One question I sometimes have been asked in this presidential campaign goes something like this: Why does Mitt Romney sound so corny?
Actually, phrasing it that way suggests the answer. “Corny” is a word you don’t hear people say much any more. As you reach a certain age, you hear yourself uttering words or phrases that you realize no one else says anymore. The vernacular of your youth has passed into quiet obscurity.
As it happens, I know something about Romney’s youth, since he was three years behind me at the private boys school I attended in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. I still have trouble shaking my image of him as a 14-year-old boy, which he was when I graduated.
Romney was popular at school in part because his father was the Republican candidate for governor that year and would be the first Republican to hold that office in 14 years. This was a school where the straw vote in the 1960 presidential election was Richard Nixon 92 percent, John Kennedy 8 percent.
Academically, the school was a fast track, with some very good teachers and a lot of very smart boys. Romney was not at the top of his class, but apparently he did just fine.
But as I look back on his biography, it seems to me that Romney missed one experience that changed the outlook and even the vocabulary of most of his schoolmates. This is a man who never experienced the ’60s. You know what I mean: peace demonstrations, dope smoking, ironic detachment, all that.
He spent a year in Stanford when, despite the calendar, the ’60s were just starting to arrive in Palo Alto, Calif.; he debated the protesters. He then worked as a Mormon missionary in France (why doesn’t some debate questioner ask him to speak some French for us?) and witnessed with disapproval the May 1968 upheaval in Paris.
When he returned to the United States, he married his high school sweetheart (from our school’s female equivalent; the two have since merged). They went off to Brigham Young University, run by the Mormon Church. You can be sure that the ’60s never arrived there.
From BYU, the Romneys moved on to Harvard. There, Mitt entered a joint program at the law and business schools. He had top grades, which means he must have studied really hard — in a house with two babies to take care of. No time for Woodstock!
After graduating, Romney plunged into his work at Boston Consulting Group and Bain Capital. The views he expressed in his 1994 Senate campaign — pro-choice on abortion, skittish about the Reagan administration — reflect the ethos and lingo of top management consultants at the time, people only mildly affected by the ’60s.
Romney was also called on to serve as a leader in the Mormon Church, which has no career clergy, and spent considerable time counseling and tending to fellow believers. That’s a constituency not much affected by the ’60s.
Romney’s difficulty in seeking the Republican nomination is his adaptability to terrain: He sounded one way when he was running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, another way when he set out to run for president in 2007 and 2008.
This seems characteristic. Asked by friends what Romney was really like, one Bain Capital veteran responded, “Which four or five of the Romneys do you mean?” And perhaps it makes sense for a private-equity executive building firms like Staples and Sports Authority to adapt his approach and manner to each company’s particular culture.
Romney has shown adaptability in running for president, too. In 2008, he followed the example of George W. Bush (who experienced the ’60s in depth and didn’t like it a bit), spending lots of money, proclaiming himself pro-life, crisscrossing Iowa. It didn’t work.
The way he is campaigning this year seems more in line with his own experience. He has obviously worked hard studying the issues, making himself look like a foreign policy expert, though he has no experience in that line unless you count organizing the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He has worked hard constructing a New Hampshire firewall and trying to avoid betting too heavily on Iowa.
But though smooth and articulate in debate, he is awkward in chitchat and often sounds corny, as if he is still living in the ’50s. That’s natural for someone who missed the ’60s.
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