By Marin Cogan, GQ
"I had been watching [him] speak all spring. He has held elective office ... so he has an enormous amount of experience at this. Still, it obviously doesn't come naturally to him." The New Yorker is giving the candidate the treatment. "He is poised, he has a rich, booming voice, but he doesn't often 'inhabit the role,' in the acting sense; instead, every move seems calculated and practiced. I kept thinking of that early scene in Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a cyborg, walks into a biker bar, and a digital readout flashes across the inside of his eyelids, giving height, weight, and build of each person he sees. Similarly, you can see [him] read a situation, pause while the script flashes, formulate his response -- and then react. He has an odd quality of taking in what he's seeing with an almost digitalized exactitude."
The New Yorker passage comes from a 2000 profile of Gore, but it's just as easy to imagine it being said of Romney, a candidate who "seems more like the by-product of a drunken three-way between a mannequin and a robot and an alien: stiff, unemotional, and unfamiliar with human customs and practices," as New York magazine's Dan Amira neatly described Romney on Friday. In January, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank described covering Romney on the trail as "a painful yet familiar experience," because, as with Gore, there are "wince-inducing moments when you realize that, for all of Romney's success in imitating human attributes, there remain glitches in the matrix that reveal him to be different from the rest of us."
The candidate's new, but the script is the same, and so we've reached the phase in the campaign where Romney starts -- to use the shudder-worthy phrase of one of his campaign aides -- to open up the kimono. Here's Paul Ryan, a possible veep pick: "He reminds me of a lot of the people I grew up with, people I know," the Wisconsin representative told reporters this morning at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg View, praising his "Midwest earnestness," calling him "very sincere" and "throwback to the '50s." But he also noted that he was a "quick wit, a very funny dude."
Here's Romney in the New York Times this weekend, described through the lens of his body man Garrett Jackson as a lover of The Hunger Games, McDonald's pancakes, Cherry Coke Zero and Peanut M&M's. Jackson has taken to tweeting and video blogging about his time with the former Massachusetts governor in an effort to show his human side. "What's for breakfast, Gov?" Jackson asks in one video unlikely to help his cause. "Uh, these are pancakes. I'm in Rosemont, Illinois," Romney says, looking up from the Styrofoam container sitting on his lap. "I just got these pancakes from a restaurant called Pancakes Eggcetera -- it's kind of a play on words."
Here's Gore, doing his best in 1999 to convince Times columnist Maureen Dowd that he bleeds blood, by describing his perfect day:
"I'd watch the sun rise. (pause) Be with the people I love outdoors. Tipper and my children and grandchild. (pause) Go for a long walk on the farm. Go swimming in the river. (long pause) Organize a touch football or softball game with the family and friends. Have a picnic for lunch."
All this, before lunch?
"Horseback riding," he relentlessly continues. "I'd do an interview with a really good columnist. (joke) I'd take a boat out on the lake, Centerville Lake. That's near our home in Tennessee. (pause) Stay out until the sun went down and the water got calm. (pause) Go for a swim and go back to the cabin and build a fire. (pause) Barbecue on the deck. Light candles and talk and tell stories. (pause) And laugh. (short pause) And laugh some more."
It's not hard to imagine him waxing rhapsodic about the height of the trees. The interview did little to help change Dowd's impression of Gore, whom she later described as "robotic, plodding" and the "Tin Man: immobile, rusting, decent, badly in need of that oil can."
The Romney-bot rap drives the people close to him bonkers, just like it did with those close to Gore. So you see the candidate's family members insisting that it's baloney. "I guess we'd better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not" too stiff, Ann Romney told Wisconsin voters last week. (Ann, The New Yorker's John Cassidy recently wrote, "is emerging as his not-so-secret weapon in the campaign to win over... Americans of both sexes who still harbor suspicions that her husband may actually be a robot built and programmed by some Silicon Valley whizz kids in the employ of Karl Rove.")
"You know, it is so funny to me that that is the perception out there. Because he is funny, he is engaging, he is witty," Ann said. "He is always playing jokes. When I met him as a teenager, he was the life of the party. And yet, he is also a very serious person and an accomplished person. And I think a lot of times, people see him in the debate setting." In a 1994 interview with Woman's World magazine, Tipper painted Al in similar hues: "sexy, serious, smart and funny," and, like Mitt Romney, the lover of a good prank. (For a truly counterintuitive take on Romney's humor, read Molly Ball at The Atlantic.)
The problem with the description isn't its essential truth, necessarily -- part of the reason why the Romney-as-robot trope endures is because it's so evident in the made for late night TV clip reels and apparent to every journalist who's visited him on the stump. It's just that sequels always suck. The self-justifying logic of the narrative is once again maddeningly simplistic, not just to the people closest to the candidate but to those who think it's obscuring something more fundamental, or more essential, to what kind of president he would be.
"It's like stepping on chewing gum. The more he labors to show that he's not stiff it just reinforces in peoples' minds the idea that he is, because every sort of thing you try to do just makes you seem a little more inauthentic," says Bill Turque, a Newsweek scribe who wrote "Inventing Al Gore," one of former vice president's best known biographies. Now a writer at theWashington Post, Turque says that seeing Ann Romney try to humanize Mitt on the stump brought back memories of Tipper doing the same for Al. Turque culled anecdotes and details from Gore's confidants and aides, and he describes a blue-jean clad Gore dancing around the living room to "All My Exes Live in Texas," by George Strait. "It's just one of those self-perpetuating things," Turque said, of Gore's inability to shake the storyline. "It was very frustrating to Gore's people."
And, according to Turque, it concealed a side of Gore voters were never able to fully appreciate, one that would probably have helped him electorally if he had been able to transcend the negative perception. "I think it overshadowed what an unusual thinker he was for somebody being in politics. He thought broadly and deeply about serious problems, and wrote a really serious book about the earth and the environment, and he was somebody who was at home in the world of ideas and respected ideas," he said. The stiffness feedback loop "got in the way of people understanding that, and he never found a way to communicate that in a way that didn't sound professorial and pedantic."
Scott Helman, a Boston Globe reporter and co-author of the new biography The Real Romney, says there are elements of the man's character that the awkward guy narrative overlooks now, too. "There are many stories of ways in which he quietly helped neighbors and friends, and not just by writing a check." Helman recounts the story of a man who lost his son to cystic fibrosis at 12. Romney organized a group of neighbors to build a park and maintain a park in the boy's honor. He also shares the story of Romney organizing and leading a "battalion of neighbors" to pull furniture and valuables out of a neighbor's burning house until the firemen turned him away. Those are "stories about him that you wouldn't necessarily get if you're just watching clips of his outward awkwardness. That's part of the reason why it drives people close to him totally bananas to hear him described as robotic and closed and distant. To them he's not that at all."
And here's what his son, Tagg, had to say about his father in a recent POLITICO piece:
"In his spare time, he wants to solve problems," Tagg Romney said in an interview. "He wants to figure out, when he comes over to your house, he wants to figure out, 'Well, your boiler's not working. How are we going to fix the boiler?' and 'Have you noticed that some of your trees are dying out there? Why are your trees dying? What's causing that? Can we figure that out, and can we go down to the hardware store and see if they've got something to fix that?' And all of a sudden you see him driving a tractor in your backyard, and he's pulling stuff up. He's like, 'Oh, these rocks were doing that.' I mean, that's just who he is."
In that telling, Romney sounds less like an automaton and more like Ned Flanders -- he's not best friend material, but good neighbor material. Those who know Romney well have said that the charisma gap he exhibits on the campaign trail is due in part to the boredom he feels doing the same stump routine over and over again (something anyone who's made a career in politics should be able to sympathize with). His difficulty talking about his wealth and ideological flexibility will make the more negative elements of this stereotype so much harder to shake. But beneath his awkwardness are aspects of his character worth contemplating. They don't add up to the warm, inspirational figure the media insists the public yearns for. They don't make for a very compelling campaign narrative, but it does seem to explain the small sliver of GOP primary voters who are crazy about him, and why the rest of the party is slowly coming around to his candidacy.
Mitt Romney's not the person you want to invite over for a beer. But if your house was on fire you'd probably be happy to have him as a neighbor.