By MAUREEN DOWD. WASHINGTON
SO the Republican presidential contender, eager to show off more than gubernatorial experience, travels overseas to bolster his foreign policy credentials. Then, in a TV interview, he blurts out a shockingly ill-considered, if undeniably true, observation that snowballs until the poor guy collapses into an international punch line.
It was a vertiginous fall for George Romney, who, while running for president in 1967, asserted that generals and diplomats had given him “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” when he toured Vietnam two years earlier.
And it was painful for Mitt, who had to watch his father’s epic gaffe from afar, while he was over in France struggling to drum up a few Mormon converts.
In their book “The Real Romney,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman quoted Mitt’s sister Jane as saying the episode deeply affected Mitt: “He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”
That’s when Mitt began to build his own sterile biosphere, shaping his temperament and political career to make sure he never stumbled into such a costly moment of candor.
Even though the Mormon doesn’t drink coffee, he has measured out his life in coffee spoons, limiting access to reporters, giving interviews mostly to Fox News, hiding personal data, resisting putting out concrete policy proposals, refusing to release tax returns, trimming his conscience to match the moment, avoiding spontaneity. But somehow he ended up making the same unforced error that his dad did.
It’s like the epigraph in John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra.” You can run from fate, but fate will be waiting in the next town, at the next marketplace.
Even as he angled to appear Anglo-Saxon and obsequiously vowed to restore the bust of Churchill to the Oval Office, Mitt condescended to the nation that invented condescension. The Brits swiftly boxed his ears for his insolence and foul calumny.
Conservatives in London oozed scorn. Mayor Boris Johnson mocked “a guy called Mitt Romney,” and Prime Minister David Cameron suggested it was easier to run an Olympics “in the middle of nowhere.” Fleet Street spanked “Nowhere Man” and “Mitt the Twit.”
Conservatives on Fox News were dumbfounded. “You have to shake your head,” Karl Rove said. Charles Krauthammer pronounced the faux pas “unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible. I’m out of adjectives.”
The alarming thing about Romney is that he has been running for president for years, but he still doesn’t know how to read a room. He doesn’t take anything in, he just puts it out. He doesn’t hear himself the way the rest of us hear him.
In the Mitt-sphere, populated by his shiny white family, the Mormon Church and a narrow, homogenous inner circle, Romney’s image of himself as wise, caring, smart and capable is relentlessly reinforced. That leaves him constantly surprised that other people don’t love what he is saying.
We may wince when the blithering toff, or want-wit, as Shakespeare would say, arrives at the Brits’ home and throws his Cherry Coke Zero can in the prize rose bushes. But what drives his gaffes is his desire to preen over accomplishments.
As a candidate, he’s expected to stoop to conquer, to play a man of the people. But he really wants voters to know that he earned $250 million, and not even in the same business where his dad made a name for himself.
So he keeps blurting out hoity-toity stuff to make sure we know he’s not hoi polloi — about his friends who are Nascar owners, his wife’s Cadillacs, how he likes to fire people and how he, too, is unemployed. And he builds a car elevator in the middle of an economic slough.
In his interview with Brian Williams in London, Romney couldn’t resist giving himself the laurels for saving the Salt Lake City Games by analyzing whether the British ones were off by a hair, or a hire.
Then he tried to scamper back to the obligatory common-man script and ended up looking clumsy and the one thing he most certainly is not: unuxorious.
After going all the way to London to see the Olympics, he decides he won’t watch his wife’s mare, Rafalca, compete in horse ballet? He tries to win the political horse race by going to the Games, which are literally a race in which he has a horse, and then feigns disengagement?
“This is Ann’s sport,” Romney told Williams dismissively. “I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event.”
He came across like a wazzock, as The Daily Telegraph called him, using a British insult for a daft know-it-all.
Romney programmed himself into a robot, so he wouldn’t boil over with opinions and convictions, like his more genuine dad.
But if we’re going to have someone who’s removed, always struggling to connect and emote, why not stick with the president we already have?
Better the android you know than the android you don’t know.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 30, 2012
An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect title for a book by John O’Hara. It is “Appointment in Samarra” not “Appointment at Samarra.”