That’s neither polished marble nor gold filigree, but New Hampshire granite.
Political speeches derive their power and durability from authenticity, from the way in which phrases and sentences seem to emanate directly from a personality and its vision. That is why Lincoln’s speeches will never lose their force: They captured the dignity, simplicity, and courage of the man who made them. Romney is no Lincoln, but he wrote the speech, and the voice is his.
Yet more is at work here than the powerful words. The speech contained all the elements of drama: the man of quiet faith, whose presidential campaign underplayed his charitable works; the handsome politician, whose political career involved both high office and the failure to achieve it; the public figure, who briefly became a hero to opponents who had shamefully vilified him seven years earlier; the successful businessman, who returned repeatedly to public affairs; the patriarch of a large and loving family, whose own niece repeatedly yielded her conscience to the man he rightly condemned. Comparing Romney with the grifter president and his venal clan yields an instructive contrast.
The Romney story plays to something very deep in the American self-conception, to myth—not in the sense of fairy tale or falsehood, but of something Americans want to believe about who they are and who, because of what they want to believe, they can become. Americans embrace the story of the lone man or woman of conscience who does the right thing, knowing that the risks are high. They remember Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but forget the three other passengers who prudently moved. They relish the staple theme of Western stories and films—John Wayne in Stagecoach saying, “Well, there’s some things a man just can’t run away from.” They honor John Adams for defending British soldiers accused of shooting down his fellow Americans, in an era when tar and feathers could be the consequence of that act. In an altogether different vein, they laud Henry David Thoreau for choosing civil disobedience and marching to the beat of his own drum, resolved to remain indifferent to what his fellow Yankees thought of him.
In this style of lone heroism, the motif is not bravado or impetuous courage. Gary Cooper in High Noon plays a marshal awaiting the return of four killers seeking to settle scores with him. He refuses to abandon a town that abandons him, which leaves his new Quaker bride bewildered:
“Don’t try to be a hero. You don’t have to be a hero, not for me,” she says.
“I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy,” he replies.
And this may be why the lonely man or woman of courage is so endearing. Such heroes are not crazy, not cheerful, and not necessarily optimistic. The story may turn out well in the end, but it might not. Indeed, John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and even more so the fine television series that spun off from it in the mid-’60s, featured plenty of politicians whose careers ended in ruin after they took deeply unpopular stances, like battling the Klan, defending the Union, or opposing the creation of NATO.