Michael Tomasky on the Problems with Mitt Romney’s Biography

In every respect, Mitt Romney’s life story is a liability. Will America elect the Man Who Isn’t There?

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Biography is a crucial part of any presidential candidate’s case to the people. Bill Clinton was the Man From Hope. George H.W. Bush was a war hero, a pilot shot down in the Pacific. All those other war heroes, going back to Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce. But Willard Mitt Romney is something new—the first candidate I know of who can’t really run on his biography. He’s like the Man Who Isn’t There, the man without qualities. Indeed, he may be the first major-party candidate who might become president even though most Americans don’t like him. There is nothing he can do to change it. But worse than that, there’s nothing we can do.

Let’s go through the steps, all the normal elements of biography. Can he bring up his childhood? No. He had a privileged childhood, and while lots of privileged youths were perfectly wonderful kids, the evidence we have is that he was a privileged jerk. He violently lopped off that poor gay kid’s hair. The second he starts talking about his childhood, that story will reemerge with a vengeance. So childhood is out.

How about his father? Well, George Romney was an admirable man, so maybe it’ll fly with the casual voter for Mitt to say he wants to be just like pops. But more informed voters know the ugly truth, which is that he’s not half the man his dad was, that his father stood for things, took great political risks, opposed his party on civil rights. Dad wasn’t a wingnut, and the wingnuts know it, and therefore they would be repelled by such talk for other reasons. So he has to be careful about old George, too.

Okay. Faith? That’s the biggest no-no in the box. He must find this one cruel, since his religion is evidently pretty important to him. But if Romney opens the door to discussion of the LDS church, then it’s open season on all the preposterous things that Mormons are raised to believe—whether he’s going to stash a year’s worth of canned goods in the White House basement and so on. This is the very last thing on earth (or Earth, as opposed to Kolob) that he can discuss.

What else—his career? He can say, as he does, that he spent his career in business, but he has to keep it vague. He’s not going to be mentioning Bain Capital very much. Yes, Cory Booker and Ed Rendell stepped on the White House’s Bain attack, and the White House has dropped it for now. But that doesn’t mean Bain is a winning ticket for Romney either. That has little to do with Booker or even the White House and more to do with Romney himself, the way he overstated the jobs he helped create. So the thing he spent 25 years doing is at best a wash.

His stint as governor? Not a chance. He did nothing for the state economically, he lost interest in the job after a couple of years, and he left with an approval rating in the mid-30s. The one good thing he did as governor, of course—the health-care bill—he runs away from like leprosy.

Ah, yes: the Olympics. There we are! He saved the 2002 Olympics. Surely he can say that! Well—he did, on the surface, but there’s a story lurking there too, about how he ruthlessly smeared the reputations of those who preceded him, who weren’t in the end guilty of any of the crimes Romney accused them of (a prosecution of them was dropped). Then we also have the reporting of The Daily Beast’s own Wayne Barrett, who found that Romney awarded a ticket contract to a man who was under federal investigation at the time and who subsequently became a big Romney donor. So even his greatest triumph comes with an alternate history.

Well gosh, then, what about the family? Ann is certainly sympathetic—breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. But then there’s this dressage business. I watched a little dressage the other night. Hey, to each her own. But let’s just say that it’s not a good sign when the candidate’s wife has a hobby and the campaign tries to cry foul when The New York Times describes it on the front page. That doesn’t mean there’s something problematic with The Times; right-wingers howled about that, but they did so because they know it means there’s something problematic with the hobby. The boys? I guess they’re clean, although the oldest one does have that weird name.

This is completely unprecedented. Every aspect of his life story is in some way compromised. It’s not that he’s led a dishonorable life. But he’s led a remote and rarefied life, a life lived behind heavy doors and conducted in “quiet rooms,” as he famously said of the place where inequality is best discussed. It’s precisely in those quiet rooms where most Americans are ritually screwed, where decisions were made up through September 2008 that nearly destroyed the economy. That’s his America, and as he has shown with his unintended but brusque insults of working people, the folks in those quiet rooms don’t want to know the rest of us, and most of us don’t want to know them. It’s very striking that his Bain compatriots all testify to what a great guy he is, while Massachusetts state legislators, for example, found him on the whole aloof and obnoxious.

I keep thinking about the old saw that has voters wondering whether they want to invite Candidate X into their living rooms for the next four years. Romney might get there, I suppose, depending on the economy and the arguments mounted about it. But if he does, he’ll just make fun of the furniture.