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

On What's Presidential, What's Creepy, and What's Mitt Romney February 2, 2012

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.

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