Mitt Romney is starting to get on my nerves. He reminds me of Reggie, the rich, handsome, athletic and effortlessly superficial character in the "Archie" comics. He does almost everything well and he looks like a million bucks (leveraged for much more), but he rings hollow, like the class president who would bring glee to all of Riverdale High by slipping on a banana peel.
Lately, Romney has been on something of an insincerity tear. This son of a big-state governor, this Harvard Law School graduate, this multimillionaire, this hunk with the voice of an AM radio weatherman ("Good morning, Southland!") has been portraying himself as an average guy. He said, for instance, that he, too, knows a bit about job insecurity.
"I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired," he said the other day in New Hampshire. "There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip." His campaign has been unable or unwilling to document those instances, and a close reading of his biography shows no time when he worked on an assembly line, supporting his wife and five kids, or calling home to Michigan for his father, the governor and one-time chairman of American Motors, to send him some money. Instead, Romney comes across as the sort of person whose knowledge of pink is limited to the coats worn by fox hunters. Tally ho!
Similarly, Romney has adopted an aw-shucks pose about his presidential ambitions. His father ran for president in 1968 and he himself must have declared prenatally. This is the second time around for him -- a campaign of such duration that it brings to mind Hannibal's multiyear foray into Italy. Yet, Romney was capable of looking all of New Hampshire straight in the eye and saying, "I have to tell you: This chance to run for president of the United States, I never imagined I'd do it. This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of." He added: "I mean, I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs. And, you know, I imagined that I'd be, you know, in business all my career. And somehow I backed into the chance to do this."
He backed into it by running for governor of Massachusetts, and he backed into it some more by running for senator from the same state. In my experience, if you back and back with a certain goal in mind you can no longer call it backing. It is forwarding, as in Sherman's march to the sea. Romney's campaign has been a bloody slog, and there has been nothing extemporaneous or serendipitous or even fun about it.
The log-cabin pretense has been a staple of American politics since Abe Lincoln. Most politicians claim working class or, with a little luck, poverty in their background. (Never mind that the workingman's all-time champion, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a Hudson River squire.) Romney has just pushed this pose further than seems remotely credible. He sometimes acts as if the truth is beneath him. For instance, he insisted in Sunday's debate that he has not seen the attack ads that have so infuriated Newt Gingrich -- "I haven't seen 'em" -- and then a moment later described one of them. It's possible Romney was talking about a different ad than the one he denied seeing, but even so he had a moral obligation to insist that it adhere to the truth.
Conservatives fear Romney is not telling the truth about his ideological conviction. Others, such as myself, are counting on it. We will forgive him these trespasses since to want to eliminate much of the Cabinet, reject all science regarding climate change, white-out the Federal Reserve or the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, round up all undocumented aliens, mindlessly turn education over to local authorities, end the government's role in just about everything, and prohibit abortion, contraception and the errant midday sexual thought (pretty much the entire conservative platform right there) would severely hurt the American economy, not to mention ruining any chance of fun.
Jon Huntsman is on to something when he says Americans seek forthrightness in their politicians -- leaders who take their convictions from their gut, not focus groups. Romney does not come across as that guy. Instead, he has the coldness of Reggie from the "Archie" comics -- the guy who had everything except, notably, his name on the cover.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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