“Authentically nice politician”—is that a double oxymoron?
Not according to Sven Wilson, whose article on the subject was brought to my attention by a reader. I’m in nearly complete agreement with what he says here:
Romney has, as we all know, an “authenticity problem.”…I think most of it is personal and visceral, the way people react to his demeanor, the pitch and texture of his voice, the smile that looks like it was painted on his rugged, handsome face as the finishing touch by a make-up artist. He is always trying to please, to make people like him, to tell people what they want to hear. Of course that is the nature of electioneering. The trick in politics is to craft a finely-tuned, polished message that pushes as many positive buttons as possible and, at the same time, seems genuine and heart-felt. What people see with Mitt is the craft, which makes him seem, well, crafty.
But to me, Mitt’s supposed inauthenticity can be interpreted as a deeply genuine, deeply held aspect of who he is as person…Romney’s attempt to please, to iron out wrinkles, or to give ground is not a façade covering a bitter, nasty ambition. It is his ambition. He is a fixer, a problem solver, a negotiator, a worker, a pragmatist…
…Romney went on to be a Stake President in the [Mormon] church (which is roughly equivalent to the Bishop of a Catholic diocese), where he oversaw a number of Boston-area congregations. This involves…trying to lift people’s burdens, ministering to their needs and, again, dealing with all their crap. A typical stake president is a successful professional…who volunteers countless hours to church administration and ministry. If you were to meet one, you would likely find him an accomplished person, a dedicated family man, and one who might strike you as overly-nice or friendly to a fault. Someone a lot like Mitt Romney, in fact.
But my message is that the niceness is almost always genuine. It is authentic. It has been groomed and refined through years of personal, intimate interactions with people from all walks of life. These include many happy, pleasant, inspiring interactions but also many efforts to help people who are burdened by sin, who are struggling financially, who are spiritually unsettled, who are pathetic in myriad ways. The goal is treat all of these people the same way, with the same warm heart and good will.
In the brutal world of presidential politics, nice usually comes in last. The Romney campaign knows this and has been as negative and brutal as anyone else. And he will take his licks, too. He will be hated and reviled—sometimes for his politics, but often just for who he is and what he stands for.
Sven Wilson is a Mormon; I’m not. But for whatever reason, I’ve known quite a few Mormons very well, and I can say this about all of the ones I’ve known: they are extraordinary people, smart as well as “nice,” without being the least bit phony or inauthentic. One of them was either a Bishop in the Mormon Church or a Stake President (I never paid attention to his exact title), and although he had a certain cornball too-good-to-be-true quality, as far as I can tell he was authenticallly nice.
Of course, he wasn’t a politician. It’s dangerous to consider a politician to be sincere, or a good person. After all, politicians tend to be people who’ve developed dissemblance and lying in the service of persuasion to a fine art—something like the proverbial used car salesman, or con artist. Obama attracted a lot of voters in 2008 because he didn’t seem to be a phony to many people (although I have to say he seemed that way to me pretty early on); they thought he was authentically authentic. Romney repels many voters because he does seem to be a phony (who looks like that and sounds like that any more, golly gee whiz?). And yet paradoxically he most likely isn’t.
So their cynicism makes some voters dislike Romney. Others just don’t like his politics. And some wouldn’t like him even if he were being sincere—maybe especially if he were being sincere. They don’t like his style.
In his post, Wilson reproduced the following picture of the Romneys on vacation. It’s a great example of the sort of Up With People wholesomeness that turns so many off. How can any family look like this? And what’s with the blue outfits—don’t they know Republicans wear red?
[NOTE: I decided to keep the photo a bit too large, the better to see the detail.]