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. 

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*Post updated to make a few edits and clarifications.