The Elusive Hunt for the ‘Real Romney’

How the search for a politician's true identity leads to pathological media coverage

Though he launched his first run for president more than five years ago, Mitt Romney is still widely seen as an enigmatic figure. With opponents for the GOP presidential nomination raising questions about the sincerity of the former Massachusetts governor’s beliefs, journalists and commentators have launched a round of speculation about who “the real Romney” is. (The phrase is even the title of a new biography from two Boston Globe reporters). Even Romney himself has embraced the “real Romney” framework as these questions have mounted, telling National Review this week that he “wanted to make sure that people remember the real Mitt Romney, not the one being fabricated by my opponents.” The process amounts to a public interrogation not of Romney’s record or his agenda, but of his very being.

Of course, Romney is hardly the first candidate to suffer this sort of treatment. Back in 2008, for instance, numerous articles and TV segments tried to answer who the “real” Barack Obama was—a question that was asked suggestively by John McCain in an attempt to create doubts about the Democratic presidential nominee. Similarly, George W. Bush’s campaign helped drive similar coverage asking who the “real” John Kerry was back in 2004. And, perhaps most notably, journalists frequently portrayed Al Gore as inauthentic and asked whether they were seeing the “real” Gore during his 2000 presidential campaign.

With such a pattern in mind, it’s worth asking: Why does the media keep searching for the authentic self of certain politicians? And what consequences does that approach have for the coverage that results?

The first point to note is that the quest for a person’s true self isn’t limited to politics or journalism. As Rich Yeselson wrote this week on the group blog Crooked Timber, the search for a “deeply internalized ‘authenticity’ which dramatically reveals our true, inner selves” is “one of modernity’s most potent fantasies” and one that “seems especially urgent in the case of those few who wish to be our president.” This impulse is reinforced by journalists’ perceived duty to learn about candidates’ character and by media outlets’ economic incentives to cover politicians like celebrities.

However, the idea that reporters or commentators can discover a candidate’s “true” self is deeply flawed. This approach falsely privileges hidden or private information as especially revealing of a person’s true nature or motivations. More fundamentally, as Yeselson correctly points out, people do not have one true self but instead behave differently in different social contexts—a human tendency that is likely to be especially strong in any successful politician.

Why, then, are certain candidates more likely to be portrayed as inauthentic or somehow lacking in a well-defined “true” or “real” self? It’s partly a structural issue. In some cases, a politician faces a constituency in a run for higher office that differs from one he (or she) previously represented. The change in issue positions and campaign style that typically results from such a change is frequently construed as reflecting personal inauthenticity. In Romney’s case, he had to make the switch from the moderate stances that allowed him to win election as governor of Massachusetts to the conservative positions required to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The other major factor is a candidate’s raw political skill. While journalists tend to avoid expressing their own policy views, they are quite comfortable assessing a candidate’s ability to perform the rites of politics. These judgments are often cloaked in the language of authenticity. As Paul Waldman writes at The American Prospect, “what [reporters] often value more than anything else is not authenticity itself, but the most convincing portrayal of the authentic.” For instance, George W. Bush’s frequent brush-clearing on his Texas ranch was generally covered respectfully even though he purchased the ranch immediately before his presidential campaign and spent his formative years at an elite New England prep school. By contrast, Romney is seemingly incapable of performing authenticity in the way that modern politics demands.

When a candidate acquires a reputation for inauthenticity, journalists often engage in a pathological search for further evidence of his of her phoniness. In this sense, the closest precedent for the coverage Romney has received is Al Gore. Like Romney, Gore acquired a reputation as a phony in part due to a mismatch between two constituencies (his home state of Tennessee and the Democratic primary electorate) and lacked the political skill to plausibly bridge that gap. As a result, the media covered him derisively during the 2000 campaign, portraying his cowboy boots, the color of his clothing, and even the number of buttons on his suits as reflecting his lack of a true self. Every shift in emphasis or position that Gore made was framed as his latest fraudulent persona and his statements were frequently taken out of context to portray him as a liar or exaggerator.

While Romney has not been treated as poorly as Gore, coverage of the GOP frontrunner has frequently portrayed him in a similar manner. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank captured the parallel perfectly, even as he exemplified typical media attitudes, in a January 13 column:

Romney… has an “authentic inauthenticity problem.”

And that is precisely why his struggle is so familiar. He is the political reincarnation of Al Gore, whose campaign I covered with an equal amount of cringing a dozen years ago.

To see Romney, in his Gap jeans, laughing awkwardly at his own jokes and making patently disingenuous claims, brings back all those bad memories of 2000: “Love Story.” Inventing the Internet. Earth tones. Three-button suits. The alpha male in cowboy boots. The iced-tea defense. The Buddhist temple. The sighing during the debate.

Journalists’ fixation on a candidate’s clothing is a telltale sign of this sort of pathological coverage. Back in 2011, several articles on Romney’s early campaign highlighted his jeans and lack of neckties and suggested they were part of an image makeover. More recently, CNN aired a segment in which correspondent Jeanne Moos reported that “while trying to appear as a man of the people, Mitt Romney stumbled into wearing mom jeans.” Romney was promptly mocked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews as inauthentic. (“This guy with his—whadaya call ‘em?—mom jeans or whatever he wears. What is that costume that he wears? What is that costume? Nobody wears clothes like that.”) The trope was subsequently recycled further by David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times even as he admitted its weakness. Horsey drew a cartoon mocking Romney’s “mom jeans” to accompany a blog post that conceded “this rap on Romney seems a bit unfair” before concluding: “Yes, it’s silly, but if a candidate’s clothes don’t seem to fit the man, it raises a dangerous doubt in the voter’s mind: Is this guy a fake?”

The perception that we don’t know the true Mitt Romney has fueled interest in personal anecdotes that supposedly provide insights unavailable in his public behavior. Perhaps most famously, an anecdote about Romney putting his dog in a crate on the roof of his station wagon during a family vacation has been repeated nearly fifty times by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who cites it as revealing something about Romney’s character. Syndicated columnist Susan Estrich was even more explicit in expressing the idea that the incident provides some deep insight into Romney’s character:

Presidential elections are, in a very fundamental way, tests of character. You can’t predict all the issues or crises that will face the person you elect president, which means that character, ultimately, counts for more than position papers and platforms.

And in my book, as a dog lover, nothing tells you as much about a person’s character as how they treat their dog…

Before I decide what I think about this man’s character, I need to know more about that trip — and that dog.

If Romney does secure the Republican presidential nomination within the next few months, these tendencies are likely to become far worse as bored reporters and pundits confront the prospect of a long general election campaign featuring a candidate many of them loathe. Romney’s life will be dissected and his psyche analyzed still further in search of a true self that has previously been hidden, but the reality is that we’re unlikely to ever discover the “real” Mitt Romney—it’s a hopeless quest.

Can the media do better? Yes. The idea behind the search for a candidate’s “real” identity is that it will help voters understand how he might govern. But as it turns out, the best guide to the kind of president Romney will be comes from the promises he’s making right now on the campaign trail. History suggests that those commitments are largely authentic; journalists should cover them as such.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.