Mitt Romney is:

A phony
An Eagle Scout
The Dad who’s never home
The man you want to marry
but not the kind of man who sends a thrill up your leg
Mr Collins (a marriage of convenience)
A house, with a solid basement, but not a dream kitchen

A white shadow
A windsock
A shell, a wall, a mask
A well-oiled weathervane
The Tin Man with a Tin Ear
The stainless steel candidate
The pretzel candidate
Zeppo

A cold-hearted businessman
An empty suit
A tall and square-jawed man with impressive hair
The ordinary American, who flies and eats cheap just like us
A fat cat
A robot, the Romney-bot
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks
A hollow man
A phantom
A man with no core
A lazy media construct
A hoax
Weird

So many things, and yet, nothing at all—

Given that Mitt Romney announced his presidential run seven months ago, and that this is not the first time the former Massachusetts governor ran for president, there have been an unusual number of stories recently suggesting that we have no idea who this man—subject of dozens of magazine profiles, scores of daily stories, and all the descriptions above since June—actually is.

Just last week, for example, New York magazine asked, alongside a faceless headshot of the frontrunner, “Who in God’s Name is Mitt Romney?” Asserting that “the ‘Mitt Romney’ we’ve been sold since 2008 is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax,” New York columnist Frank Rich provided 4,000+ words to try to answer that question, and to explain why we don’t yet know the answer to it.

Michael Tomasky, writing in the January 26 issue of The New York Review of Books made a similar effort to explain Romney, saying, “There still seems something missing in the man.”

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in what serves as a companion piece to Rich’s, took on the subject in the February 4 Sunday Review, “Mitt’s Muffled Soul”; The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis weighed in February 6 with his own theory, while NBC’s First Read e-mail that morning kicked off, “Who is Mitt Romney?”

Why are we still asking this question? And if the press hasn’t gotten to the bottom of Romney yet, How now?


W hen the press comes up against the blank wall that Romney projects, some of its members tend to come up with psychological theories about why he is so opaque.

And indeed, Rich, Tomasky, Bruni, and MacGillis give it their best shot by turning their X-ray goggles on Romney’s soul. Rich and Bruni blame Romney’s unknowable-ness on Mormonism. MacGillis’ theory is Vietnam and Tomasky points to Romney’s “father’s unfulfilled destiny.” But interesting as these pieces of armchair psychoanalysis are, they are flawed.

Rich says that “faith is key to the Romney mystery” and Romney should open up—and the media should ask more—about his faith (Bruni echoes these sentiments):

… In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. Which leaves him unable to talk about the very subject he seems to care about most, a lifelong source of spiritual, familial, and intellectual sustenance. We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

(I would argue this is too harsh: if there is one consistent detail of Romney’s public biography, it’s that he’s a Mormon. He has been private about his faith, but not dishonest. And he has a right to that privacy about his spiritual life, as do President Obama, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. As for Rick Santorum, less might be more.)

While Bruni’s piece is a more fair-minded rendering of Rich’s argument, MacGillis’s post—noting the flurry of articles attempting to explain Romney’s “reticence on religion” (he also notes Randall Balmer’s piece on the topic in The New Republic)—offers a bizzare alternative as to why the candidate doesn’t want to discuss his Mormonism: that his work abroad as a Mormon missionary allowed him to dodge the draft.

Romney’s trying years in France spared him the risk of some far, far more trying years in former French Indochina. As The Real Romney, the new Romney biography by two Boston Globe writers, recounts, Romney received a 4-D draft exemption as a “minister of religion or divinity student” that protected him from the draft from July 1966 to February 1969. The Mormon exemptions became more controversial as the war in Vietnam escalated, with some non-Mormons in Utah filing a federal lawsuit against them in 1968.

Tomasky’s article, meanwhile, is for the most part insightful as he relies more heavily on biographical information he gleans from two recently published books on Romney. His efforts at psychoanalysis are fortunately limited to:

Commentators have spent countless hours speculating whether Romney is “really” moderate or conservative. The answer is that he is neither, and both. The lessons he learned from watching his father fail to make it to the White House are: don’t stick to your guns; be flexible; suit the needs of the moment. And so, in order to complete his father’s unfulfilled destiny, he has decided to become his father’s opposite.

Now, certainly, one of the duties of a political journalist, particularly those covering a presidential election, is to shed light on the character of the candidates. And if there’s a character in need of illumination this year it may indeed be Romney, whose resistance to the press and media appearances is well-documented. His reputation as a blank canvas are not undeserved: Rich, quite rightly asserts:

We don’t know who Romney is for the simple reason that he never reveals who he is.

This is the theory I’d offer for why Romney seems like such a phantom to journalists: he avoids us.

As Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported in December, Romney has only granted access for profiles in Parade and People magazines. Meanwhile, Robert Draper, who wrote his Romney profile “Building a Better Romney-bot,” for New York Times Magazine last December had this experience with the candidate’s campaign, per his story:

I asked the campaign staff if I could talk to Romney about his economic proposals. They replied that in the interests of controlling the campaign’s message, the candidate would not be participating in any profiles or “process stories.

That’s perhaps one way to control his message, but it’s not a terribly effective one to control the media’s, who must report on the frontrunner whether he cooperates or not. In erring on the side of caution, Romney has estranged himself from the media and the public, and stirred suspicion that he has something to hide.

Here’s Rich:

Even when he is not lying about his history—whether purporting to have been “a hunter pretty much all my life” (in 2007) or to being a denizen of “the real streets of America” (in 2012)—he is incredibly secretive about almost everything that makes him tick. He has been in hiding throughout his stints in both the private and public sectors. While his career-long refusal to release his tax returns was damaging in itself, it resonated even more so as a proxy for all the other secrets he has kept and still keeps.

Dogged reporting (like that of Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in their book The Real Romney) or even a basic archive search (see here for a time when Romney was more open about his faith) is one way to deal with this vacuum. Armchair psychoanalysis is, for better or worse, another.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.