11/01/2012 09:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Romney as Zelig

Surely the biggest mystery of the 2012 presidential campaign -- even greater than that of what was wrong with President Barack Obama in the first debate -- is this: Who is Mitt Romney? The conundrum deepened at the final debate, when the Republican candidate took different positions on almost every foreign policy issue from those he has stated in the past. It was reminiscent of Richard Nixon in the first presidential debate in 1960, when the vice president repeatedly said such things as, "The things Sen. Kennedy has said many of us can agree with," and "I agree with Sen. Kennedy's appraisal generally in this respect."

The mystery has now been solved, but before we get to the answer, let us have a look at why it has been such a mystery.

Among the most recent examples of the ever-changing Romney prior to his foreign policy somersaults in the third presidential debate was that he shifted again -- and again -- on abortion. In the week between the first two presidential debates, he first told the Des Moines Register that there was no legislation on restricting abortion that would be part of his agenda. The next day in Ohio, he declared, "I'm a pro-life candidate and I'll be a pro-life president." So, he was for choice before he was against it, before he was for it, before he was against it... Where will he be on it tomorrow -- or next January?

During the first debate, Romney suddenly became someone radically different from the candidate he had been in the preceding couple of years. At least he didn't change that persona for the second debate. The erstwhile champion of tax cuts for the rich declared that he is "not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people." When he was standing among very wealthy donors in May, he expressed disdain for nearly half of all Americans, saying that they are people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them." Standing onstage with Obama, though, Romney professed his undying love for the middle class.

Rather than a self-made man, he is a self-made-up man.

When Romney shared the debate stage with Ted Kennedy in 1994, he mutated into a candidate with positions almost identical to those of the legendary liberal lion. When he shared the stage with a group of right-wing Republicans during the innumerable primary debates, he took on the views, characteristics and policies of the people surrounding him. Viewers could be forgiven for mistaking Romney for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain.

But at the general election debates this month, the person with whom he shared the stage was a moderate Democrat, and Romney took on the trappings and positions of a moderate candidate; indeed, he almost became Barack Obama. Now he was a believer in government regulation -- "You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation... You have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work." Suddenly, Social Security, Medicare and people with pre-existing conditions had no greater friend than Mitt Romney.

Then in the third debate, the Republican nominee mutated from someone ready to go to war with just about anyone into a peace lover whose positions were almost identical to those of the president he had been, almost until the moment he stepped onstage with him, viciously attacking for those same positions.

In March, Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom used the Etch A Sketch toy to describe his candidate's remarkable adaptability. Two weeks ago, Obama said his opponent is suffering from "Romnesia."

Isn't this a plot we've seen somewhere before?

A case could be made that Romney is Lon Chaney, the "man with a thousand faces." But that doesn't seem to quite hit the mark.

Consider this description: a man who "seemed clearly to be an aristocrat and extolled the very rich as he chatted with socialites. He spoke adoringly of... the Republican Party, all in an upper-class Boston accent. An hour later,... I was stunned to see the same man speaking with the kitchen help. Now he claimed to be a Democrat, and his accent seemed coarse, as if he were one of the crowd."

This depiction fits Mitt Romney's changing personas as well as one of his custom-made shirts fits his torso, but it is a fictional account of F. Scott Fitzgerald writing in his notebook about a curious man he saw at a party in the 1920s at the Long Island home of a wealthy couple.

The man in question is the title character in Woody Allen's 1983 film, Zelig. As a result of his overwhelming desire for approval, Leonard Zelig develops the capacity to transform his appearance and take on the characteristics of those around him.


Zelig looks like a gangster when he is with gangsters, and a baseball player when he is with Babe Ruth. He turns black when he is with African-American jazz musicians. In a Chinese restaurant, he takes on the appearance of an Asian and speaks in Chinese. With Hasidic Jews, he sprouts a long, bushy beard. With fat people, he becomes obese.

Bruno Bettelheim, playing himself in the film, says of Zelig: "I, myself, felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist."

"It certainly is a very bizarre story," opines Saul Bellow in the film.

Leonard Zelig became famous as a "human chameleon." If there is a better way to describe Mitt Romney, it is hard to imagine what it would be.

Whatever appearance and positions he has taken on to adapt to his current electoral environment, if he were to win the election there can be little doubt about what coloration this Mitt Zelig would take on when surrounded by the right-wing ideologues who dominate his party in Washington.

Historian Robert S. McElvaine is the Chisholm Distinguished Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His most recent book is a 25th-anniversary edition of "The Great Depression." He is currently completing a book manuscript, "Oh, Freedom! - The Young Sixties."

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