Early in their careers, almost all journalists hear the same piece of advice: Show, don’t tell. Give an anecdote, provide some detail, offer something that demonstrates the point you’re trying to make.
It would have been good advice for Ann Romney.
It's not that her convention speech was poorly delivered. The would-be first lady has a Junior League likability—she's sweet and charming, if a bit removed from the average life of most Americans. The random cry of “I love women” was at least overt and obvious in its effort to close the gender gap the GOP currently faces. Even her nervousness had its appeal Tuesday night—she delivered her speech a little too fast, proving once again that she’s human.
But Ann Romney had one job to do: Give us some reason—any reason—to believe her husband isn’t some cold-hearted automaton. On that count, the speech failed entirely.
While the stage flashed photographs out of Romney family albums, the matriarch seemed unable to offer any specific anecdotes to illustrate her husband’s generosity or kindness. Instead, we simply heard that the GOP nominee “does not like to talk about how he has helped others, because he sees it as a privilege, not a talking point.” But of course, the reason political spouses get dragged onstage is to do that bragging for the candidate. Romney, however, chose not to delve into any specifics about her husband’s service—even though, as a leader in the Mormon church, he’s surely had numerous moments that, at the very least, would make him sound nice.
Instead, Ann Romney highlighted the poverty that she and Mitt faced as a young married couple coming from two wealthy families. We learned that the young Mitt “was tall” and “laughed a lot” and that he delivered Ann safely home from a prep-school dance. She noted a few times that he's hilarious. But she never offered an example, and the last "joke" most of us heard from the candidate—about Obama's birth certificate—was distinctively unfunny and offensive. In the closest thing to an anecdote, Romney offered an applause line about her husband’s business success at Bain Capital, where he “built” his own success (with, as HuffPo points out, a number of reassurances). The trouble is, everyone already knows that Mitt’s a successful businessman—his wife’s job was to make him seem like a nice guy. But at the end of the speech, the most personal story most Americans knew about Mitt Romney was still the time he tied a dog to the roof of a car.
Ann Romney isn’t the first political spouse to face this challenge—both Barbara Bush in 1988 and Elizabeth Dole in 1996 had to offer the country a humanized portrait of their husbands. Bush was the first spouse of a presidential candidate to take the convention stage in support of her husband. At the time, the GOP candidate was having trouble connecting with voters, and Barbara offered clear examples of what he was like as a husband and father. In her relatively short speech, she offered this surprisingly revealing bit:
Once, when one of the boys hit a baseball through the Vanderhoff second story window, I called George to see what dire punishment should be handed out and all he said was, "The Vanderhoff second story window, what a hit." I don't believe that George ever had to punish the children. He had a quiet way of making them want to do right and give reverence to God. And it made such a difference having his wise hand guiding them.
Regardless of the products of George H.W. Bush’s parenting (George W. Bush might have benefited from a little more punishment), the story offers a different dimension on the politician, an insight into the private conduct of a public figure.
Elizabeth Dole’s 1996 convention speech was a longer look at her husband, who was getting cast as a cranky grouch. She gave clear examples of the then-Senate majority leader's kindness—most notably, she described the time he decided to cancel their Thanksgiving plans so that the couple could take 35 underprivileged kids to a restaurant. He even picked a place with a television so the children could watch football. Dole also discussed her husband’s recovery after his World War II service, in which he lost the use of his arm. Her story was memorable because it wasn’t just about her husband’s courage; it was also about his need for personal growth.
By contrast, Ann Romney’s speech focused largely on herself. Her husband didn’t come up until more than six minutes into her speech, after she’d explained her role as a mother and attempted to link her experience to the experiences of all American women everywhere. While she remained likable throughout, her words didn't seem likely to connect with those who are struggling. She tried to do the type of "girl bonding" that always feels somewhat anachronistic, a sort of bemused acknowledgement that women have a tougher road to hoe. "It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right," she told the crowd. That was soon followed up with another direct appeal to the ladies: "I'm not sure if men really understand this, but I don't think there is a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy," she said. "But the last few years have been harder than they needed to be." The trouble is Ann Romney's own privilege is well known, and most women aren't simply voting based on the affirmation of another woman. The actual politics matter here, and Romney's husband supports a slew of policies that benefit those at the top—tax cuts, decreased regulation, fewer government programs.
The most specific story the would-be first lady offered centered on her own realization, at 22, that she was in over her head with a husband and a baby. "I can tell you, probably like every other girl who finds herself in a new life far from family and friends with a new baby and a new husband," she said, "that it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into." The story brought to mind the many other women in America—some much younger than 22—who have babies with little or no support and find themselves overwhelmed by student loans, household expenses, and long hours in low-wage jobs. While Ann Romney's story had a happy ending, many today would be hard-pressed to be optimistic about their future in similar circumstances. And the presidential policies of a Romney administration will not offer comfort to needy families or moms looking for more food stamps.
Of course, Ann Romney isn't running for office, and her speech will not make her husband seem any less likable or heartless. She gave a well-delivered account of her own personal story. She chose not to spend much time on her struggles with M.S. and breast cancer, likely out of a totally reasonable wish for privacy. Unlike with Dole and Bush, there were no family stories, no moments of courage or transformation to show the person beneath the candidate. The basic message of her speech broke down into a few simple statements: You like me. I love Mitt Romney. Therefore you should like him too.
It's a simple enough message. But among those sitting on the fence about Mitt Romney's awkward campaigning and like-to-fire-people moments, it doesn't seem likely to convince anyone of the candidate's unseen good qualities.