Soul-Searching

Now that there's a lull in the Republican primaries (no contests between now and February 28, when Michigan and Arizona vote), journalists have a chance to do some of the think pieces that have been gestating in their brains over the past few months. One of the big topics, as Erica Fry of the Columbia Journalism Review explains, is the search for Mitt Romney's soul. Who is he, really, and why? From whence did his inimitable Mittness spring? Many journalists and commentators are hard at work trying to figure it out.

Reading this, I thought of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first book), in which every person's soul is embodied in an animal-formed "daemon" that walks around with them and reflects their innermost being. A commanding character's daemon is a snow leopard, an evil character's daemon is a scary golden monkey, servants have dogs for daemons, a conniving nobody might have a bug for a daemon. So what would Mitt Romney's daemon be? The easy answer is a chameleon, but chameleons change color to camouflage themselves so you won't even see them, while Mitt's daemon would have to change to be whatever your daemon is, so his and yours can get along famously. And such an animal doesn't exist.

Given the dramatic ideological turns that Romney has taken over his career and his complete inability to provide a persuasive explanation for why those turns occurred, he can't blame anyone else for the continued interest in figuring out who he really is. But this is not the campaign Mitt wanted to run. Back when it looked like the economy would continue to be awful all the way through November, Romney had planned to present himself as the answer to the question, "How can we fix things?", the competent manager with business experience who could roll up his sleeves and restore America to profitability. This was never supposed to be about his soul.

But now with the economy improving and Romney having to work harder than he ever thought he would to prove to Republican primary voters that he's one of them, the soul-examining is becoming pervasive, not least because there seems to be so little there to examine. What are Mitt's hobbies? He doesn't have any. What gets him angry or sad? Nothing, apparently. What kind of music does he listen to? Well, he'll sing "America the Beautiful" if you ask him to. There's not much there to discover, which inevitably leads reporters to spend time writing about how there's no there there.

As Fry argues, this is exacerbated by the fact that the Romney campaign has kept reporters at arm's length, seldom allowing interviews or the kind of casual interaction for which they yearn so deeply: "That's perhaps one way to control his message, but it’s not a terribly effective one to control the media's, which must report on the frontrunner whether he cooperates or not. In erring on the side of caution, Romney has estranged himself from the media and the public, and stirred suspicion that he has something to hide."

You may recall how George W. Bush got loads of goodwill from reporters in 2000 by doing what he did best, hangin' out and pallin' around. This is from a piece Seth Mnookin wrote during that campaign for the now-defunct Brill's Content:

Within five minutes of meeting me for the first time, Bush developed some shorthand to signify our intimate connection. Since the press was writing about Bush, and I was writing about the press, he and I were joined together in a kind of enemies-of-my-enemies equation. Now—I've spent a total of about five days traveling with the Bush press corps—whenever Bush sees me, he sticks out his right hand, wrapping his middle finger around his index finger. And then, as he's waving his hand back and forth, he shouts out, "Me and you, right?"

Of course, everybody got a nickname. Needless to say, Mitt Romney is never going to do that kind of thing, and if he tries, it will seem to all the reporters to be calculated and contrived. Fair or not, by this time their character judgment about him is pretty much set in stone. So the question they'll continue to ask as they investigate his soul is not if Mitt Romney is a phony, but why Mitt Romney is a phony.

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