The Difference Between Obama and Romney, Distilled

For the past few weeks Frontline has been running a series of online discussions, based on "artifacts" it has uncovered from the pasts of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. You can read the first week's discussion here, the second here, and the now-ongoing third round here.

I highly endorse checking out the series as a whole and all of the twelve artifacts offered so far. At the moment I find myself particularly struck by the contrast between two letters, one from Young Barack Obama and one from Young Mitt Romney.

Obama's, which you see below and can read more about here, is hand-written and conveys his initial impressions of the communities in which he has begun his organizing work in Chicago. Romney's, shown below it and described here, is about his his initial impressions during his LDS mission work in France.

There were minor differences in the two men's situations. Obama was in his mid-20s, with both his Occidental and his Columbia years behind him. Romney was barely into his twenties, and had left for his mission service after only one year at Stanford.

But the gulf between their sensibilities is enormous -- and startling, even given all we know about each of them. Please click on each of the letters to read them through. I promise it's worthwhile.

First, Obama's:

Now, Romney's:

Judge for yourself, but here is what I typed out in real time as my part of the discussion. It is run as a series of roughly 120-word bursts:

Now, as for the artifacts, these are again absolutely fascinating.... Every difference in sensibility, self-image, concept of how the world works, layers of thought that we see in this campaign is contained in these documents.

I will say: these letters help explain what anti-Obama people mean when they say he is not 'American.' Romney has a straight-ahead, can-do, let's-fix-this attitude we associated with heartland America in its go-getter aspects. And Obama has all the doubt and shading, the fatalism about how much we know and what we can control, the wonder of range of motivations and interests, that we think of as ... well, "worldly," in a way that distinguishes it from 'Oklahoma!' style upbeat mid-Americanism.

When I thought about what other public figures might write this way, I started with Adlai Stevenson -- with differences of his more blueblood upbringing. But of course he was famously disastrous as a national politician. To add one more item to the mysteries of Obama: that as inward-looking a figure as he has been as successful as he has been in public projection is ... interesting.

As I say in that online discussion, I am now in the "doors are closing" mode of a flight. I just want to pass this along as a tip worth your attention. Also sheds light on the way each of these men has performed throughout the campaign, including two days ago at the debate. I'll rejoin the online discussion in a couple of hours, from San Francisco.

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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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