Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Measuring Mitt Part III

I watched Saturday’s debate, eventually. My assessment was that all of the candidates had done fairly well, while the moderators showed themselves to be attempting to accomplish something other than the rest of us. Then, afterward, pundits decided to tell us what we had heard—and their assessments differed from mine.

The story at the end of the debate was that Romney had a terrible night. I heard a number of excellent answers, and no terrible gaffes. Since our current commander in chief is a condescending “um” repeater without a teleprompter, and his VP is indeed more likely to speak a gaffe than a sensible sentence, it seems rather disingenuous to claim this performance was any less stellar than the debates of the past half year, let alone that it was disastrous.
What was the media’s story of disaster? It related—yet again—to Rick Perry’s inaccurate claim that Mitt’s book claimed the individual mandate of Massachusetts Care would be a good pattern for national health care, and that a later edition of the book took out the phrase. Not so. There’s a more thorough discussion of that here. And it was discussed, covered by politifact.com and others before. So Perry was using the issue disingenuously, and Romney was forcing him to face it.
I would bet (if I were to bet—maybe $.25) that Romney is not a betting man. He intended no bet with Perry. It was an expression of, “If you really believe it, then prove it.” Why the concern? Because $10,000 is a lot of money, and most people in today’s economy couldn’t risk that—so the story is he’s out of touch with mainstream America, sort of like when Obama bemoaned the rising cost of the designer lettuce, arugula.
And the story of the pundits was that Newt had had a brilliant evening. Newt often does well in debates. I actually agreed with Santorum that both Newt and Mitt were expressing their points well, but that in the end Mitt’s point held more weight. (It was on some comment Newt had made about Palestinians having no historical right to their land—a historically accurate statement, but not carefully stated in perilous times for Israeli allies.)
If Newt had done so well, then there would have been no call for the attack Monday on Romney’s wealth—spewing the liberal line that his wealth was ill-gotten, and he was an evil capitalist because he had laid people off.  We can talk about Bain & Co. and Bain Capital another day, but I don’t believe Newt believes that attack; he was just spouting off in frustration. But I would measure it a worse offense for Newt to attack Mitt’s success at capitalism than for Mitt to have proposed a $10,000 bet on something he knew he couldn’t lose.
Character Matters
What I really want to cover today is some of the character issues about Mitt. Both questions about character (related to marital fidelity) and understanding of economic struggle came up in the debate.  I don’t know if a campaign can actually control this kind of thing, but there have been a couple of positive pieces about his character lately. Last week’s Parade Magazine piece was surprisingly positive, mainly about Mitt the family man, one who grew up doing chores and earning money. It showed him to be human—and like people I know.
Then December 10th there was another piece, specifically about his personal economy, called “Two Romneys: Wealthy Man, Thrifty Habits,” that details his innate thriftiness. A quintessential story was of a time in the 90s when his company had just handed out some very lucrative bonuses, and an employee gave him a spin in the $90,000 Porsche 911 Carrera he had bought with that windfall. Romney, as the story goes,
was entranced by the sleek, supercharged vehicle: at the end of a spin around downtown Boston, he turned to the employee, Marc Wolpow, and marveled, “Boy, I really wish I could have one of these things” Mr. Wolpow was dumbfounded. “You could have 12 of them,” he recalled thinking to himself. But Mr. Romney had frequently driven an inexpensive, domestic stalwart that looked out of place in the company parking lot—a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon with red vinyl seats and a banged-up front end.
Ann Romney is a woman of many talents; one is haircutting. She cut hair for the five boys and Mitt until the last boy left home. Then she said, “That’s enough. You can go pay someone to get a haircut.” By then he was governor of Massachusetts. The nearest place was a block from the capitol, so he went there, even though it irked him to have to pay $50. (I pay that; it gives me a similar pang, but I don’t think it’s over-the-top extravagant.)
His father, George Romney, had grown up poor. It says something for the family that he was wise enough to avoid the pitfalls of many who become rich. He insisted that his kids work. Mitt couldn’t go join friends on a Saturday until his chores were done. And he had part-time jobs through high school and college. It is also telling that Mitt made these same kinds of requirements of his own sons—all of whom are married, educated, and gainfully employed. It’s a good track record for any family in today’s world, and particularly for an extremely wealthy family.
He does spend extravagantly on a few things: his houses are large, with swimming, tennis, and other recreation attached. The purpose of a home or vacation home is to provide a place where the family can gather and enjoy being together. If you’ve got money, that’s something worth buying. He has been known, however, to rent a U-Haul to move from one vacation home to another.
He also spends big bucks on the horses Ann rides as part of her therapy for MS. Speaking of her MS, she tells the story of Mitt reacting to that news. When they realized something was very wrong, they went for testing. ALS was a possibility, and terminal. When it wasn’t that, he assured her they could get through anything. He stayed by her side; he told her the only thing that was important was having her with him. And they count it as a daily miracle that she has enjoyed such a long remission. If he becomes president, someday they'll make a movie including this story, and critics will say it's too sweet to come across as real. But it's real for Mitt and Ann.
There’s one other story I came across a while back, attesting to his character. It was a story by a neighbor in Belmont, Massachusetts, a young, liberal non-religious woman. The story was in response to attacks on Mormonism; she said she would not vote for Romney, never had. But if a person’s reason was his religion, that was just wrong-headed bigotry. I’ve written on that before, but what I liked from her story was this anecdote. When they moved to the area, one of her first friends was a Mormon neighbor who invited them to church. They didn’t have a church, or really felt like they were seeking one; but they did respond to the friendly invitation, and to the warmth the felt in the meetings, so they attended occasionally for some time. This was during the time Romney was governor, but he attended church the same as her other Mormon neighbors:
Even though he was Governor at that time, we still saw plenty of him at Sunday services and elsewhere. Whenever I encountered Mitt and his family at church services, I was struck at how accessible he was, how friendly. In fact, when my then-toddler threw her sippy cup across the chapel, it was Mitt who crawled under a pew to retrieve the cup. We even have a rug—it’s in our living room now—from Mitt’s son Tagg. And all the Mormons were generous and friendly like that.

A complaint I often hear about Romney is that he seems too slick, too nice, too unlike real people. But not to me. Other than the extreme wealth part, and being better at what he does than just about anybody, he seems like many people I have known. Mr. Spherical Model would be just the kind to reach under a pew for someone’s sippy cup. In fact, he once rescued a mom whose son threw up on the bench in front of us—took the child while she went to get towels. That’s heroic beyond the threshold of my generosity (I don’t do well around throwing up). My brother-in-law is successful, with a very nice house—designed with the idea of family and friends coming there to spend enjoyable times. He owns a boat and spends much of his free time driving it around the nearby lake towing the kids and their friends behind on tubes. I saw a video of Mitt and family, last time around, showing a scene that looked to me just like our extended family.
 A man I grew up near owned a hotel chain; I didn’t know he was wealthy until he offered his small yacht for our youth group to use on a trip to Lake Powell. I recognize as very real the kind, generous family man who might also happen to be wealthy. That seems much more normal to me than, for example, Gingrich’s somewhat complicated family life. If Romney doesn’t seem real to you, then what does that say about your world? And, truthfully, would it be such a bad thing to have someone who lives this kind of life be in a position of example?

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