The Magazine

Authentically Yours

Against his primary opponents, what looked like Romney’s characteristic defect ended up serving him well.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys never knew what it was like to be one paycheck away from utter privation, but they were abundantly damaged by pain and bereavement and reminders that life is unfair. John Kennedy and the elder George Bush were chauffeured to private school in the depths of the Depression, but they also belonged to a war generation, joined the armed forces as soon as was possible, nearly drowned when their vehicles were sunk or shot down by the enemy, and saw friends, comrades, and relatives die. Franklin Roosevelt had polio, a famously terrible marriage, and long separations from the woman he loved. Theodore Roosevelt struggled with asthma, and at age 25 had been so shattered by the sudden and simultaneous deaths of his wife and his mother (the latter at 48 still a stunning young woman) that he fled to the West to hold on to his sanity. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the elder George Bush buried very young children; and Kennedy was part of his family’s struggle to raise his retarded sister as normal, a struggle it finally lost. George W. Bush was a failure until he was 40, and almost became one of a long line of dynastic children, starting with the sons of John and John Quincy Adams, who were destroyed by depression and alcohol. John Kennedy had gone through such stress in his earlier years—repeated hospital stays, back pain, and adrenal gland failure; war, PT-109, and the deaths of his brother, sister, and brother-in-law—that he was a basket case by the time he reached 30, and took several years to regain his élan.

Kennedy, the grandson of a mayor and son of a millionaire and holder of high public office, campaigned in poor neighborhoods and talked of the war and his dead brother. His mother, who wore couture from the great houses of Paris, talked to other Gold Star Mothers from poor families about their dead sons. Romney has no similar point of entry into less privileged lives. He did not go to war, did not bury a spouse or a child, did not lose a close family member at a young age. He went from riches to riches and success to success, his life interrupted only by two lost elections—in 1994 and in the 2008 primaries—in which he didn’t disgrace himself, and set himself up for future campaigns. This is not life as even many rich people have known it, untouched by rejection or failure. The country may vote for a poor politician, it may even vote for a non-true-believer. Can it love someone too good to be true?

Maybe so. Dinged as he is by his luck and his money, Mitt is still with us, which is more than one can say for his rivals, who were much too authentic to last. Huntsman shot himself in both feet at the very beginning, choosing to insult and demean his own voters, thereby becoming the darling of anticonservatives, sitting for an adoring profile by a liberal writer that appeared in a magazine run by an Obama fundraiser, an intellectual journal called Vogue. For some of the rest, a few words would do it: Michele Bachmann did herself in via “government injection”; Herman Cain with “Ubeki-beki-bekistan” (and bimbo eruptions); Rick Perry with “oops.” Egocentric to a degree considered noteworthy even in politics, Newt Gingrich is authentically grandiose and eccentric, having compared himself over time to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Sir William Wallace of Braveheart among many others, and also of course to Sir Winston S. Churchill, whose wilderness spells and troughs of misunderstood greatness he seems to think mirror his own. The next non-Mitt in line was Rick Santorum, authentically a moralizing scold, or, as Wes Pruden put it, “There’s a tiny priest living in Rick Santorum’s trim, toned body, struggling to get out.” From time to time, this priest emerged and managed to tell us that (a) Satan perverted our national culture; (b) as president he would address the moral evils inherent in family planning; (c) mainline Protestant churches were no longer Christian; and (d) John Kennedy’s speech in 1960 to the Protestant ministers put the nation “at risk” of moral destruction through the complete separation of church and state. There were more politic ways to refer to the assassinated president’s speech—such as, “With all due respect, I think he was mistaken”—but Santorum decided to be more authentic, saying on national television, “That makes me throw up.” Soon after this he lost his lead in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and that spelled the end of his campaign.

As their campaigns fell apart, Santorum and Gingrich also emerged as authentic complainers, blaming their woes on the cosmic unfairness of having a better-funded opponent run ads using their own words against them, ignoring the fact that those words were out there to be used against them owing to nobody’s fault but their own. 

The lesson in all of this? That authenticity isn’t always an unalloyed blessing. And that it may be better to be just a touch inauthentic than authentically something that people don’t want.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers