Campaigns and the Human Condition

Over the weekend I watched the Netflix documentary "Mitt," and true to its billing, it humanized Mitt Romney to an extraordinary degree. That's not all that surprising, given that the film was directed by a filmmaker who is friendly with the Romney family and obviously sought to give a behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns (it covered both the 2008 and 2012 races) that portrayed Romney in the best possible light. But in humanizing Romney, it did an excellent job of illuminating just how artificial all campaigns necessarily are.

One of the distinctive things about the film was the absence of almost any talk of policy whatsoever. We do see Romney batting around some talking points to get them right, but the only moment in the film that features any discussion of an issue is when Romney delivers a little oration to his family about how Democrats support higher taxes because they're all lawyers and have never run a business, so they don't understand just how hard it is to labor under the boot of the tax man. That was the one time that I as a liberal viewer was pulled out of my good feelings for this sad character, and said, "Oh yeah, now I remember why I didn't like him."

But that's just a few minutes in a 90-minute film. When you see Romney hanging around with his family (to whom he's obviously devoted, and they to him) and watch them all struggling with the physical and emotional strain of the race, you can't help but feel sympathy. It wouldn't strike you as a different Romney from the one you're familiar with, but it reminds you that for the public as observers, seeing a presidential candidate in some measure of humanity is utterly impossible.

One of the most revealing scenes in the film comes when the director asks Josh Romney whether he ever thinks that the whole running for president thing just isn't worth it, and Josh jokes about how trained he is to say what a wonderful opportunity it is. He then gives a recitation of the answer he would give to a question like that from a media outlet—all about his dad's vision for America, blah blah blah—then says, "Translation: this is so awful. It's so hard…They say, 'Oh, why can't we get someone good to run for president?' And this is why." He was talking specifically about watching the father he worships get attacked relentlessly by his primary opponents, but he could well have been talking about the process as a whole. But he couldn't say in public what he actually felt.

Some have responded to the film by saying that they should have released it during the race, because it would have helped Romney (one of the conditions on which they gave the filmmaker such intimate access was that the film wouldn't be released until after the race was over). That's almost certainly true, but it never would have happened. In the campaign, the stakes are too high and there are too many people involved in manufacturing every view of the candidate the public sees. The footage would have been pored over, focus grouped, and eventually put away as just too risky.

So even if a campaign does witness some genuine moments when the "real" person can be deciphered in ways that don't come through in the speeches, soundbites, and ads, that moment will be drowned out in the public's consciousness by the river of artificiality rushing by, the construction of a persona that is never meant to be human. It's meant to be better than human, unfailingly principled and brilliant and caring and wise and strong and courageous, everything each one of us could not possibly be. Everyone cooperates in the creation of this persona, the building up of layer upon layer of artificiality—the campaign, the press and the voters themselves.

Fifty-five years ago, the sociologist Erving Goffman described in The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life how all of us fashion a "frontstage" persona that we offer in many contexts, one different from the "backstage" persona that we inhabit when we aren't thinking about how we appear in the eyes of others. "Mitt" doesn't exactly let us see Romney's backstage persona—after all, he knew he was being filmed even in these casual moments—but it reminds us that there's a person behind every candidate, and that person always believes he or she is doing the right thing for the right reasons. A candidacy is a performance, no less so for great performers like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan than for awful performers like Romney or Al Gore. There's really nothing we can do about it.

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