The faster-than-a-tweet, fleeter-than-a-sound-bite pace of the presidential campaign upends our basic conceptions of time and duration. It is disconcerting to realize that less than 10 days ago only a few cognoscenti knew anything about Paul Ryan’s abs or his workout routines, let alone the secret wooded exit route from his Wisconsin home. Yet for all the Ryan minutiae that has become national news, and all the tick-tock accounts of the clandestine maneuvers leading up to his selection, we still know surprisingly little about how and why Mitt Romney made the biggest decision of his presidential campaign.
The evening of the August 11 Ryan rollout, Beth Myers, the loose-lips-sink-ships director of the vice-presidential search committee, gave a 30-minute briefing to reporters at Dulles International Airport on how it all happened. Unsurprisingly for what was essentially one-source journalism, there was a comic similarity among the major media stories, as Oliver Willis gleefully recounted in his blog at The Daily Banter. But as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple correctly stressed at his media blog, Myers talking on the record is far preferable to whispered leaks or no inside-the-Romney-bubble chronology at all.
The journalistic problem is that once you strip away the dishy details about saving the privacy of Ryan from the media’s prying eyes, Myers offered little grist about Romney’s thought processes. There was no clarity on whom the candidate depended on for initial advice (“He talked with a lot of people,” said the elusive Myers), the role of conservative cheerleaders in plumping for Ryan (both The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page weighed in after Romney had already secretly named his veep), or the political calculations that shaped the pick. What we do know is that Romney met with his senior advisers on August 1 for what Myers called “a final gut check” and then, having decided on Ryan, set up an August 5 meeting to offer him the second-banana slot.
That was about it, although Politico in its morning-after story by Mike Allen, Ginger Gibson, and Maggie Haberman, did offer a few additional nuggets based on not-for-attribution interviews with Romney friends and advisers. Some of the Politico detail was revealing, particularly that “friends said that Romney became uncharacteristically stressed as he stewed over the final cut.” But not surprisingly there was also gushy campaign spin, such as this blind quote from an adviser: “It’s fun to watch them together—sometimes they go into wonk-world together.”
During the week since Ryan became Romney’s hope, we have not moved much beyond what Myers offered at her initial Dulles briefing. By far, the most revealing piece of the puzzle was Sunday’s New York Times front-page story by Michael Barbaro, tracing the history of the Romney-Ryan relationship back to a one-hour meeting in 2007. The article gains heft from on-the-record quotes from Tom Rath, the New Hampshire Republican attorney and political kingmaker who has been a long-time Romney confidant. Unlike Myers or any other publicly identified Romney adviser, Rath talks about Ryan offering “a link to the emerging Tea Party or the hard right.” Of course, Rath also repeats the new Romney-Ryan buzz phrase: “They are both, in their essence, wonks.”
The most provocative behind-the-scenes account of the Ryan pick was an August 16 BuzzFeed story by McKay Coppins. It posited a veep battle between the pro-Ryan Romney family (particularly Ann Romney and eldest son Tagg) and the more cautious political advisers. A story like this written in the heat of a campaign is never going to blessed with on-the-record comments, although I do wish Coppins had offered more specific guidance about his major unattributed quotes than “one source,” “a family friend,” and “one friend.” Still, there is a sophisticated tenor to his account, which notes that the “dynamics between political staffers and family members are notoriously complex.”
And Jimmy Vielkind of the Albany Times Union deserves a shout-out for his creative pursuit of the local angle. Vielkind snagged an interview with Beth Myers’s son, Curt Myers, an incoming sophomore at nearby Union College, who drove Ryan to the secret August 5 rendezvous at which Romney offered him a place on the ticket. As probably the first outsider to talk to Romney’s just-anointed running mate, Curt Myers has credibility when says about Ryan’s demeanor on the ride back, “It wasn’t like he suddenly got on his high horse … I didn’t notice a huge change.”
Even the most detailed accounts to date leave the reader feeling that there are important untold parts of this story, though. After more than three decades of covering presidential politics, I acknowledge the difficulty of delving below the surface of a hermetically sealed campaign like Romney’s. Without publicly reported turmoil or ousted staffers, it is daunting to find an insider who will even offer banalities on background about anything more substantive than this week’s he-said-and-he-responded-with-outrage media flap, or the latest strategic gambit in Ohio.
But nothing that Romney will do or say in this campaign—neither his convention acceptance speech, nor his debate performances—will be as emblematic of his governing style in the White House as his choice of Ryan as his running mate. Thinking about Romney mulling over the veep pick file folders that Myers assembled for him, you can easily extrapolate to a president picking a Supreme Court justice or secretary of State.
Well, you could—except that we don’t know much about what was in Romney’s mind, other than an intense need for secrecy. That is why I hope that the reporters covering his campaign will keep searching for more details about what convinced the de facto GOP nominee to shun seemingly safe choices like Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman in favor of the more dynamic—and controversial—42-year-old congressman from Janesville. The answer, I suspect, is more complex than Romney wanting to change the campaign conversation from Bain Capital, or placating the Tea Party movement, or even seeing in Ryan a surrogate son.
Sure, the hijinks that the Romney campaign employed to camouflage Ryan from the press are amusing. But the dearth of in-the-room Romney narrative reminds us how little we actually know about what really goes on in a disciplined presidential campaign. Beth Myers parted the curtains for 30 minutes of semi-candor. All of us covering the campaign should feel a sense of humility about our inability to get much further than that in Mitt World.