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Ben Zweifach

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Dear Mitt: Be Like Kobe, Not Optimus Prime

Posted: 03/21/2012 9:27 pm

"The AMC Javelin's got everything we look for in a car!"
--Richard Dreyfuss in 1968 car commercial

This week, when asked to pick a Secret Service codename, Mitt Romney settled on an inanimate object: Javelin. Mitt's aides insisted that the new moniker referred not to an Olympic projectile, but the '67 "Javelin" muscle-car manufactured by American Motors Corp. So, get it straight... the esteemed candidate from the Automaton Party didn't name himself after a tool. He named himself after a machine. Bravo.

Put aside the fact that Romney's alias evokes an auto industry he would have gladly let fail (sorta like if Rick Santorum chose the codename "Trojan Condom"). And, granted, a codename is just a codename. Yet I can't help but think it's always been a tale of two javelins for Willard Mitt; that the term's alternative connotations happen to capture the best and worst facets of Romney's candidacy.

Romney has thus far navigated the primary calendar by employing what one might call (and I will call) the "car approach." He's pitched himself as a vehicle to the Republican base -- a sterling, customized sedan, which voters in the Florida panhandle and rural Midwest can toss their ideologies into, and ride to victory over the president. Social values in the trunk; tax cuts in the back; and everyone hangs onto their hunting hats as they breathe in the new leather. Romney's swerved the direction he's been asked to swerve, and done so with perfect, power-steering. True, the MittMobile lacks an animating life force of its own, but who cares -- it's complete with front-seat customization, state-of-the-art-responsiveness, and handles like a dream!

So goes the sales pitch. And yet this relentless urge to pander -- to accommodate every passenger and market demographic -- has rendered Romney's product phony and awkward. We find him drawling about cheesy grits in Mississippi, like a demented Mr. Rogers doing a Mark Twain imitation; and his sons tweeting photos of him doing laundry all by himself (Check out dad working the bleach! Man of the people!). We all remember the famous Baha Men Fiasco of 2008, when Mitt posed for a picture with a few African-American kids, and abruptly shouted "Who let the dogs out! Hoo-hoohoo!"

But conservatives aren't just petrified that Mitt's a lifeless machine; they're petrified that he's a lifeless machine that's also a Transformer. Like the sedans, SUVs and trucks of the Michael Bay killer-robot movie franchise, Romney might rearrange his parts at any moment and wreak havoc upon right-wing values. (Compare the "Javelin" model to the hysterically similar 'Bumblebee' character from the films.) The only question is what type of Transformer the MittMobile is going to morph into -- Autobot? Decepticon? There's no telling! Only two things are certain to voters: first, that Romney will metamorphose into whatever shape he thinks we'll like at that moment, and second, that he's probably friends with the film's financiers.

Even if Romney can't divorce himself completely from the Transformer stigma before November, he can certainly do something. To elude the also-rans and beat Obama, he will, at some point, have to level with the American public on what he is, and what he's not.

And so I submit that Team Mittens got it backwards. Screw the AMC Javelin -- it's time for the real deal. The Olympic breed cuts straight to the candidate's core. It is straight-edged. Uninteresting. One-dimensional. A featureless instrument that is ruthlessly efficient at its purpose. So too with Romney. He is a deadly boring personality with no passionate ideology coloring his every decision. He campaigns in prose, and would govern like an encyclopedia. But he may well be exactly the type of dully competent, managerial technocrat to take on the country's unemployment and debt crises. Now that he's on his way to the nomination, Romney should set aside all the camouflage gear and embrace his inner Mittness. That doesn't mean he has to run with the Monopoly man on the ticket, but he does have to cease imitating something he's not.

I'm reminded of another iconic Olympian who followed a similar trajectory with great success. Bill Simmons writes in The Book of Basketball how Lakers great and recovering awkward-holic Kobe Bryant used to be chronically uncomfortable in his own skin. Having grown up in cushy parts of Italy and the more affluent suburbs of Philly, Kobe felt out of place in NBA locker rooms. He tried to be as funny as his teammate Shaquille O'Neal at press podiums; he tried to mimic Michael Jordan's charisma; he changed haircuts and swapped jersey numbers and cut hellaciously terrible rap albums. (Watch this, if you dare.) In Simmons's harsh words, he was a "contrived, unlikeable, socially awkward fraud of a human being." (Sound familiar?)

And then, a ray of inspiration: Kobe stopped trying to win everyone over. He dispensed with the peculiar, manufactured personalities, and simply played lethal basketball that made his team superior. Nowadays, nobody cares that Kobe's a surly, uninteresting creature. People fear and respect success.

The great paradox of Mitt Romney is that he has never tried being himself. If he finally stopped marketing, and targeting, and transforming, and pitching what he's selling, perhaps he would become compelling to us. People will tolerate dullness when unemployment's at 8%. They will not tolerate fraud.

So don't be a Decepticon, Mitt. Be like Kobe. I'm sure you could contact him through the Lakers owner.

 

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