It was, I have to admit, fun to watch Mitt Romney get a dose of comeuppance from his landslide loss in the South Carolina Republican primary.
Taking pleasure in Romney's drubbing has nothing to do with his party affiliation or his policy positions, however fluid they may be at any given moment. There was no joy in seeing John Huntsman -- an honorable conservative -- exit the race and endorse Romney at the very moment Mitt's campaign began to crater. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have the courage of their nutty convictions, and even Rick Perry bowed out with a tiny touch of class.
It's Romney's transparent willingness to say whatever his audience wants to hear that inspires our schadenfreude. To understand why Romney is more irritating than other prevaricating pols, Rick Perlstein offers in Rolling Stone a fascinating theory about what's at the heart(lessness) of Mitt's (lack of) character.
Perlstein describes Mitt's father George Romney, a favorite for the GOP presidential nod in 1968, as a man whose "calling card was his shocking authenticity; his courage in sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary." It was only after the senior Romney acknowledged -- honestly -- that he'd been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War that he was, Perlstein says, "Humiliated with a suddenness and intensity unprecedented in modern American political history."
Perlstein's conclusion is that when Mitt, then 19, watched his father get crushed by Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon -- the political poster boy for shifty shape-shifting -- he concluded that "authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician." (Nixon, of course, secured a special place in the annals of comeuppance when, after he'd taped himself committing numerous felonies, he was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace in 1974.)
None of this is to say that Newt Gingrich, the South Carolina victor, is any more sincere than Mitt. It's just that Newt's subterfuge has become theater of the absurd, where everyone's in on the game except GOP primary voters. To begin Thursday's debate, CNN's John King tossed Newt the softest of softballs, asking him if he wanted to take some time to respond to further allegations of past infidelities. Gingrich called King's perfectly legitimate question "as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." Instead of following up -- with, say, "So, you're not going to answer the question?" or "Do you think the media destroyed Bill Clinton unfairly?" -- King caved. During CNN's post-debate "analysis," he reported that he and Newt had quite a nice post-debate chat.
Satisfying as it is to see a poseur get what he deserves, it's foolish to think that the exposure of one scoundrel or another changes much. Egotists and narcissists tend not to regret their transgressions, blaming everyone around them while marching cheerfully forward without regard to the destruction they've wrought. Herman Cain, who was driven out of the Republican field just a few weeks ago after a series of humiliating blunders and multiple allegations of sexual harassment, was utterly unfazed as he showed up in South Carolina to clown around with Stephen Colbert and to announce his highly-anticipated (by Herman Cain) "unconventional endorsement": the people.
Alec Baldwin hilariously captured the obliviousness of the narcissist in David Mamet's film State and Main. He plays a reckless movie star with an insatiable need to prove his manhood via conquests of young girls. When he crashes a station wagon, flipping it over in the middle of the street, you think finally, punishment. Instead, he picks himself up, staggers a bit and deadpans, "So, that happened."
GOP spinmeisters may dismiss such critiques as class envy. And they may be right. But that begs the question: Why does our species take delight in seeing our gods tumble? When it comes to Romney -- or Gingrich who, let's not forget, is a multimillionaire thanks to influence peddling with Freddie Mac et al -- it's the shameless hypocrisy.