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.