A Mouse in the White House?

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Tomasky

Mitt has bowed to reporters and cowered from the right. He's a candidate with a serious wimp problem.

It should be the easiest thing in the world for a presidential nominee: a trip to England. The mother country, the shared tongue, our firmest ally. And it should have been easiest of all last week, happening as it did on the eve of the Olympics. Just praise everything you see. Limn London as one of the world's great cities, invoke the spirit of the British people that lives on from the glorious days of the blitz. Praise the bangers and mash and the pasties if you have to. Nothing to it.

And yet, Mitt Romney managed to alienate just about every living Briton. He didn't merely criticize the organizers or bureaucrats--he questioned the people of Britain themselves: "Do [the people] come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?" He wasn't sure. The Sun even went so far as to dub him "Mitt the Twit."

It was an astonishing faux pas--one of many packed into his brief visit. And it makes one wonder: if elected, Romney is going to have to work hand-in-glove with Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders on the ongoing global financial crisis and other issues. What unintended offenses are going to tumble out of his mouth then, when he's representing our nation on the world stage?

The episode highlights what's really wrong with Romney. He's kind of lame, and he's really ... annoying. He keeps saying these ... things, these incredibly off-key things. Then he apologizes immediately--with all the sincerity of a hostage. Or maybe he doesn't: sometimes he whines about the subsequent attacks on him. But the one thing he never does? Man up, double down, take his lumps.

In 1987, this magazine created a famous hubbub by labeling George H.W. Bush a "wimp" on its cover. "The Wimp Factor." Huge stir. And not entirely fair--the guy had been an aviator in the war, the big war, the good war, and he was even shot down out over the Pacific, cockpit drenched in smoke and fumes, at an age (20) when in most states he couldn't even legally drink a beer. In hindsight, Poppy looks like Dirty Harry Callahan compared with Romney, who spent his war (Vietnam) in--ready?--Paris. Where he learned ... French. Up to his eyeballs in deferments. Where Reagan saddled up a horse with the masculine name of El Alamein, Mitt saddles up something called Rafalca--except that he doesn't even really do that, his wife does (dressage). And speaking of Ann--did you notice that she was the one driving the Jet Ski on their recent vacation, while Mitt rode on the back, hanging on, as Paul Begala put it to me last week, "like a helpless papoose"?

Another point of comparison with Bush Sr. is instructive. Newsweek identified Bush's wimp problem as being laced into his adherence to an old, upper-class, WASP civic code: the idea that one does not put oneself inordinately forward. At his boarding school, students literally received grades in a category titled "Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention." Somehow, in 1987, this magazine decided that high marks in that realm constituted a demerit. But a quarter century, one global financial meltdown, several concentrations of wealth, and many magnitudes of culture-coarsening later, that sounds like a real plus. He was magnanimous, and his magnanimity was grounded in a code of honor.

Romney was raised in that same code--his father was the epitome of the civic-minded millionaire (except, of course, the Romneys were not WASPs). But as Mitt was making his fortune, those old values were being ground to dust by new Gordon Gekko values. The clash between those competing value systems exists inside him. There's some of the old--he gives away plenty of money and so on. But the new values surface often enough--his fondness for firing people, the way he made fun of NASCAR fans' ponchos, his reminders to us that his friends are the people who own the teams, and now his putdown of an entire nation, which happens to be our closest ally--to suggest that they won the argument. …