Mitt Romney’s relationship with the truth is not exactly graceful. During his long strange trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, it seemed he wanted to dance across the globe with the truth in his arms. But he kept stepping on her feet.
A gaffe has been defined as an accidental telling of the truth, and Romney’s much derided comments on the London Olympics qualify. Because as he was the organizer of the Salt Lake City Olympics, he was asked what he thought of preparations for the London games, and he said problems encountered by the London organizers were “disconcerting.” He then listed several problems that have been much discussed in the British press.
British Prime Minster David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson landed on him hard, and the British press relished the opportunity to rhyme Mitt with twit. Romney’s mistake was not that he had said something false, but that he had undiplomatically spoken a truth that it was not his role to speak.
Why would he have done that? One can imagine that faced with the opportunity to appraise preparations in London, Romney’s instinct was to show that he was a straight-talker who could speak blunt truths. But his instincts are not good.
Romney is like a baseball player suffering through a slump. When a hitter is in a slump, he lacks confidence, and he tends to swing at the wrong pitches. He lets the good pitches go by, and he swings at the bad ones.
It is evident that Romney tells truths when he should be diplomatic and he hides from the truth when he should fess up. Thus, he is hiding the truth about his tax returns, presumably because they would contain embarrassing information. Indeed, the profile he is trying to show voters is carefully crafted and managed, and the truth of who he is continues to remain a carefully guarded secret. His beliefs have shifted with the political season. So he habitually passes on the opportunity to be truthful about himself, and he grabs questions like that about the Olympics to show he is a truth-teller. And he whiffs.
It happened again in Israel. What he said about Israel and the Palestinians was not necessarily wrong. The culture of Israel has many qualities allowing Israel to prosper, including the rule of law and freedom for women. The culture of the Arab world has suffered from political corruption and the suppression of women. Arabs have said as much, and the Arab Spring is evidence of it.
Thus, because Romney was determined to flatter and ingratiate himself with his Israeli hosts, he offered an oversimplified interpretation of Israel’s success, referring to Israel’s cultural superiority. The Palestinians decided he was insulting them, which he was, and they called him a racist.
Romney probably was not grieved that he had outraged Palestinians — all the better to burnish his pro-Israel credentials. But his ham-handed truth-telling did not put on display the kind of diplomatic awareness required of a president who, after all, must work to push both parties in the Middle Eastern conflict toward a resolution of their differences.
Then it was onto Poland and a bizarre version of the truth, Romney-style. Romney delivered a speech in which he lauded Poland as a nation that has shown how small government and free enterprise lead to prosperity. But it is a curious form of small government that he was praising. For example, the Polish government provides university education and health care for all. In addition, all mothers receive a $300 subsidy from the government, and poor mothers receive more.
Romney apparently wanted to convey a truth tailored toward Polish-American voters, and he couldn’t be bothered with the facts. President Obama will no doubt have a field day with Romney’s endorsement of Polish-style small government.
Much is made of Romney’s wooden demeanor. His Nixonian awkwardness can be traced to the struggles he experiences as he tries to manage the truth, which seems to come at him like a knuckle ball.
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