When Gore Vidal died a few weeks ago, eulogies quoted his famous observation that "the more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes." Vidal originally wrote these words in a 1972 essay on Howard Hughes, but who could read them today and not think of Willard Mitt Romney?
Blessed with parodically presidential good looks, yet cursed with the unconvincing mannerisms of an early-generation android without its update patch, Romney is that most discombobulating of political phenomena--a boring enigma. Trying to figure out his true nature is akin to facing a block of polystyrene. You can't see inside, and you can't get a toehold. You're left with analogies. Romney has been dubbed the next Herbert Hoover, awarded the honorary George H.W. Bush "Wimp" prize from Newsweek, and compared to a porn-movie queen because he changes his positions so often (this last from Arlen Specter, who only changes parties). Those of a more artistic bent have dubbed Romney a latter-day Zelig or, more arcanely, the Man without Qualities, although this is an insult to Robert Musil's fictional hero, who may have shared Romney's unwillingness to take a firm position on anything but at least had the courtesy not to seek political power.
The paradox of Romney is that even as he wants to run the world, he's busy running away from its gaze. Although neither a dope like Dan Quayle nor an ignoramus like Sarah Palin--he has read Guns, Germs, and Steel even if he didn't quite understand it--he has waged a campaign most memorable for its absence of specific ideas. While implying that President Barack Obama is somehow not a real American--for a phantasm to win he must turn his opponent into one, too--Romney basically asks voters to trust in his economic acumen and his leadership. But how can you lead when nobody can find you? He hides from his religion, his political achievements, his big scores at Bain Capital, his tax records, his old public utterantes, his new public utterances--hides from everything that might not appeal to whatever voters he happens to be wooing at that particular moment. "Forget about yesterday," he seems to be saying, "What matters is who I say I am right now."
A great many empty suits have run for president, but seldom has one been so willing to flaunt his own lack of vision. Indeed, he's the only nominee I can remember who, in choosing his running mate, was hoping to gain substance. There is, of course, nothing strange about a candidate pretending to be somebody else, but when Richard Nixon unveiled the "New Nixon" in 1968, you knew who he was pretending not to be. With Mitt, you suspect even Romney himself doesn't know. He's something new in American polities, if not American culture: a potential president so weightless that he makes Charles Foster Kane look as grounded as Dwight Eisenhower. At least you could tell what that mogul yearned for deep down inside, even if it was only that stupid sled.
While it would be invidious to suggest that Romneyhas no inner life (a quality that, to be fair, worked wonders for Ronaid Reagan), even veteran Mittologists aren't quite sure what goes on behind the synthetic smile. But they start with the Oedipal. As the worshipful son of a successful businessman whose "brainwashing" gaffe put the kibosh on his presidential hopes, Romney couldn't fail to learn lessons from his father's political failures, although he picked up the wrong ones. Tossing overboard what was admirable in George Romney's legacy--his principled stands within the GOP on issues like civil rights--Mitt became so cautious that even his sister says that he uses vagueness as camouflage. But as the great Sigmund would remind us, an obsession with bottling up what you think will always produce its own elaborate symptomology. Romney rarely speaks off the cuff without landing in trouble. Even more than Joe Biden, who's Metternich by comparison, he's a walking gaffe-o-marie, which may be the most likably authentic thing about him. …