Monday, July 30, 2012

Hands Across The Sea: What Hyacinth Bucket Could Teach Mitt Romney

Hands Across The Sea; What Hyacinth Bucket Could Teach Mitt Romney

A handsome, immaculately dressed man strides purposefully into Buckingham Palace, is led by liveried servants to an inner sanctum where the Monarch sits at her desk, escorts her (and her Corgis) through the hallowed halls to a waiting helicopter, where the pair are whisked through London, and  parachute into a rhapsodic Olympic crowd.

They alight, remove their gear, and the man turns to his companion and says “I’m not sure pink really suits you.”

Mitt Romney had travelled many thousands of miles to hoist the flag of American Exceptionalism at the very center of the people who had sought to deny it (albeit 250 years ago) and he wasn’t going to give an inch of deference. Diplomacy be dammed.

So, he criticized his hosts for the way they were handling the Olympics.  The implication was clear-he could have done it better. The Brits, needless to say, were not amused, and let him know. “Mitt The Twit” was my favorite headline. 

Really, this is a tempest in a Royal Doulton teapot with hand-painted periwinkles.  It was a gaffe, and Romney walked it back a bit before going on to a GOP campaign rally in Israel. But a small gaffe. one of delicacy rather than of substance.

Besides, if you ask the Brits, they revel in poking a bit at the egos and pretensions of the better than thou.  One of my favorite Brit-coms is “Keeping Up Appearances” where the indomitable Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet, it’s of French Origin”) holds court, desperately holding on amidst a sea of crassness and hopeless relatives.  She’s bossy, pretentious, loud, overbearing, and every bit a delight.   Part of the genius of the series is that everyone is on to her-she's the only one not in on the joke.  And part of the genius of the actress, Patricia Routledge, is that she never breaks character

Once in a while, a politician will give you that unscripted moment, a little glimpse behind the curtain, that tells you more about them then they want you to know.  Sometimes it’s pretty prosaic: a campaign contribution from a questionable source, or an old film clip of them saying something they would rather just have forgotten.  In a world of 24/7 news and omniscient opposition research, there’s very little that can be hidden for too long, and so the public has grown used to contradictions and even a little indifferent to it.  The 2012 Presidential Election is a study in this.  Few people thought Mr. Obama would be the kind of President he has been, for good and bad.  And even the most full-throated supporters of Mr. Romney, would, in a quieter moment, acknowledge the changeable nature of his convictions.

But policy sometimes matters less than personality.  We want to like the people we elect to lead us.  We will occasionally go against the grain and pick a hothead for a state or local office to shake things up, but realistically, in a democracy, we need to feel some connection.  Reagan and Clinton could make it, Dukakis not at all. 

The jury is out on Romney, but the early returns are not looking good.  I’ve been fascinated by Mitt’s refusal to release his tax returns, and the mystery around exactly what happened at Bain, and when he left.  It fits a pattern of everything Mitt has done-he sanitized the public records of his time at Governor of Massachusetts and there is virtually no public access to the papers regarding his time as head of the 2002 Olympics.

Conventional thinking is that the information is politically embarrassing: tax dodges, Swiss bank accounts, off-shore money, businesses stripped of their assets while workers are let go. The rumors are probably worse than the reality, and (conventional thinking again) Mitt should just get it out there.  Even the estimable Karl Rove has suggested that Mitt be more forthcoming (he knows none of the above would turn off GOP voters.)  But Rove, I think, for once is missing something. 

Mitt’s a cold fish.  That is what the documents probably show.  The guy who famously strapped his dog to the roof of his car (and might have strapped the Queens’ Corgis to the roof of the helicopter if given the chance) is all cold-blooded businessman, all the time.  He is proud of what he has accomplished, proud of the money he has earned, and unabashed by what it can buy.  He’s also unabashed at the methods used to obtain that success.  If I had to guess, absolutely everything Mitt did-every tax deduction, every corporate tactic,  was perfectly legal.  All in the clear.  So why the caution?

There is nothing wrong with either money or pride, when they are earned honestly.  But, a President needs more, and the electorate, on a gut level, understands that.  At Bain, Mitt's job was to maximize returns through financial engineering and “creative destruction.” As President,  he's going to have to do better.  Creative destruction may involve sacrifice by tens of millions of people and wrapping it up in a “good management” bow-tie will be cold comfort for the losers.  As Woodrow Wilson can attest, there’s a line between self-assurance and arrogance.  Fate has an odd way of humbling even the highest.

Poor Hyacinth Bucket learned that as well.  Once, her plans for an afternoon yacht cruise and “nautical buffet with riparian entertainment” came crashing to Earth (and river) leaving her with soaked clothes and a meal of fish and chips.

The Brits know how to laugh at themselves.  Does Mitt?