On What's Presidential, What's Creepy, and What's Mitt Romney

I honestly am confused when people say Mitt Romney looks the part of a president–”like he was sent straight from central casting”, as the cliche goes. I never think of presidents as coming off as equal parts sleazy slick soulless greedy corporate raider, creepy door-knocking glazed-eyed proselytizer, and robotically pandering inauthentic politician. I have this crazy idea that presidents are supposed to at least look noble, wise, and charismatically personable. And I don’t have some assumption that presidents are supposed to be patrician wealthy, black haired white men. I grew up with the grandfatherly presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. At 14 I remember being puzzled by the prospect of someone as casual seeming as Bill Clinton being president. And George W. Bush’s face is naturally one of an insecure bully rearing for a fight. He looks in every respect to me like a small man with a puffed up chest. It’s not very presidential.

And while I was startled when Morgan Freeman was first revealed as the president during the film Deep Impact, he was a natural fit. And a few years later 24′s President David Palmer was so charming, commanding, cool, and calming that he began to personify presidential presence for me. And it is a remarkable quirk of history that he would so eerily presage President Barack Obama, who would be elected president so relatively shortly in time after that iconic character was conceived, that I think whoever cast David Haysbert should be working for the DNC or the RNC finding and recruiting candidates for political races. They clearly understand how to spot a winning set of personality traits fitting the zeitgeist.

Obama himself seems a natural president. He has a preternaturally noble bearing. Very calm, very assured and comfortable in his own skin, very handsome and tall, and capable of both stirring oration and sober classy seriousness as the occasion requires. He strikes me as a bit stiff and insincere when trying to play things folksy and dumbed down, but this is partially compensated by the gentle reassuring squint to his eye that seems wise, thoughtful, and compassionate in a very detached and elevated sort of way. None of this is to say he is necessarily anything he appears to be of course. Nor, again, does not looking presidential mean being a bad president where it really matters.

But all this is to say that when I think “presidential” I reflexively think of a kind of appearance of dignity and reassuring wisdom, not simply a kind of handsome powerful WASPiness.

But all that musing aside, Andrew Sullivan speculates interestingly about how Romney’s role in Mormon leadership may contribute to his inauthentic bearing in moments when he is glad-handing the public:

I was chatting with a Mormon friend the other day and asking him what Mormons make of Mitt on this uncanny valley question. The phrase he came up with is “the Mormon mask.” It’s the kind of public presentation that a Mormon with real church authority deploys when dealing with less elevated believers, talking to them, and advising them. The cheery aw-shucks fake niceness in person is a function in part, some believe, of the role he has long played in the church: always a leader.

Think of a pastor who has a game face, or after-Mass cheeriness, because it’s impossible for a human being truly to relate to so many different needs and individuals all the time without some kind of defense mechanism; some set of phrases to get him through a confession or consultation when he may be having an off day; some way to remove himself from the emotionally draining responsibilities of so many pastoral duties.

None of this explains his woodenness, inauthenticity, or unbelievable tone-deafness when speaking off script on stage. But at least this explanation resonates a little with me. I am a pretty personable person who normally thrives on interpersonal interactions but when swarmed by students at the end of a lecture or even when in the position of making small talk with them moments after class on a bus or train, I feel relatively overwhelmed and in the kind of defensive automatic robotic mode that Sullivan describes above. Giving a lecture is mentally and physically draining and when it’s over the energy saps out of my body in a hurry. It’s like coming down from an adrenaline rush in many respects. So the pressure to fully engage socially with my students—with all the appropriate formalities and pleasantries and distance that that requires—does lead me to feel like there’s a mask that naturally goes on and a role that gets unthinkingly played.

And I would also add that Romney’s formative experiences as a missionary had to be a rough sort of experience. I saw him once talk about doing that work and learning how to keep plugging away with a pitch even as very few people buy it. As a philosopher, I’m used to the people I engage with really interacting with the ideas I bring to the table. This is the case whether they’re getting deep into the weeds of the issues with me, or whether they’re expressing a respectful but intimidated appreciation for the blast of ideas, or whether they’re picking my brain out of novice curiosity, or whether they’re trying to brawl with me intellectually and show I’m totally wrong (or that philosophy is nonsense and a waste of time).

In other words, I have pretty human, honest, respectful, productive, and mutually engaged interactions when I open my mouth about what I believe. I can’t imagine the conditioning that the opposite experience must create—what it must be like to start speaking incredible nonsense in a spirit of authority and conviction and not dialectic (except insincerely as part of the appearance of dialogue for the sake of the sales pitch). Or to feel certain you are right and have the truth and repeatedly to be dismissed contemptuously or with bewilderment. Or to go door to door day after day getting rejected. And the whole time needing to project a cheery “loving” welcome demeanor as part of the mission to convey “God’s love” to people from a desperate desire to save them. I can really imagine that creating Romney’s kind of protective skin and fatalistic delivery. And it’s sure great training for saying unbelievable nonsense with an utterly shameless and un-self-aware straight face.

I was an evangelical Christian who did proselytize my share in my day. But it was rarely if ever the social norm breaking door-knocking kind. Then and now approaching people cold who would want to talk to me and striking up conversation when I want something from them is nightmarish for me. I feel terribly embarrassed and shy intruding on people like that. Emotionally I’d rather miss out on 9 people (even attractive single women I’m dying to talk to) who don’t want to talk to me than momentarily bother one who does not want to talk to me. I  really can’t imagine being so immune to rejection.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Fafhrd

    My first response is that you should check that penultimate sentence. I think your insecurities may have gotten the better of you.

    My second is that it sounds like we’re the same age and watched the same media. And have largely the same impression of what makes for “presidential-looking.” Though, even as an Obama supporter, I find myself a little inexplicably unnerved by his demeanor. Everything he says seems calculated. The only times I really enjoy watching him are when he’s doing comedy; he actually has fantastic delivery. But even that’s a little uncanny when you consider some of the context, like when he gave a lighthearted, funny performance while the Bin Laden operation was secretly being set in motion. That kind of compartmentalization just isn’t human.

    Anyway, the Romney thing reminds me of Warren G. Harding, a classic example of a man who coasted into office on his black-haired, old-but-not-too-old, stately white-guy bearing and ended up governing accordingly.

    • Beth

      Warren G. Harding occurred to me too when I was reading this post.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    My first response is that you should check that penultimate sentence. I think your insecurities may have gotten the better of you.

    Just keeping my heart on my sleeve. That’s how I roll, as vulnerable or pathetic as it may expose me as being.

    I also am impressed with Obama’s comedic timing. I never am freaked out by his unflappability though. I just see him as having as profoundly stoic a sense of perspective as any one I have ever seen. But that strikes me as very human for a certain kind of natural temperament. And learning about his upbringing and how unshakable he was as an odd kid out in Indonesia and then learning how he deliberately honed his ability to put white people at ease (no anger, no sudden motions), I see the ninja-like self-control of someone who understands through both in-born personality and deeply personal socialization exactly what is in his interest and who simply will not be baited by the most obvious temptations into falling into his enemies’ hands.

    • starskeptic

      I think what Fafhrd@1 meant was: “Emotionally I’d rather miss out on 9 people (even attractive single women I’m dying to talk to) who don’t want to talk to me than momentarily bother one who does not want to talk to me.”

    • Fafhrd

      Yeah, starskeptic, that’s what I meant. Though I think the incorrect negative is the first one. It makes the most sense if he’s saying that he’s more willing to sacrifice the potential for a good thing than brave the potential for a bad one. And he emphasizes the irrationality of it by framing the good thing as quantitatively greater than the bad.

      Anyway, in response to Daniel’s continued thoughts on Obama: I can totally buy that analysis, but I’m speaking from a more primal, emotional place. However innocent and justified the reasons may be, there’s just something uncanny-valley-ish about his demeanor that makes me ill at ease. (This wasn’t helped by the way his fandom embraced Shepard Fairey’s Soviet-propaganda-esque imagery.) If I didn’t generally agree with his politics, it would be easy for me to fall in with those who feel like he’s frighteningly Other. For that reason, I feel some sympathy for people whose unease is dismissed as simple racism. Yes, there certainly ARE racists among them – I’m related to some – but on a gut level, I think there’s more going on than that.

      Which all just goes to show how little image matters. I can watch Ronald Reagan videos all day – the man did avuncularity like nobody’s business – but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever get my vote, once I work the kinks out of my time machine.

    • starskeptic

      Oh yeah – you’re right – I misread…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Fixed the sentence. Explaining that I had used a double negative would have been much clearer from the start than just telling me I sounded insecure!

    • Fafhrd

      It still looks the same to me. Is there a lag-time? To my reading, it ought to say, “Emotionally I’d rather miss out on 9 people (even attractive single women I’m dying to talk to) who do want to talk to me than momentarily bother one who does not want to talk to me.”

      I apologize for being cryptic and unintentionally insulting earlier. You’d been so matter-of-fact about your social anxiety that I didn’t think it would come off badly for me to run with it. The truth is, I completely understand the sentiment you’re getting at. And the notion of one’s brain sabotaging oneself, to the point of preventing the statement “who do want to talk to me” from actually being written, has some kidding-on-the-square truth to it. I can think of worse burdens to bear, but it’s a burden I know.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

    I can’t imagine the conditioning that the opposite experience must create—what it must be like to start speaking incredible nonsense in a spirit of authority and conviction and not dialectic (except insincerely as part of the appearance of dialogue for the sake of the sales pitch). Or to feel certain you are right and have the truth and repeatedly to be dismissed contemptuously or with bewilderment. Or to go door to door day after day getting rejected.

    It’s really weird. Although I swear to this day that rejection trumps acceptance. Acceptance is scary because of all that might come after. Rejection is swift and decisive. I never made any converts to JWism. I thought I believed, but I could never pull off that level of conviction you’re talking about. I also instinctively and passionately distrust salesmen (and politicians), in large part due to this facade of spreading the good news I engaged in as a child/teenager.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I thought I believed, but I could never pull off that level of conviction you’re talking about.

      ME TOO! I could never seal a deal. I always remained too dialectical and gave too much room to reject me. I could never just exploit whatever available leverage there was to push someone across the finish line to belief.

    • KG

      In a bizarre coincidence, the very first time I went knocking on doors – this was for CND – the very first house I knocked at turned out to belong to JWs, who explained that they took no part in politics, then brought out The Watchtower. My fellow-canvasser and I laughed, but they didn’t appear to see the funny side.

  • KG

    the grandfatherly presidents Ronald Reagan

    As that famous (nit)wit Gerald Ford noted, Reagan didn’t dye his hair, he was just “prematurely orange”.

  • Aliasalpha

    Then and now approaching people cold who don’t want to talk to me and striking up conversation when I want something from them is nightmarish for me. I feel terribly embarrassed and shy intruding on people like that. Emotionally I’d rather miss out on 9 people (even attractive single women I’m dying to talk to) who don’t want to talk to me than momentarily bother one who does not want to talk to me. I really can’t imagine being so immune to rejection.

    Hey you just described my social life, or lack thereof. I find it impossible to talk to anyone without a reason, I simply can’t just start to talk to people unless its actually about something and most if not all of the things I’m interested in are esoteric or incredibly nerdy so its even harder to start a conversation. Once I’m in a conversation I’m usually very good but starting is next to impossible.

    You mention that you thrive on interpersonal interactions, do you find it has to be a relevant topic or can you actually do small talk?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You mention that you thrive on interpersonal interactions, do you find it has to be a relevant topic or can you actually do small talk?

      Yes, there needs to be a reason to talk or I can’t initiate. Once ice has broken with people, I’m a pretty good conversationalist as long as they can respond to one of the zillion options I throw out and be interactive. If they can’t, it’s sheer misery for me. I’m pretty bored on a small talk level and so will get really bummed if I’m talking to someone who can’t transition to something worth really discussing.

      This year I’ve been to two parties where I knew almost no one besides the person who invited me. And they weren’t parties where I could expect people to have common interests to me and in both cases I kind of hung quietly alone until people took interest to probe me and then I opened right up.

    • Aliasalpha

      Someone probed you? He wasn’t a small bald grey dude with big black eyes was he? If so, don’t be surprised if he never calls you back, the bastard!

  • Ace of Sevens

    You should have illustrated it with this picture.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I never realized before that Mitt Romney was the guy from American Psycho


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