There was an interesting moment at the Republican National Convention last week: just a moment, and scarcely noticed, but it seemed to sum up a Mitt Romney problem which, in a rational world, would not be a problem.
The first time Governor Chris Christie mentioned Romney in his keynote speech, the delegates rose as one to their feet and applauded Romney, who was sitting in a box beside his wife. The applause was prolonged, and Mrs. Romney stood and clapped as well. But Governor Romney, half-smiling and looking slightly embarrassed, remained seated, occasionally nodding his head in recognition.
Now, if Mitt Romney had been a baseball player, he would have stood and doffed his cap to the audience. And if he were almost any other politician, he might have stood and waved in every direction, perhaps with both hands, and most certainly would have given Chris Christie a thumbs-up. But because he is Mitt Romney, he acknowledged the ovation by merely smiling and nodding. One could sense his reasoning: This was Christie’s moment, not his, and it would have been a selfish distraction to interrupt it by drawing attention away from the speaker.
It also revealed what the press believes is Romney’s primal weakness: a certain personal reticence, even awkwardness, which prevents him from connecting on a visceral level with voters who might be tempted to embrace him. After years of presidential candidates (and presidents) who like to talk publicly in confessional mode—about their marriages, religion, family tragedies, and existential crises—the press finds Romney’s reserve disconcerting, and has concluded it’s a liability.
But is it? It is an article of faith among the chattering classes that Americans want to feel affectionate toward their presidents, and want to feel sufficiently comfortable with them to invite them to enjoy a beer together. Part of this has to do with the nature of the American presidency, which combines in one person the head of government with the head of state, and accords a politician the same personal veneration usually reserved for royalty.
But if voters are determined to elect ordinary mortals with whom they feel “comfortable” and would like to share a beer, they have made an abundance of peculiar choices over time. Consider our most popular presidents. It is difficult to imagine the average voter, in 1952, wanting to slap General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower on the back and invite him over for barbecue. Ronald Reagan, charming and affable, was a virtual stranger to his children and had few close friends. The only president to be elected four times, Franklin D. Roosevelt, lived on a spacious family estate in the Hudson Valley, wore a naval cape and pince-nez, and smoked cigarettes with a holder. And FDR much preferred a dry martini to beer.
The truth of the matter is that the great majority of our presidents, certainly in modern times, have tended to be rigorously self-contained and self-disciplined individuals, governed by a superhuman ambition that can be nearly obsessive. Because they are politicians, they have perfected the art of projecting a cheerful, empathetic demeanor in public; but can anyone doubt that they are driven individuals, their eyes resolutely focused on the main chance? Indeed, Barack Obama seems to be almost a caricature of the species: adept at posing as a regular guy, dropping his Gs in speeches, and shooting baskets in shirtsleeves—but even his admirers complain about his personal coldness and tendency to sacrifice principle for self-protection.
What separates Mitt Romney from the herd, and seems to frustrate the press, is that added to this standard presidential makeup is a strong sense of personal dignity as well, a genuine anachronism in the age of Oprah. Romney seems like an anomaly; but he is, in truth, much closer to the historical model than not. It was, after all, only two decades ago when candidate Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, beginning a trend that has yet to play out. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when presidents refrained from granting one-on-one interviews to the press, would never have discussed their religious opinions or personal problems with journalists, and were not expected to make themselves available to the producers of Late Night with David Letterman or The View. From George Washington onward, presidents sought to maintain a certain statesmanlike distance—mystery, if you will—around their exalted office.
Under Obama, in particular, this has all been stood on its head. The White House is now a routine port of call for visiting celebrities, and the president of the United States will reliably “slow jam the news” with Jimmy Fallon on his late-night TV show. But is this how Americans envision the presidency? The fact that Mitt Romney tends to shrink from such spectacles, and relies on others to talk about himself, may yet prove more, not less, appealing to voters.
Philip Terzian, literary editor of The Weekly Standard, is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.