Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Republican Gang, Part Seven

Okay, here goes.

Who's Mitt?

Throughout this series, I have continuously referred to the man as the Whirr/Clack Mechanism. It's not much of a compliment, to be sure, but neither is it much of an analysis.

So, let's delve a little more deeply.


On Aug. 31, 1967, Romney's father, then governor of Michigan and candidate for the presidency of the United States, did an interview in Detroit. He tried to explain his early support for the Vietnam war. "Well," he said, "you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.”

Admitting to having been "brainwashed" by the US military into supporting the Vietnam war? That wasn't a very smart thing to say, not when you want to become president of the United States. "Hi everyone. My name is George Romney. I've been brainwashed by the military, and I think I'd be a swell commander in chief!"

Mitt Romney was 20 years old at the time, serving as a Mormon missionary in France. By all accounts, he never quite got over his father's mistake.

And certainly it seems he has tried, and tried very hard, not to make any of his own. Throughout his adult life, he has been cautious, scrupulous and, oftentimes, secretive. Unlike his father, he never shoots from the hip. Instead, he will amass all the information he can, he will crunch all the numbers, and only then he will do what he feels is right. If, that is, it also seems expedient.


Romney's stint as missionary lasted 30 months, as is customary in the Mormon Church. Afterwards, he performed many duties on behalf of his church. Some were more or less organisational, but many others were charitable. He came from a long line of eminent Mormons, and has always taken his task as their successor to heart.

In many ways, this is honourable. In some ways, though, it raises questions. Primarily, this isn't because of Romney himself; rather, it is because of his faith, which is frankly suspect.

Mormonism was founded by John Smith. In March 1826, Smith was convicted by a court in New York for being "a disorderly person and an impostor." The conviction wasn't much of a surprise, since during the trial Smith had admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing gold-digging expeditions (he also admitted to possessing "necromantic" powers).

This was the man who, a few years later, claimed to have discovered the Book of Mormon, a series of golden plates upon which was written, in a strange tongue, the history of the indigenous people of America and the truth of the gospels. Of course, no one ever saw these plates; when Smith set about translating them at his home, with a neighbour called in to write everything down (Smith himself couldn't write), a curtain was hung between them.

The Book of Mormon explained, among many other things, that the American Indians were the descendants of Nephi and his family, a man who had left Jerusalem in 600 BC and travelled by boat to "the promised land" (the Americas). It also explained that Jesus Christ himself visited the Americas after his crucifixion (3 Nephi, Ch. 11).

Such notions seem evidently absurd, as does the notion that Joseph Smith was an actual prophet. Add to this other well known Mormon concepts - such as polygamy (abandoned in 1890 after a "revelation"), or the idea that black people cannot become priests (abandoned in 1978 after another "revelation"), and it becomes very difficult to take Mormonism seriously.

Nevertheless, Mitt Romney does seem to take it seriously. The thing is, though, we don't really know to what extent. There are pieces of the puzzle that are missing, and we have no real knowledge of what he believes in. One might well argue that here, again, the shutters have been drawn, but that's about as far as any conclusion can go.


After graduation, Romney went to work for the Boston Consulting Group. In 1977, he left to join Bain & Company, a management consulting firm. In 1984, he became CEO of the off-spin company Bain Capital.

The idea behind Bain Capital was to further the techniques already employed by Bain & Company. Unlike Bain & Company, Bain Capital would not just offer consultancy; instead, it would actually buy into companies. It was, in short, a private equity investment firm. And it was a firm that, within a few years, was heavily into so-called leveraged buy-outs. That is: using the money provided to it by its clients, Bain would buy (a controlling interest in) a firm; the clients' money would be protected by means of securing it via the firm's assets.

Although this is by no means set in stone, there are basically two ways Bain's clients could make money from this. The first is simply when the firm acquired prospered. After all, when that happened the shares (the equity) in the firm rose in value; so, generally speaking, would the worth of its assets. The second was when the firm was sold or dismantled, in which case the worth of the assets could well be more than the clients' original investment.

In short, whether or not Bain's activities lead to prosperous and healthy companies - and, therefore, to the creation of jobs - can't be deduced simply by the nature of those activities. Whether Romney was a "job creator" or a "vulture capitalist" can't be concluded from the fact that he was CEO of Bain. In order to reach a conclusion either way, one would have to analyse all the investments Bain made whilst Romney was CEO, and such an assessment is very difficult, given the private (and therefore confidential) nature of the dealings involved.

Having said that, I'd be surprised if Romney didn't come out on top if such an assessment were ever made. I base that on Bain's background as a consulting firm, on its (and Romney's) considerable success, and on some of the well-known examples, such as Staples. He probably can be credited for creating quite a few more jobs than he destroyed, even if that wasn't the business he was in.


Romney's career as a politician is, at best, a little shaky. All in all, there's rather less to it than one might at first think.

It is, of course, well known that he was governor of Massachusetts. However, he only served a single term, from 2003 to 2007. Halfway through it, in 2005, he had already decided to run for president, which was one of the reasons why he did not seek a second term. Another one may well have been the fact that times were tough for Republicans; if he had run for governor again, he may well have lost.

Besides this, there is not all too much to tell. Back in 1994, Romney ran for the US Senate, rather bravely taking on Ted Kennedy. He lost, though. And of course, in 2008 he ran for president, again losing.

It has been said that, in effect, Romney's political career is less that of a politician, and more that of someone trying to become a politician. It is certainly true that he has effectively been running for president since 2006. It's been six years now; six long and no doubt expensive years. That shows some determination, if nothing else.


By all accounts, Romney did extremely well at Bain Capitol. He has another accomplishment he can be proud of, however, and it may well be more important: the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. When Romney was brought in, there were severe money problems, not to mention bribery allegations; there was actually talk of moving the games elsewhere. Romney changed all that, and there is no doubt that his efforts were highly successful. He's known by some as Mr Fix-It; if the name is appropriate, it is largely because of the 2002 games.


So, what does all this tell us? Well, great deal, and not very much at all.

It shows us a man driven by his sense of duty, a determined man capable of many things. But it also shows us someone who is, in many ways, the opposite of what a president has to be.

A president has to be, as much as possible, an avatar. He must be, as much as possible, a composite of his people. He can - and indeed, should - be smarter than most, better educated, more astute. But even if he is better than the mold, he still has be "one of us". He has to be a role model; he has to be the guy you look at and say, "hey, me too", even when you know that's just wishful thinking on your part.

Romney isn't that man. He's got a great business record, but ran a business where it didn't really matter whether jobs were created or destroyed. He's a devoted father, but his faith - which so strongly influences his approach to family issues - is difficult to comprehend, let alone respect. He's running a long, determined campaign, but at least some of his drive seems to derive from his father's failure. And taken on its own, his political record is patchy; in many ways, the four years he was governor are the very years he's now shying away from.

In Utah, he's shown that he can actually get things done, but that was a distinctly Fix-It approach. It doesn't change the fact that, overall, Romney can best be described by what he lacks. What he lacks is vision, and vision is another one of those essential components for a good president.

There's another thread running through all this, or perhaps it's just another way of describing the same thing. It's that Romney has a curious inability to actually be someone, or at the least to appear to be somebody. That is, to be more than a persona, more than a mask. There's a conundrum involved here: the people you respect most are, as often as not, quite similar to yourself, but the reason you respect them is because they are also distinct - different - from you. It's a conundrum Romney hasn't quite been able to figure out. The more he wants to be liked, the less he is; his very desire to be accepted seems to alienate him.

All in all, it must be very difficult to be a Whirr/Clack Mechanism. It must be very difficult to be so cautious, to have shielded yourself to such an extent you've locked yourself up in your own cocoon, and yet nevertheless to feel this need to become president of the United States. To try and break out, only to suddenly hear yourself uttering something terribly alien like "I'm not concerned about the very poor".

In some ways, Romney comes close to being his father's son. In others, he seems more like a flawed simulacrum.

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