By Walter Kirn, GQ
Despite the fact it was spoken in annoyance, as part of an effort to quiet and embarrass a heckling AIDS activist at a campaign stop, Bill Clinton's most famous line, "I feel your pain," has been regarded for 20 years now as the perfect expression of what Americans -- average Americans, real Americans, the kind of Americans that media chatterbots pretend to intuitively understand simply by watching them on b-roll of political rallies -- supposedly long for from candidates for president: empathy and emotional support. This rarely challenged notion seems to have resulted from cross-contamination between Dr. Phil and Meet the Press: They, The People, are not primarily discriminating, conscious political beings who choose their leaders with their intellects but instinctive, reactive, wounded souls restlessly seeking compassion and connection. It's not really leaders they want at all, such voters, it's therapists, confidantes, neighbors, psychic friends. It's John Edwards, kindly country lawyer, before he turned out to be an evil hologram. It's George Bush Jr., compassionate conservative, before he actually took office (and for the briefest moment afterward, when he stood on a pile of rubble and hugged a fireman). It's Bill Clinton, feeling your pain.
It's not Mitt Romney, though -- on this all the cable panelists agree, even the ones who agree on nothing else and even those who've been hired by their networks to take his side in news-hour fake feuds.
That folks just can't relate to stiff rich Mitt, the man who not only doesn't feel your pain but may secretly think that you brought it on yourself, is the first press-created artificial fact of this election cycle. The second one is that this matters, and matters profoundly, especially to women, whose status as voters is equal under the law but who are still treated by many political journalists, even conspicuously liberal ones, as semi-free electoral automata driven by their hearts, their hormones, and their unique sensitivity to 'vibes.' That Romney is polling poorly among them is said by some to be a matter the GOP's positions on contraception and so on. But it's also widely implied that women don't fancy him because their ovarian antennae don't pick up a strong, warm signal when he shows up on their TV sets and talks about tax rates with his titanium jaws. This statistically notable female failure to glow may spell ultimate doom for Mitt, we're learning, the implication being that women's attitudes aren't going to change much during the campaign because they're not subject to rational modification. Too witchy. Too pre-cognitive. Too pelvic.
The idea that Americans favor politicians who either remind them of themselves or can imagine what their selves are like because they too have struggled and sung the blues, is, like very best theories of human behavior, immune to falsification by mere evidence. There's one great non-artificial fact about Mitt Romney: he's nearly secured the Republican nomination despite his lack of glandular misery-sensors, his non-Powerball based wealth, and his queer-in-the-old-sense dated Ike Age diction (last week he burst forth with both 'marvelous' and 'alrighty,' which probably means that 'peachy' ('fiddlesticks' and 'mind your own beeswax' are in the firing chamber). And that would seem to argue that bond-ability isn't what average Americans crave, after all. What they crave, it appears, is above-average Americans -- well-above average ones, in fact, with Ivy League graduate degrees. Why else, in primary after primary, general election after general election, after all the populist dust has cleared and the folksy campfire smoke has blown away, do the victors emerge waving Ivy League Degrees rather than crucifixes or bowling trophies -- and not just any Ivy League degrees, but graduate-level degrees from Harvard or Yale, the schools that won't even concede they're in a league but just surrounded by an entourage.
Because, in Romney's case, say some Democrats, Republicans are an unfeeling people generally, not truly mammals but more like giant lizards whose fear-and-aggression-based throwback nervous systems render them dangerously susceptible to crude Darwinian dominance displays. That, or they were pummeled into submission by the candidate's well-stuffed moneybags. Obama is sure to make both these arguments. The president's entire re-election effort is founded on the notion that Romney is numb, uncaring, and out-of-touch because his party and its ideas are too, and on the faith that the electorate will resist being fully duped by super-rich super PACs and vote for the man they already know.
But Obama is no champion empath either. Thanks perhaps to his peripatetic childhood and his absent father, Obama seems both hungry for crowd approval and limited in his ability to reach out to others. He's a bright, lonely boy who needs a lot from us but can't always return the favor, and he really only expresses public emotion when talking about Michelle, Malia, Sasha, or March Madness. The mythically cool and diffident figure whose blood supply goes mostly to his forebrain to oxygenate and nourish his IQ does make Romney, at moments, seem positively small-town, like a well-dressed Gomer Pyle on an especially great hair day. And Obama is also slightly better than Romney at dumbing himself down for humble occasions (he talks hoops more convincingly than Romney talks hunting and he bothers to drop his Gs when touring the heartland, a trick that is woefully willed-seeming and obvious although he appears to think he does it masterfully, the same way he thinks he does everything masterfully). But in the end he's just brittle where Romney's leaden, and twisty-quick where Romney's straight and plodding. Neither man shares your burdens; they both have the springy, tensile, perfect postures of students who like to get their hands up fast, expect to be called on, always are, and never fail to offer the right answer, or at least a convincing rationale for how their wrong answer was properly arrived at given the flawed information they had to work with.
And there we have them, two men who don't do the whole vicarious pain thing unless poor polling numbers force them to, who no one who's genuinely hoping to relax would ever want to sit down and have a beer with (or a cream soda, in Romney's case), and who, when they insist on wearing denim, always choose a shade that's slightly too light and a cut that doesn't flatter their unit but also makes you think about their unit, even though you really, really don't want to do. One reason it's hard to view them as individuals is that they don't seem to view us as individuals. Their rhetoric, when talking about America, is lofty, impersonal, and panoramic, focused on the sum and not the parts.
We don't want familiarity and empathy, after all, and, come to think of it, we seldom have. Did Teddy Roosevelt feel our pain? No, and he would have thrown up if he had. Did FDR? No, he was merely well informed about it by his patrician, yacht-owning advisers. Did Jack Kennedy? Hardly. Jack felt no pain, no pain of any kind -- too doped up on speed and morphine. Did Nixon? No. He was mired in his own. Then why is it that, with no supporting evidence, we're said by the folks on TV to want it terribly? My theory is that in the Oprah-haunted '90s, when self-help had supplanted public-policy as the preferred path to widespread human betterment, the press needed an apolitical way to talk about politics. They made it about feelings. They made it about identifying, relating. They forgot about Harvard and Yale, the will-to-power, the ruthlessness that is ambition's twin, and finally they forgot about us. They forgot that we want to salute, not share a hug, and that we don't mind a little remoteness if its offset by wisdom, strength, and intellect. Americans are still puritans, down deep. We like to look, not touch. And we yearn, though it's dorky to say, to look up.
Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of a memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy. His 2001 novel Up in the Air is the basis for the film of the same name. His column appears every Friday.
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