The assertion has been made in hundreds of media articles, blog posts, and comments to both that there was no core to Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate — that he seemed phony, plastic, robotic, and of course, that he seemed to have flip-flopped on issues.
The claims that Romney lacks a “core” come to mind as Romney announces the suspension of his presidential campaign today. The contemplation also dovetails somewhat with Kaimi’s exploration of the role of individuality in narratives about Mormonism.
Let me posit that Mitt Romney provides an almost ideal role model for any Latter-day Saint boy, young man, or even grown man to emulate. He is smart, clean, completely dedicated to his family, efficient and productive in his job, involved with the details of life and industrious, and deeply religious and devoted to his faith. His Mormonism visibly permeates every aspect of his life; he is the epitome of an upstanding Mormon man.
But at the same time, he is said to have no core. Take a look at how this was expressed recently in a reasonably insightful comment (scroll down to spaniel | February 6, 2008 11:08 AM) on an otherwise nondescript blog post at BeliefNet (Mormon Mentality’s Dan E.’s comments on that thread excepted, of course):
In my experience, Mormons have an awkard social edge to them. I went to engineering school in Arizona and for the first time met some Mormons. I didn’t know that at the time, but these students seemed hard working but a little nerdy and very uncertain of themselves socially. So what, I thought, we’re engineers. We’re all a bit nerdy, I thought.
These students didn’t really hang out together, but I noticed they were unpopular, mostly because they couldn’t seem to really adjust to living among ‘regular’ engineers. (Who are pretty normal, actually, compared to other people.) They didn’t really have a developed sense of humor, they didn’t seem at ease, etc. Turns out there were so many things that they didn’t do that others did do, some of them so very innocuous, like drinking caffeine. . . . They had this awkward quality to them because they had drawn this very bright line of blacks and whites that really seemed overdone. There was a childhood, almost backwards quality to the way they interacted with the rest of the group. . . . Mormons are strongly family and community oriented and the downside is that they seem like fish out of water when around ‘normal’ people, nonMormons. . . . [T]here is a thin-ness, a flatness, a lack of maturity to the interactions I’ve experienced to many people of piety because they can’t allow themselves a real, vibrant life because they have all these negations and strictures to obey. . . . The Mormons . . . that I’ve met, are so insular that they seem to have this flatness to them.
Which leads me to Mitt. When he first appeared, I thought: “My god! That’s the Mormon awkwardness!” If you hammered his thumb it wouldn’t seem real. I guess in retrospect that is tailor made for politics. But nothing he says, and I mean NOTHING, seems authentic to me. Is this less a function of his being a flip/flopper than mainstream America perceiving the insularity of ‘Mormon-ness’?
I think it is safe to say that Mormons are indeed aware of this “Mormon awkwardness”, as the commenter calls it. Who among the Latter-day Saints has not at one point realized that adherence to this faith severely cramps one’s style in numerous and significant ways?
But does this cramped style or Mormon awkwardness really translate into a lack of a core — and did Mitt Romney exemplify that?
There can be no doubt that what the commenter described as “Mormon awkwardness” was visible at points in Mitt Romney’s public appearances during his campaign. This contributed in part to the New York Times’ observation on January 24, 2008 that Romney led in “ill will among G.O.P. candidates”:
At the end of the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire this month, when the Democrats joined the candidates on stage, Mitt Romney found himself momentarily alone as his counterparts mingled, looking around a bit stiffly for a companion.
Time Magazine discussed the “I Hate Romney” Club that seemed to have developed among the Republican candidates and also made an observation that plays to this notion of Mormon awkwardness:
Before and after debates, rival campaign staffers note, Romney tends not to mingle with the other candidates — most of whom know each other professionally — preferring instead to keep close to his family and staff.
A little reflection reveals this, actually, as a very Mormon trait. First, this faith simply cramps its adherents’ style. The foremost contributing factor to this and hence to our social awkwardness is our adherence to the Word of Wisdom, as interpreted since 1921, absolutely prohibiting drinking alchohol, even socially. As a result of this, LDS men simply don’t hang out with the guys like most other people do. Instead, they go home to their families and engage in Ozzie-and-Harriett-like pass times like family games or fixing up around the house. A lifetime of doing this, even if you’re a seasoned and successful professional who has grown up outside of Mormon country, arguably conditions a person to be more likely to gravitate toward family rather than rubbing shoulders with old-boy networks.
Second, and almost just as sure to contribute to this sense of “Mormon awkwardness” is the likelihood that a faithful Mormon man rarely — if ever — uses profanity to express himself. This seems like a small thing but it’s effect on social acceptability and being-one-of-the-group of guys cannot be underestimated. Mormon men do not avoid profanity because they think or the Church teaches that it is a sin but rather out of respect for the people around them, whom they view as brothers and sisters in the family of God. They believe that demeaning language is not pleasing to God and therefore abstain from it. It simply feels right to Latter-day Saints but contributes to this very Mormon awkwardness that has been observed. It’s very hard to fit in when you don’t speak like those around you (harsh and demeaning profanity is pervasive in the speech of American males from the lowest to the highest income brackets and at all levels of professional achievement) and, moreover, you don’t do so over a beer with the guys at the end of a workday or on the weekend.
Remember that Slate article that essentially excoriated Romney for not having soap-opera-esque drama in his family like the other contenders? (And don’t forget the Boston Globe piece from August 2007 about Romney’s language — “gee whiz”, “Whoop-de-do!”, “Holy moly!”, “pleased as punch”, “golly”.) This is another point: Romney’s strong marriage to a smart, independent, and productive woman, his strong family of equally clean-cut and faithful offspring, earned him the designation of the Ozzie and Harriett candidate. This charge was renewed on Slate last month as Bruce Reed quipped “Mitt never does anything by accident, but even he has shown his own charm as the hopelessly square dad, a throwback to ’60s sitcoms when every normal family was a pretend one.” But the truth is that Mitt Romney’s family is not a pretend one. They are a Mormon reality. Although they are rich, which distinguishes them from a more common LDS family, their family is actually a pretty typical LDS family. The fact that this is so incredible to many outside our faith contributes to Mormon awkwardness.
Mitt Romney’s core is obvious and it is surprising that he would be judged to lack one even though his Mormon awkwardness is readily observable. Yes, he is thoroughly Mormon. But the very traits that lend to his Mormon awkwardness tie into his core: he is a deeply religious man who takes his religion seriously, puts his family first in his life, is highly disciplined and focused, and strives to live righteously, which includes respecting those around him. He’s not perfect and certainly has numerous weaknesses and shortcomings but he strives to overcome them and puts his best face forward.
I can almost see why these traits, which are the traits that Mormonism intends to instill in Mormon men, could be viewed as “a thin-ness, a flatness, a lack of maturity to interactions” and an inability “to allow themselves a real, vibrant life” — but only almost. This is because, it seems to me, this observation would depend on the premise that a “real, vibrant life” necessarily includes the type of “guy time” that Mormon men who do not drink or use profanity, and who prefer to spend time with their families when not working, are not prone to spend. But it is in doing these things that Mormon men express their individuality. What could be a greater expression of a man’s core — of his ultimate individuality — than choosing to dedicate himself to the life of his wife and children, even to the exclusion of guy time?