Regarding politicians, the press can keep only one idea in its mind at a time, a single defining characteristic. In Mitt Romney’s case, the idea is he’s gaffe-prone.
Romney doesn’t understand this. On the second day of his foreign trip, Romney and his family were amused as they read aloud the witty headlines in the British papers zinging him over his critique of the country’s preparations for the Olympics. Romney’s son Josh teased him. They all laughed.
What Romney didn’t know was that the British press had established the storyline for his six-day trip to England, Israel, and Poland. Day after day, the media reported his first overseas trip as the Republican presidential candidate as one dominated by stumbles, missteps, and diplomatic blunders.
The significant parts of the trip were overshadowed. Romney received an unprecedented welcome in Israel, where a literal red carpet was rolled out for him as if he were a head of state. His visit to Poland was a success. He delivered two excellent speeches. But all this was minimized in the media.
Romney bears at least some of the blame for the unfavorable coverage. He unnecessarily alienated the press traveling with him—mostly young reporters—who resented being ignored. His campaign scheduled a fundraiser in Jerusalem, figuring the money it brought in would more than offset the press criticism it was bound to receive. And he did commit a gaffe when he went public with doubts about whether the Brits had prepared sufficiently for the Olympics.
That gaffe, though fairly innocuous, was treated with utter seriousness by the American press since it neatly fit the preconceived notion of Romney. British newspapers had already raised the same doubts about the games. The doubts were vindicated, once the Olympics began, by sparse crowds, ticket mix-ups, and persistent security concerns. But Romney got no credit for his prescience.
The press, meanwhile, made little of the extraordinary effort by President Obama and his campaign to malign the Romney trip, and at one point even to trump it with a White House signing ceremony at which the president released $70 million in military aid to Israel. And while Romney honored the oft-violated tradition of not criticizing a president while abroad, Obama broke new ground by attacking his presidential rival who was overseas.
Let’s examine both the gaffes and the events that were downplayed, starting with the four supposed gaffes.
Gaffe #1. Other than interviews with Israeli newspapers, the Romney campaign decided to make the candidate available only to television correspondents with their large audiences: Brian Williams and Matt Lauer of NBC, Wolf Blitzer and Piers Morgan of CNN, Jan Crawford of CBS, David Muir of ABC, and Greta Van Susteren and Carl Cameron of Fox.
Romney created trouble for himself in his first interview, with Williams. Here’s the Q&A:
Williams: And in the short time you’ve been here in London, do [the Olympics] look ready to your experienced eye?
Romney: You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging. Because . . . there are three parts that make games successful.
Romney went on to explain that he was referring to athletes, volunteers, and “the people of the country.”
As it turned out, his comments about the Olympics didn’t get on the air on the NBC Nightly News. But a transcript was obtained by the British press, which erupted with attacks on Romney under headlines such as “Mitt the Twit,” “Who invited party-pooper Romney?” and, applying an Olympics angle, “Mitt falls at the first hurdle.”
The British press loves this puerile sort of anti-Americanism. And columnists and London’s goofy mayor, Boris Johnson, piled on. “There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we’re ready,” Johnson told a crowd of 60,000 at a concert. “Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
Prime Minister David Cameron also was quoted as taking a swipe at Romney. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” he said. “Of course it’s easier if you hold the Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” That comment, according to the Guardian, was “a none too subtle reference to the 2002 Salt Lake City games famously rescued by Romney.”
But it came in response to a question not about Romney, but about how well public transportation was holding up in London. Asked specifically about Romney, Cameron was gracious. “I think we’ll show the whole world … we are extremely good at welcoming people from across the world,” he said. “I will obviously make those points to Mitt Romney. I’m looking forward to our meeting.” Cameron later joked about Romney’s comment.
Yet the American media insisted Romney had suffered a setback in London. He needs “a breakout moment … to salvage his overseas tour, which got off to a rocky start,” the Washington Post said. “Rookie mistakes,” The Week concluded. “The British were offended,” the AP said.
Gaffe #2. It wasn’t really a gaffe but a misunderstanding of what Romney adviser Dan Senor meant when he told reporters Romney would “respect” a decision by Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Without asking for clarification, the AP sent out an alert saying Romney would “back” a military strike by Israel, and others followed with similar stories.
Senor, while previewing Romney’s speech in Jerusalem, was merely repeating Romney’s long-held view that Israel has a right to defend itself against Iran’s nuclear threat. He was not suggesting Romney would announce a change in his position, much less a tougher attitude toward Iran. Nor was he trying to make news. That was Romney’s job. Here’s what Senor said:
“We in the West partnering with Israel should do everything we can from stopping Iran from developing that [nuclear] weapons capability. And if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”
Asked about Senor’s statement a few hours later by CBS’s Jan Crawford, Romney twice used the word “respect” and added: “Because I’m on foreign soil I don’t want to be creating new foreign policy for my country.”
In his speech, Romney said, “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and it is right for America to stand with you.” A Romney aide called the notion that, at this point, he backs or supports an Israel raid “absurd.”
Gaffe #3. This, too, was a gaffe that wasn’t—or at least wasn’t Romney’s fault. At the fundraiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, he delivered a riff he often includes in speeches, only this time he added a mention of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Given the location of his speech, this made sense, but it wound up backfiring on Romney.
Romney noted the wide disparity in GDP per capita between Israel and the Palestinian territory. “You notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality,” he said. “And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador. Mexico and the United States.” Then, after citing a scholarly book he’d read, Romney said, “If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: Culture makes all the difference.”
He’d been making this point, in exactly those words, as far back as his 2008 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. In his book No Apology, published in 2010, he wrote that despite a decline in educational standards, “we are fortunate that other factors, such as culture, also play a vital role” in America’s success. And at the University of Chicago in March, he again cited culture and listed the cultural traits he believes are most important. “Our work ethic,” he said. “Our appreciation for education. The willingness of Americans to take risk. Our commitment to honor contract oath, our family devotion. Our commitment to purposes greater than ourselves. Our patriotism.”
Romney didn’t repeat these attributes in his Jerusalem speech, but if he had, it probably wouldn’t have affected what happened next. Most of the press had left before the speech and, joined later by Romney and his entourage, were flying to Poland when the AP put out a story. “Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the nearby Palestinians,” it said in the first paragraph. Two other direct quotations followed. A Romney adviser said the AP story had to have been written without the benefit of a transcript because the only recordings of the speech were on the plane to Poland.
Nonetheless, based on the AP story, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced Romney. “Oh my God, this man needs a lot of education,” he said in a telephone interview. “What he said about the culture is racism.” Erekat said Romney had ignored the effect of the “Israeli occupation” in blocking commerce in the West Bank and limiting economic growth.
In fact, Romney’s concept of culture has nothing to do with race. And Romney aides still on the ground in Jerusalem or at Romney headquarters in Boston were not asked for comment on Erekat’s charge before the AP story appeared. What steps might they have taken if they had been contacted before it was filed? “Those could have included reaching out to Erekat and asking him if he were aware of what Romney actually said,” a Romney aide said. “Was he aware that Romney compared Chile and Ecuador and Mexico and the United States in the same statement and in the same manner as the Palestinians and Israel? Was he aware that Romney had said the same about the United States and France?”
The day before his speech, Romney had met with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. It is Fayyad who has tried with some success to change the culture in the West Bank and improve the business climate along the lines suggested by Romney. Erekat’s blast, however, became the story, and the Romney speech morphed into a gaffe.
Gaffe #4. This one was avoidable but understandable. As Romney was leaving the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw after a ceremony, reporters yelled questions at him about gaffes or the Palestinians. Romney press assistant Rick Gorka was incensed and loudly informed reporters they were being disrespectful of a Polish “holy site” and said they could “kiss my ass.” He soon apologized, but the harm was done.
Eclipsed by the commotion over gaffes was the remarkable character of the Israeli government’s welcome of Romney. Given the fact that Israel will have to work with President Obama for several more months—and possibly four more years—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been expected to welcome Romney, but to be careful not to show excessive enthusiasm. Instead, he praised Romney extravagantly, hugged him, and gave every indication he wants Romney to defeat Obama in the election.
A month or so before the visit, Netanyahu decided to embrace Romney. When Romney showed up for his first meeting with Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama is chilly, the prime minister greeted him effusively. He addressed Romney by his first name. “We’ve known each other for many decades, since you were a young man, but for some reason, you still look young,” he said. Romney laughed. “You’ve been a personal friend of mine and a strong friend of the state of Israel, and that’s why it’s a pleasure to see you.”
Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He praised Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars a week earlier in Reno—a speech notable for its strong attack on Obama’s policies. Without mentioning Obama by name, Netanyahu injected his own criticism. “We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian [nuclear program] by one iota,” he said.
That Romney was being treated like a head of state rather than a candidate was confirmed when he arrived for talks with President Shimon Peres. Romney was told he should remain in his SUV as a red carpet was rolled out. Then Peres walked slowly to the SUV to greet Romney. Unlike Netanyahu, Peres is thought to be sympathetic to Obama. Yet in its own way, his welcome of Romney was as upbeat as Netanyahu’s.
What’s more, Romney, his wife, and son were invited to a family dinner at Netanyahu’s home. When Romney arrived, he received another exuberant welcome, more praise, and the hug. (It’s hard to imagine Netanyahu hugging Obama.) The prime minister had summoned the Israeli press to witness the occasion outside his home. Netanyahu extolled the speech. He particularly appreciated Romney’s insistence that Iran must be kept from gaining even the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. That, by itself, would create an imminent threat to Israel.
The Netanyahu-Romney talks were friendly but serious. Romney asked if the Iranian people would rally behind the ruling mullahs if Israel attacked the nuclear sites. To explain why he doesn’t think so, Netanyahu told the story of his visit to Uganda in 2005. He’d been invited for the unveiling of a plaque honoring his brother Yonatan, killed in 1976 while leading a daring commando raid that freed 102 Israelis held hostage by terrorists who’d hijacked their plane and been given refuge in Entebbe, Uganda, by dictator Idi Amin.
Netanyahu asked Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni why Ugandans hadn’t rushed to support Amin after Israel invaded their country. The raid, Museveni told him, was a turning point in the effort to oust Amin. It boosted Amin’s opponents by revealing how vulnerable he was. Amin was overthrown in 1979. What Netanyahu was suggesting to Romney is that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program might similarly help undermine the Tehran regime.
Obama’s unprecedented efforts to undermine Romney’s trip reflect the weakness of his bid for reelection. Has an incumbent president ever before mounted a political offensive by the White House and his campaign to take down a political rival traveling overseas? Never.
Obama pulled out all the stops. Romney’s 36 hours in Israel were bracketed by visits to Israel by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The Clinton stopover was scheduled shortly after Romney’s trip was announced and seemed to have no purpose besides waving the Obama flag. She followed, by two days, a working visit to Israel by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
Though Obama had little to do with passage of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, he scheduled an Oval Office signing ceremony the day before Romney was to fly to Israel. The White House wanted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to attend and was furious to discover he’d returned to Israel for the Romney trip. As a result, there was no Israeli on stage at the ceremony. The $70 million in new funding is to increase production of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system. (Incidentally, at the signing ceremony, Obama said Israel would get $70 billion—without correcting himself or being accused of a gaffe.) Not coincidentally, Defense Secretary Panetta appeared six days later in Israel with Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a photo-op at an Iron Dome site.
The Obama campaign unleashed attacks on Romney by political supporters before and after the trip. In between, Jen Psaki, whose title is “campaign traveling press secretary,” joined an Obama trip on Air Force One to a New York fundraiser to trash Romney. He’s “been fumbling the foreign policy football from country to country,” she told reporters. “And there’s a threshold question that he has to answer for the American people, and that’s whether he is prepared to be commander in chief.”
The Romney trip became an obsession at the White House, all the more so when Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who became Poland’s president and won a Nobel Peace Prize, endorsed Romney for president. The next day, a Solidarity official said Walesa didn’t speak for the union. As luck would have it, the official had just learned from “our friends in the American trade union central AFL-CIO” that Romney was anti-union.
When Romney returned home last week, campaign aides said they’re eager to improve relations with the press. It won’t be easy. As successful as Romney’s trip was on substantive issues, it solidified the notion that he’s a gaffe machine. It’s unfair and, more often than not, untrue, and it won’t keep him from beating Obama. But it sure won’t help.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.