Roving thoughts and provocations

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Mitt, We Hardly Knew Ye!

John Springs
Mitt Romney

We’re feeling vulnerable and surly these days in western Massachusetts, as the leaves turn yellow, the Red Sox fade, and winter looms. Our corridor of New England along the Connecticut River endured, during the summer months, a ruinous tornado in Springfield, an earthquake, of all things, and Hurricane Irene, which knocked out roads and historic covered bridges in our hill towns and across neighboring Vermont, and left a lot of people homeless and adrift. It’s our Katrina moment, we sometimes think, with slightly grandiose self-pity, as Republicans in Congress demand budget cuts if FEMA is to pay for disaster relief in the blue states.

We don’t see much of Mitt Romney, our ex-governor, in these troubled times. Then again, we never did. Our most indelible memories are of Mitt leaving—“the sight of Mitt’s back,” as a friend of mine put it, as he went off to lay the groundwork for yet another campaign. Mitt ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, lost, and left the state to salvage the Salt Lake City Olympics. When he returned to run for governor in 2002, he had to go to court to prove that he sort of lived in Belmont, outside Boston. Then, after a couple of years in the state house, he left again to campaign for the presidency, spending two thirds of his time out of state in 2006. Mitt has sold his house in Belmont and now lives in the important primary state of New Hampshire (at his estate on Lake Winnipesaukee) or San Diego or maybe Utah—anywhere but Massachusetts.

In the Republican debates, Mitt pretends that his ties to Massachusetts are tenuous. Mitt’s greatest achievement as governor, the Massachusetts health care system (which passed with Ted Kennedy’s support and two dissenting votes in the state legislature), is now his greatest liability among Republicans, who see it as a stalking horse for Obamacare. Mitt now claims it was right for our quirky state but not for the nation. He has yet to explain why.

When Mitt trumpets his experience in American business, he rarely mentions that Bain, the consulting and investment conglomerate in which he amassed his $200 million fortune, is a Boston firm. I was attending graduate school in the Boston area in 1977 when most of the smart graduates from Harvard Business School, including Mitt, seemed to be entering the hot new field of consulting. It wasn’t always clear what such firms did; the mystery was part of their allure. Bain was particularly cultish; according to Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, it was known as “the K.G.B. of management consulting.”

When I ask locals about their impressions of Mitt, I get a recurring response: Nixonian. “The overriding passion of his life seems to be to become president,” a conservative economics professor tells me. “I can’t think of a single issue over which Romney would risk reelection in order to stick to a principle.”

It’s a point of pride in the college towns of Amherst and Northampton and South Hadley not to watch, or at least admit you watch, the Republican debates, which are nonetheless characterized as “scary.” Concern is voiced at local dinner parties that Mitt is a Mormon, though it quickly becomes clear, amid loose talk of magic underwear and scriptures in “reformed Egyptian,” that few of us really know much about Mormonism. There’s also mild embarrassment at what might seem religious bigotry among us, a point reinforced by Mitt himself in his careful “Faith in America” speech from 2007, when he pointed out that fifty years ago “another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president.” I myself grew up in a sect (the same one that Nixon belonged to) as peculiar in its tenets, and with a longer history of persecution, than the Mormons, though few people since Benjamin Franklin have feared that a cabal of Quakers is running the country.

Mitt’s favorite movie is said to be the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney. Mitt, who majored in English at BYU, may imagine some connection between his own shape-shifting career and that of the picaresque hero of this Odyssey-inspired romp through the American South. On television, Mitt looks like someone hired to play the president in a movie that couldn’t afford Clooney. At the recent debate in Orlando, he joined a lineup of eight other candidates, all of whom seemed to be conspiring to make Mitt look and sound presidential.

Perry, the temporary front-runner everywhere but in New Hampshire, attacked Romney, yet again, for the health care system in Massachusetts and for flip-flopping on issues like abortion. Romney twice replied, as though wielding an exquisite rejoinder, “Nice try.” Social Security, which both men seem to have trouble pronouncing, came up again, with the usual assumption that it’s in disastrous shape and on the verge of collapse. Romney and Perry agree that it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme, as Perry has said and as Romney points out in his campaign book No Apology. The only thing Romney and Perry might disagree about is how best to keep the “seniors” from learning the allegedly bad news about Social Security funding and being “scared.” “It is important,” Romney concludes, “to conduct the entitlement discussion without scaring our senior citizens.” Everyone knows why it is important. Seniors vote, especially in Florida.

Mitt had many opportunities in Orlando to portray himself as more compassionate than the other, thuggish-seeming, candidates in the race. He remained silent, however, while Rick Santorum told a gay American soldier serving in Iraq, “Any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.” Although in 1994 Romney portrayed himself as a more reliable champion of gay rights than Ted Kennedy, he’s long been distancing himself from gay issues. He was governor when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, but he was already backpedaling on his moderate views of the 1990s. He did what he could to limit the reach of the ruling, invoking a 1913 antimiscegenation law to prevent out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts.

At the previous debate, Perry had elicited cheers for having authorized the execution of more than two hundred Texans. This time it was Perry who, like the Tin Woodman, had suddenly acquired a heart, for allowing children of illegal aliens to attend public schools in Texas. Romney feigned incredulity that such children—themselves innocent of any crime—are allowed to attend public universities in Texas at in-state tuition rates. Mitt might have remembered that his own father, George, was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico during a period when many Mormons, after the federal crackdown on polygamy, sought refuge there.

Is Romney more moderate on educational policy than the other candidates? It’s hard to say. Everyone at the Orlando debate ritually bashed the Department of Education. Romney was accused, again by Perry, of supporting Obama’s Race to the Top, a program announced in July 2009 that gives awards to states whose students improve their test scores. Romney, who had praised Race to the Top the day before in Miami, claimed that he had no idea what program Perry was referring to, but conceded that he didn’t mind some of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s views about how to improve schools through better teaching.

In general, Romney’s views of education, despite the obligatory kowtowing to local and parental control of school systems (meaning, presumably, more school prayer and less evolution), concentrate on the choice of teachers. Romney remembers his own tenth-grade English teacher, Mr. Wonnberger, at the elite and private Cranbrook School in an upscale Detroit suburb, with particular fondness. “He tore our papers apart paragraph by paragraph and line by line with critiques that sharpened our skills without crushing our confidence.” It’s fun to imagine Mr. Wonnberger scrutinizing the transcript of the dispiriting Orlando performance, as the Republicans wrestled with the difficulty of landing a verbal punch. Flustered Santorum could barely get the words out as he envisioned a sex-free military: “We would move forward in—in conformity with what was happening in the past, which was, sex is not an issue. It is—it should not be an issue. Leave it alone, keep it—keep it to yourself.”

Perry kept trying to remind everyone that Romney is from Massachusetts, this time by aligning him with John Kerry as a “flip-flopper.” Of course, anyone who is aware of his record in Massachusetts knows Romney is a flip-flopper. As Steve Kornacki wrote in Salon, Romney has changed his tune on abortion “multiple times”—always in a way that suited his political needs. Supporting abortion rights in a debate with Ted Kennedy in 1994, he told the story of a relative who died from an illegal abortion, and said, “You’ll not see me wavering on this.” By 2005, as governor he had switched, vetoing a contraception bill and saying he was pro-life. The only hope for Democrats contemplating a possible Romney presidency is for more flip-flopping, not less, as when, having been elected governor, he tried to close corporate tax loopholes in Massachusetts, only to be reprimanded by the powerful antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist.

In his book No Apology, Romney calls for “a national rededication to the practice of writing.” It is refreshing to have a presidential candidate point out that Idylls of the King, which Romney’s mother read aloud to him as a child, is in “iambic pentameter blank verse,” though Mr. Wonnberger might have added that blank verse is always in iambic pentameter.

What Mitt calls for, specifically, is “An American Education.” Like the other Republican candidates, he has an aversion to Europe. Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe and from the socialist democrats in Europe,” he said in Orlando. Romney spent two years in France during the late 1960s, peddling Mormonism door to door, as is expected of young members of the church, while disapproving of the student uprisings in May 1968. Not only is Europe bankrupt financially, Romney likes to argue, it’s bankrupt spiritually. “I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe,” he said in his faith speech. “They are so inspired, so grand, so empty.”

One often hears that Mitt could be the first “CEO president.” But a CEO of what, exactly? Mitt’s first big success at Bain was investing in the Staples office supply store; he likes to draw an analogy between running a country and running a big-box store. “It was a few days before the Christmas of 2008,” he writes at the beginning of No Apology, “I was standing in the checkout line at a Walmart, waiting to purchase the Tonka trucks and Buzz Lightyear action figures I had selected for my grandsons.” Sounding the Emersonian theme of how institutions reflect their founders, he notes approvingly how the store, with its “helter-skelter” and “entertaining” organization, reflects the mind of Sam Walton and his “near maniacal passion for low prices.” And for keeping out unions, he might have added.

Gradually, Mitt weaves his way from Sam Walton to Jefferson and John Adams, who are also said to exemplify the “spirit of invention, creativity, derring-do.” But not all big-box stores are created equal. Some are tonier and, well, maybe even a little un-American. “At Target, for example, aisles are wider and shelves are stocked and segregated like the Swiss might have done it.”

The Swiss! He’ll resist their influence, we can be sure.

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