No-Consequence Mitt

So, what does the high school pranks and bullying story tell us about Mitt the man?

One of the best concise summaries I've ever seen of Mitt Romney's character comes on page 3 of R.B. Scott's "Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics," which came out late last year. Scott opens his biography with the tale of Romney's 1981 arrest in Natick, a minor incident which he has tried hard to keep under wraps: attempting to take his family boating, Romney had gotten into a confrontation with a park ranger over the status of the boat registration; the ranger ended up warning Mitt that if he put the boat in the water he'd be fined $50 -- so Romney pulled out $50 cash, as if to cover the fine in advance.

The story, Scott writes, "illustrates the man's straight-ahead approach to life:"

1) he is a problem solver who rarely takes "no" for an answer;

2) he acts pragmatically and preemptively;

3) he likes to be in control and can be very controlling;

4) he doesn't read people well--in fact, he expects people, like the ranger, to say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say, and he expects people to listen that way, too;

5) he doesn't anticipate blind-side attacks and therefore is ill prepared to deal with them; and

6) if he has ever made a mistake, he would rather keep it to himself, although he is quite sure that whatever it was, in most cases it probably was the result of a misunderstanding, someone not listening carefully or lacking the sense God gave a goose.

As an side: If you're going to read one book about Romney, no question it should be The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman of the Boston Globe. But if you're willing to read two, Scott's is well worth it; he can't come close to matching Kranish and Helman's depth and breadth of reporting, but he has keen insights into many of the influences at play in Romney's life.

To the above analysis I would add two observations about the young, 1960s-era Romney. First, he was the Governor's son. That's no small thing, especially in the stratified Mad Men culture of the time; he was not just a privileged rich kid at a privileged kids' prep school, he was in a special protected, untouchable class above even his peers (and faculty) there.

Second, he disdained those who sought to challenge or upset that social order. In the great upheaval of the '60s and '70s, Romney was on the side of the status quo, against the hippies, the anti-war protestors, and the rabble-rousers of all kinds. That was not at all unusual, but it was pronounced and noteworthy -- he was clearly uncomfortable with the atmosphere at Stanford, staying there just one year before going on his mission and then transferring to the traditionalist safety of BYU.

Although it's obviously difficult to extrapolate from half-century-old recollections, I would suggest that what you see in the new Washington Post story is very much a teen version of Romney today. He sees himself as a loose, funny, wise-cracking, popular guy. He is personally self-disciplined, and able to fit in perfectly with the expected norms of both the culture he is placed into, and his own family culture. He is offended by those who fail to be, or choose not to be, similarly self-disciplined and norm-fitting. He feels immune to concerns about consequences or costs of his behavior -- it does not seem to occur to him that authorities, objects of his behavior, or observers might later cause him any reason to regret his behavior. He does not "read people well" -- he has no empathy that allows him to distinguish when someone feels abused. He shows no sense of shame over anything he's done -- we have no indication that he ever apologizes to anyone, or even thinks to consider whether he has erred, or if anyone has suffered.

Yesterday, as the Post story was circulating and causing trouble for the campaign, the Romney team went reaching out for prep school classmates who would speak up for him. Granted it was a long time ago, but considering how long they've been preparing for and running this Presidential operation, it was a little surprising how much difficulty they had finding people to vouch for his character over a six-year stretch of his life.

I couldn't help think that perhaps Romney was, perhaps, not nearly as popular in high school, and his antics not nearly as amusing, as he thought. Maybe other people didn't actually think it was clever when he walked the half-blind teacher into a door. Maybe everybody laughed at his pranks and went along with his ideas not because he was a popular guy and gifted leader, but because his father was governor of the state. (And his girlfriend's father was mayor.)

I think this is one of Romney's great blindnesses. He seems convinced that his life's rewards, and his place and position, are the result of his (considerable) intelligence, work ethic, self-discipline, and good works. He seems, like many others of privilege, unaware of the advantages that have accrued to him; and oblivious to how others may privately view him differently than they publicly treat him, because of those advantages.

Whether any of this should factor into anybody's voting decision is another question. But I think it does help explain Romney's particular sense of entitlement, and why it so often doesn't translate well to the electorate.

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