judge the dude. Or that's how you'll pretend you're not just a TEAM!bot.

    If I'd have voted in '08, picking between two pretty much interchangeable "welfare/warfare" establishment tools, I'd have voted against Obama because his memoir's narrator is an asshole. If you think you have to choose, then you have to, and you have to explain it to yourself somehow.

    (And nothing about Romney matters. He's running for answer to a trivia question.)

  • Killazontherun||

    Okay. Actually you make me change my negative position to this article to an extent. I asked myself while reading it, if there existed a candidate who held my beliefs and had a voting record that supported that supported those positions, but also had Mit's biography, would I support him. The answer, of course. So I thought it a bit wanky on Suderman's part to concentrate on the man's psycheological make up. But you make a good point, you can't go by Mit's voting record, so maybe his psychology might give you some ideas about how he would govern at the presidential level.

  • Killazontherun||

    er, not his voting record, but what legislation he supported as a governor.

  • Killazontherun||

    His pursuit of the presidency surely has much to do with the fact that his father didn’t make it there, torpedoed by his famous comment about having been “brainwashed” about American progress in the war by generals on a visit to Vietnam.George Romney didn’t back down from that remark, made to a Detroit television interviewer in 1967.

    Born in Mexico his chances were cut short when his life began. If I recall, however, the courts were willing to look the other way when Sidney was running last time around, under the excuse he was born on an American base overseas. Funny, the founding generation was concerned their children born in our embassies would not be considered naturalized citizens given how the Constitution was written. But, hey, it was Sidney, when did facts ever not bend for that guy's privileged accommodation? Even his stay at the Hanoi Hilton had some really weird details that make you wonder.

  • CE||

    Being foreign born didn't stop McCain from being the Repub nominee, even though the law stating that children born to American parents in the Panama canal zone were to be considered natural born citizens wasn't passed until two years after McCain was born, thus making him a naturalized citizen.

    Just like Bush and Cheney both being residents of the same state somehow didn't disqualify them because Cheney had a vacation home in Wyoming.

  • Oso Politico||

    Mittsy is a bona fide shapechanger, or perhaps could be compared favorably to Saruman...

  • Stephen Buck||

    What a silly article. Are we supposed to be alarmed because a few really dumb people can’t pigeon hole Romney. “We demand to know his enter workings. What strange ideas lurk in his privileged mind?” “We must send in a Freud to analyze his corrupt brain before he destroys us all”. You boys are really up there on the weird scale yourselves.

  • Eric||

    But there's LOTS inside Willard Mitt Romney. Or, at least, there are lots of telling words, like "wormy" "trim & minty" and "nimrod". For more, see: http://daisybrain.wordpress.co.....-the-news/

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