Listen to this article
The Republican primary season has provided great fodder for the late night television comedians. But it is not because the candidates themselves have been barrels of intentional laughs.
Indisputably the least funny of the men running for the presidential nomination has been Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He may have great hair and a flashing smile but the eyes are cold, the body language robotic and he gives the sense that campaigning is akin to having teeth pulled.
By contrast, of the four last men standing, Ron Paul, the septuagenarian crackpot libertarian, is a happy warrior; Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, is so excited with his vast ego that he has trouble containing himself; while even Rick Santorum, a former senator, perhaps amazed by his surprising success, has moments that are not purely pious.
Not so Mitt. In 20 debates, it is hard to recall a single spontaneous unscripted episode, let alone a joke. The most telling moment was last week in Arizona when the moderator, CNN’s John King, asked the candidates a final question; were there public misconceptions about them they would like to correct?
The other three made a fist of it but Romney launched into his standard stump recitation. Mr King politely reminded him of the question, for which he got a flea in his ear: you get to ask the questions, Romney thundered, I get to answer any way I like. Talk about missed opportunities.
Political history suggests that this rigidity does not help candidates seeking the highest office in the land. They need to reveal something of themselves, a lighter side if necessary, a fondness for Proust in extremis, to establish rapport with the voting public. In 1992, Bill Clinton, sporting sunglasses, played Heartbreak Hotel on his saxophone on late night television and ended up in the White House, emulating Richard Nixon who had tinkled the ivories for Jack Paar, the talk show host, 30 years earlier.
Twice recently, Barack Obama, who has the born orator’s sense of comic timing, has sung bars from blues songs at semi-public events, not for long enough to grab the attention of the music critics but sufficient to suggest he might be able to hold a tune. Romney did warble a few lines from the second verse of the patriotic song, “America The Beautiful” (naturally), revealing only that he would never have made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In the last eight presidential elections, the stiffer candidate has lost. Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 are the prime examples of losers who, if looser, might have won. The same could be said of Michael Dukakis in 1988, a fish out of water when forced to pose atop an army tank. And this is only one way in which Romney’s campaign resembles theirs.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was patently more comfortable in his own skin than Jimmy Carter, manifested by his killer line, “there you go again”, in the climactic debate when the incumbent president was prosing at length. Bush Senior did not help his cause with the common folk when baffled by a supermarket check-out line in 1992. In his two election victories, Bush Junior, fond of college fraternity and locker room humour, was perceived as someone it would be nicer to have a beer with than Gore (organic carrot juice) or Kerry (a decent chardonnay). Beer outsells both in America.
Romney is, at his core, a creature of the boardroom. As the comedian Jon Stewart immortally observed, he may wear jeans (pressed, not ripped or pre-stressed) on the stump but there have to be suit trousers underneath. He speaks only the language of PowerPoint and seems unable to depart from a script to which humour, or any other non-corporate sentiment, is alien.
So what can Romney do to humanise himself? Strip to the waist like Putin (the long undergarments could be a problem)? Tie a dead deer, not the mere “varmints” he said had been his previous targets, to the roof of his car, rather than the family dog? Admit he really likes Massachusetts, rather than portray it as Sodom on the Charles River? I’d humbly suggest hiring a funny man as speech writer (er, and an acting coach, too).
The trouble with this is two fold. If he changes his personality spots, he would risk being labelled, again, a flip-flopper. But, as a man so clearly rooted in the 1950s, the laugh lines would be more Jack Benny than Jon Stewart.