Mitt Romney Drops His 3 a.m. Phone Call

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Fair warning for what's ahead: I once worked for a Democratic president. As I say in a discussion with Ta-Nehisi Coates included in our new Atlantic eBook, in this election I prefer the Democratic position to the Republican in economic policy, in foreign policy, and in social policy. Weigh that as you may.

On the basis of the past 18 hours, I will now say that I also strongly prefer the Democratic presidential candidate to the Republican on temperamental grounds. Mitt Romney's response to the murder of American diplomats in Libya was his "3 a.m. phone call" moment, and what it revealed was not good.

The 3 a.m. phone call is shorthand for the unforeseen emergency that requires both a quick reaction and the beginning of longer second- and third-stage responses. Often the most important immediate decision is not to react immediately. There are times when every minute counts, but not usually. The first impulse, the first wave of fragmentary information, the first set of available options -- these often turn out to be misleading.

People at the operational level inside the U.S. government had to respond immediately to news of the attacks and chaos in Egypt and Libya. But U.S. officials did not have to say anything in public right away. And they didn't. This morning, first Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama expressed sentiments appropriate for a nation whose interests and people had been attacked.

Each began by talking about the commitment and sacrifice of the Americans who serve their country overseas; then they condemned the violence of the attack; then they promised justice; then they affirmed America's belief in free expression of all views but said that this could never be an excuse for violence. They spoke for the country, and its values, and the people it had lost.

Mitt Romney could have waited, as they did. When he spoke, he could have said essentially the same thing as they did. We honor the people who serve us. We condemn the violence they endured. We express sorrow and support to their families, and we affirm belief in our values. Americans disagree on many issues, including foreign policy, but those disputes can wait until another day.

But that is not what he said. When he first heard about the violence and protests last night, he rushed to condemn the administration before anyone knew fully what was going on. After he had had a few hours to think, he dug himself in far deeper with a graceless press conference whose dominant theme was partisan criticism of the administration.

In short, when faced with a 3 a.m. test, he reacted immediately, rather than having the instinct to wait. And after he waited, he mistook this as a moment for partisanship rather than for at least the appearance of statesmanlike national unity. The irony, of course, is that resisting the partisan impulse today would have been the greatest possible boost to his horse-race prospects two months from now.

Think of this temperament and these instincts in a command role, and with stakes much higher than they were today.

As I say, for me this is one more reason to prefer the Democratic to the Republican candidate this year. But I think I would have felt as strongly about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton if they had used their speeches today mainly to attack the GOP for policies that had allegedly brought on this tragedy. And would have said so.

You never know when these moments will come, or what they will expose when they do. Mitt Romney has shown us something that will be hard to forget.
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* I will be off the grid for the next eight hours so cannot follow changing developments, but will check again this evening. I see that Molly Ball has weighed in to similar effect.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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