THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Cry me a river, Mitt

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / December 20, 2007

WHO'S CRYING now?

Mitt Romney teared up recently on NBC's "Meet the Press," as he recounted how he learned in 1978 that his Mormon Church would finally fully accept blacks. When he heard the news on the radio, he told host Tim Russert, he was so overcome with emotion he "pulled over and literally wept." Proving once again that Mitt's a different man in Massachusetts, Romney responded very differently when the same issue surfaced at home.

It came up during Romney's unsuccessful bid to unseat US Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994. Joseph P. Kennedy II, Kennedy's nephew and a congressman at the time, criticized the Mormon Church for its policy of racial exclusion. The Romney campaign angrily noted that the policy changed in 1978. Romney said he was greatly relieved, but said nothing about weeping for joy when he learned about it. During a press conference, Romney also accused Kennedy of betraying his brother John's victory in 1960 when JFK faced voter skepticism about his Catholic religion.

Mission accomplished: Joe Kennedy apologized, and Senator Kennedy backed off, too. Romney's Mormon faith was off the table, where it belongs. Romney never delved any deeper into his feelings about his church's past policy, saving a Bill Clinton moment for national TV and his presidential quest.

With a different campaign comes a different mission. Now, it's easy to imagine this urgent message emanating from Romney headquarters: "Pack up the PowerPoint, muss up your hair, and show voters the tracks of your tears. Competence is not a winning strategy. (See Michael Dukakis, 1988). Another man from Hope, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, is gaining traction as a warm and fuzzy religious zealot. It's sensitive guy time."

Romney first misted up publicly at the end of his nationally televised speech on faith and politics. Then came the session on "Meet the Press." The next day in New Hampshire his eyes welled again with tears when he told a stock campaign story about watching the casket of a US soldier killed in Iraq. This time, he added a line about imagining "what it would be like to lose a son in a situation like that." This is in stark contrast to a previous campaign moment, when Romney likened his sons' campaign service to military service; he later apologized for making the comparison.

Also in the humanizing department, a new Romney political ad recounts an episode when the candidate, then head of Bain Capital, shut down the company to lead the search for an employee's missing daughter. In the ad, the father of the runaway teenage girl who was ultimately found safe says, "Mitt's done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible. But for me, the most important thing he's ever done is to help save my daughter."

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is also following a formula designed to warm up her image. She, too, is running ads that play up her softer side. So far, the Clinton strategy involves the candidate's mother, daughter, and girlfriends; public tears are not yet on display. Indeed, it's interesting to contemplate how the voting public would react if a female candidate who is often criticized for masking her emotion misted up on the campaign trail. It could be the ultimate disqualifier.

It's different for Romney. Real men can tear up, although uncontrollable sobbing might be a problem.

Romney ran for governor as a cool, take-charge businessman. As is often discussed, he embraced a moderate-to-liberal political agenda as the best strategy to sell himself to Bay State voters. Once in office, Romney wasted little time on emotion, or for that matter, on Massachusetts.

Much of what he did seemed calculated to make a splash on the national Republican stage. He was the governor who offered the hospitality of Massachusetts to Hurricane Katrina's displaced victims, but didn't have a heart for the underclass at home. Insincerity became an issue, as he tacked more and more dramatically to the right on abortion, immigration, and gay rights.

Insincerity is a killer on the campaign trail. Voters won't elect Eddie Haskell, the neighborhood operator who dripped with unctuous attitude on "Leave it to Beaver," the iconic sitcom of the 1950s. As a presidential candidate, Romney has two challenges - to prove he's not a robot, or a phony.

When voters see him cry, they should turn their Mitt detector way up high.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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