Noblesse Oblige, American Style


Is it better for a politician -- a candidate for the presidency, let's say -- to be liked or respected? Either can work under the right circumstances. In Britain, I remember, Margaret Thatcher was never much liked, but for a long time she was widely respected and that was good enough to keep winning elections. For a long time, until he was despised, Tony Blair (also known as Tony Blur and Phony Tony) was better liked, but precisely because he was so ingratiatin' never really commanded the same respect. Never mind: He won elections too.

Pretending to be what you aren't can be a problem, though, especially when you're found out. Romney's difficulty here is pretty extreme, when you look at the distance he's travelled from moderate Massachusetts Republican to Paul Ryan's severely conservative running-mate. Obama's tone and tactics have shifted violently since 2008 -- and not in a way that helps him, if you ask me -- but he's been a smart moderate progressive all the way through and never pretended to be anything else.

I'm interested to see whether Romney compounds this liability in introducing himself to voters at the convention and beyond. Ann Romney's speech mostly avoided one trap that might tempt the campaign -- as Ross Douthat noticed.

[Her] address threw [the Romneys'] essential WASPiness into even sharper relief. Its weakest sections were the ones that affected a common touch, waxed saccharine about true love and momhood, and pretended that her husband was something other than a born-and-raised aristocrat...

But when she pivoted, took ownership of her husband's throwback qualities and used them to plead his case, her address felt impressive, credible and true. The opening was populist in the style of almost every American political speech today, but the second half was more unusual: It acknowledged her husband's good fortune, emphasized how hard he would work on behalf of average Americans rather than what he has in common with them, and portrayed the Republican nominee for president, ultimately, as a man for rather than of the people...

You don't have to love him, the more effective parts of her speech implied, or relate to him, or even always necessarily agree with him. But you can trust him with the presidency, because he's suited to public service, and he was born and raised and trained to do this job.

I don't know if that's a winning proposition, but it might be best they've got.

On the other hand, the Romney magic seems to be working on Andrew Ferguson.

Now that he's officially the Republican nominee for president and has an excellent chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world, I feel free to admit, in the full knowledge that nobody cares, that I never liked Mitt Romney. My distaste for him isn't merely personal or political but also petty and superficial. There's the breathless, Eddie Attaboy delivery, that half-smile of pitying condescension in debates or interviews when someone disagrees with him, the Ken doll mannerisms, his wanton use of the word "gosh"--the whole Romney package has been nails on a blackboard to me.

I know what he means. But reading The Real Romney, Ferguson began to come around.

The Romneys present a picture of an American family that popular culture has been trying to undo since--well, since An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that exposed the typical household as a cauldron of resentment and infidelity.

And now, here, 40 years later, it's as though it all never happened: a happy American family, led by a baby boomer with no sense of irony! Romney is the sophisticate's nightmare...

"It seems that everyone who has known him has a tale of his altruism," the authors write...

[He's] a know-it-all and likely to remain so, and his relationship to political principle has always been tenuous. Which makes him a, uh, politician. But now I suspect he's also something else, a creature rarely found in the highest reaches of American politics: a good guy.

A good guy, but not very likeable and definitely not like us. That's a new one.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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