What’s Eating Mitt Romney?

Andrew Romano’s article “Who and What is Mitt Romney” yesterday at the Daily Beast offered a cold assessment of candidate Mitt Romney’s personality defects. Shine as he might during recent debates, the thinky, wonky Romney proved far less “luminous” “away from the stage, and the lights, and the shrink-wrapped soundbites, where real human beings aren’t kept at a respectful distance, and resumes and factoids matter less,” Romano argued, reporting painfully awkward Romney interactions with actual Iowa voters to prove it.  

The focus on Romney’s personality marks a shift in coverage of the candidate’s liabilities. A few months ago, it was Romney’s Mormonism that occupied a great deal of attention. But while no one today would claim that evangelical Christian voters have grown any more comfortable with his religion (or his past as a social moderate), in these past few weeks, as Perry and Bachmann have stumbled, attention has turned from the problem of evangelical-Mormon antipathy to the problem of candidate personality and how that will impact Romney’s ability, as Romano puts it, to “close the deal” on the nomination.

Romney’s affect has been on journalists’ radar for years. In 2006, Neil Swidey, writing for the Boston Globe, described how then-Governor Romney had been impacted by his father George Romney’s 1967 statement that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam War, a statement that all but destroyed his campaign for the Republican 1968 nomination. What the younger Romney learned from his father’s mistakes, according to Swidey, was a profound sense of caution.  

During the 2008 campaign, Peggy Fletcher Stack, an award-winning religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, interviewed members of the Mormon congregations (or “wards”) Romney led in Boston. They remembered him, Stack recalls, as a full human being: someone who gave his time generously to church service but had trouble remembering names; he couldn’t tell a joke, but he did attempt a Michael Jackson-style moonwalk. On issues of gender, Romney made some mistakes, but also took steps to improve his relationship with Boston’s strong Mormon feminist community.  

In watching Romney make two runs at the presidency, I’ve seen many similarities between him and the Mormon men I know and love.  And I’ve always wondered if perhaps his awkwardness didn’t have something to do with Mormon culture. It’s not uncommon, after all, for Mormons to have a hard time interacting with and explaining LDS beliefs to people outside the faith. And given that Mormons tend to marry, socialize with, and do business (whenever possible) with other Mormons, I’ve wondered if our community’s social insularity has also played some role in candidate Romney’s unease.

Perhaps his lack of ease stems in part from the conservative life choices Mitt made, many according to the directives of his Mormon faith. After all, when Mitt Romney was 19 and 20 years old, he was knocking doors as a proselytizing missionary in France: no sex, no alcohol, a lot of responsibility, and few converts to show for his efforts. When Rick Perry was 19 and 20 years old, he was a pep leader earning a 2.5 GPA at Texas A&M. Mitt married at 22 and had five kids by the time he was 34; Perry married at 32. There’s a whole lot of red-blooded American male hijinks Mitt Romney skipped out on because he was an observant Mormon, and perhaps he missed out on a few lessons in mainstream fraternizing and jocularity as well.

Perhaps his leadership style reflects an uneasy adaptation of the culture of Mormon leadership to a mainstream American political setting. From the time they are 12 years old—if not younger—Mormon men are acculturated into and prepared for a lifetime of service in the Church’s administrative and pastoral ranks. They are invested with a sense of reverence for hierarchy and taught that overt ambition is unseemly, eloquence untrustworthy, and open criticism of Church leadership unacceptable. Did a religiously-informed sense of duty propel Romney into running for president despite misgivings about his own retail political skills?

Finally, perhaps his patriarchal legacy has weighed on Mitt Romney. I’ve often described Mormonism as the most overtly patriarchal religion in the Western world. In our culture, the examples of the fathers rest heavily on the sons. As do their missteps. It might, then, be most generous to answer Romano’s rather pointed question “what is Mitt Romney?” this way: to me, he looks like another Mormon son trying very hard to fill his father’s shoes.

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