On Saturday at his unveiling as the Republican vice presidential candidate, Congressman Paul Ryan had to do what the man heading up the ticket has seemed so reluctant to do: talk up Mitt Romney’s résumé. Ryan perfunctorily checked off the highlights—Bain, Salt Lake City Olympics, governorship of Massachusetts—but he didn’t dwell long on his new boss’ life story. It was novel enough to have Romney’s résumé make it into the pitch at all.
Indeed, while we have two interesting, highly accomplished men running for president this year, you’d barely know that from following their campaigns. Both seem loath to talk about the one thing that most job applicants are expected to address when interviewed: themselves, and what they’ve learned from past experiences.
It’s hard to think of any other presidential candidate who’s had as complicated a relationship with his own biography as Mitt Romney. His campaign appears to have concluded that vast swaths of his life story are radioactive: his missionary service in France; his leadership at his Mormon church in Boston; his work at Bain Capital; his healthcare reform that inspired “Obamacare” (Ryan certainly left out Romney’s signature accomplishment as governor); his family’s own Olympian, the dressage horse Rafalka; his Mexican cousins; his Harvard years (not one, but two degrees!), and, of course, the fact that Romney was governor of Massachusetts. You too would appear oddly robotic if you had to go to job interviews determined to avoid discussing so many entries on your résumé. Romney’s go-to safe harbors include his work turning around the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the height of Michigan trees, and patriotic hymns. (Unfortunately, Mitt’s dad, former Michigan governor George Romney, stopped being a safe topic once everyone started talking about how many of his tax returns he released when he ran for president.)
What makes Romney’s reluctance to talk about his life experiences all the more striking is that he’s the challenger, not the incumbent. Presumably, we know the other guy, so the burden is on Romney to introduce himself and gain our confidence. And yet, two out of three major recent Romney campaign speeches—addresses before the VFW and NAACP conventions, plus a typical stump speech—failed to make a single autobiographical reference (other than a mention of impressions gathered from campaigning). The only person Mitt Romney was eager to “reflect” upon was Barack Obama.
The exception to this rule was the NAACP gathering, a hostile audience before which Romney, surprisingly, let his guard down and was more genuinely himself. He spoke at length about his tenure as Massachusetts governor and about his father’s example. He was reflective and, well, more interesting than he usually comes across. It would be a public service for him to do more of this. Imagine what it would be like to hear Romney talk about his experiences trying to sell Mormonism to the French.
To be fair, President Obama also has a complicated relationship with his past. He never mentions his Nobel Peace Prize, and we certainly don’t hear much about what it was like being the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review or about his years of community organizing in Chicago. Other topics best left unmentioned include his childhood years in Indonesia, his Kenyan father, his church back in Chicago, and his experience teaching constitutional law. For a while he appeared reluctant even to boast about his healthcare reform, although the Supreme Court’s decision forced the issue and now he once again seems to own it. Last week, he embraced the supposedly derogatory term “Obamacare”—engagingly saying, “Yes, I do care.”
The decline of personal narrative and reflection makes our politics even worse, turning our presidential candidates into ideological automata engineered to serve as conduits for their parties’ agenda and vitriolic attacks against the opposition.
We have always expected some coyness from our politicians, but today we’ve reached a new level. It’s understandable that Obama doesn’t want to go around bragging about being editor of the Harvard Law Review, but it is a sad sign of the times that not even his surrogates would consider it politically desirable to point out that the president may be, you know, brilliant.
One reason both presidential candidates seem like blank biographic slates is that this is the first race in modern times between two candidates with no military experience, a traditional building block of presidential hagiography. (That and impoverished, log-cabinesque backgrounds.) American politics doesn’t yet have a familiar script for leaders who weren’t in the military. “Candidate Smith flew forty combat missions over the Pacific” has more of a ring to it than “Fresh out of college, Candidate Smith enrolled in Harvard Law School,” no matter how soaring the music.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing this election cycle about the fixation with supposed gaffes—taking a candidate’s reflections out of context to pummel and caricature him with millions of dollars worth of advertising. Romney supposedly loves firing people and doesn’t care about poor people; and Obama supposedly denigrates those who worked hard to build a business. The clear lesson for aspiring politicians is not to say anything remotely unscripted.
But self-censorship of verbal remarks is a longstanding trend. What’s new, and just as troubling, is this self-censorship around the candidates’ own life. The emerging political maxim isn’t only that you should avoid saying anything interesting. It’s also that you should avoid being interesting.