From the Judge's Chambers: Mitt Romney and his critics

By William C. Whitbeck

Mitt Romney has a problem: He looks like Wall Street. He is movie-star handsome, well-groomed, well-spoken, and impeccably dressed even when wearing jeans. On the surface, everything about his appearance speaks of money. And the surface is about all we ever see in politics.

The problem, of course, is that much of the American public doesn't like Wall Street, with good reason. The investment bankers who conjured up a witches' brew of incomprehensible financial concoctions--quick, can you tell me what a synthetic derivative is?--are not exactly revered in the work places, homes, and hangouts where most of us live our lives. Seething resentment may best describe our collective attitude. While we certainly like money, we most certainly do not like the money changers.

Some of Romney's opponents in the Republican presidential primaries, notably Governor Rick Perry of Texas and former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Washington , D.C., are attempting to tap into this resentment. Now, Perry definitely does not look like Wall Street. He is right out of an old Marlboro commercial, ruggedly good looking, square-jawed, broad shouldered. He has been a solidly successful governor. And there's one other thing, but I forgot what it was. Oh yes, he finished a distant fifth in the Iowa caucuses and dead last in New Hampshire. His jibes at Romney sound suspiciously like death rattles and when he talks of vultures, he might well be speaking of the carrion birds circling above the carcass of his campaign.

Gingrich is a different story. Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal has described him as both a human hand grenade and an angry little muffin. When he is at his malevolent best, he smiles and smiles. And when he smiles, to me he looks like a white-haired Chuckie doll in a rumpled suit, ready and willing to kill again in the slasher movie we call the South Carolina primary.

Hyperbole aside, Gingrich actually looks like what he is. After decades in the Capital, he is a man of Washington. He is not Wall Street, he is K Street. He is at ease in the corridors of power, paved as they are with taxpayer money. He has gained fame and fortune by exploiting his electoral success with the 1994 Contract with America and his brief tenure as Speaker of the House . . . during which time he managed the impeachment of President Clinton for having an extramarital affair with a White House staffer while he himself was having an extramarital affair with a congressional staffer. In many more ways than that one, Gingrich is the ultimate Washington insider. It is difficult to see how, with that long, long tail of baggage stretching out behind him, he can possibly succeed by portraying himself as an upright, conservative, Reaganesque outsider.

Thus, Romney's problem is not with his Republican primary opponents. His problem is that he needs to shed the Wall Street image and connect with the rest of us. While this may be difficult to implement, the underlying concept is simple enough. Mitt Romney is a decent man. He doesn't drink, smoke, or carry on extramarital affairs. He is deeply devout. He is devoted to his family. He has been a success at everything he has undertaken, from scoring two Harvard degrees at once to rescuing the 2002 Olympics. His story, the compelling narrative of his life, is not about money. It is about intelligence, hard work, and character.

And when Rick Santorum speaks movingly of his grandfather the coal miner, Romney might talk about his grandfather, a monogamous Mormon who nonetheless went into Mexican exile because of his religion and who, after his return to this country with his family (including a young George Romney), spent the Depression in grinding poverty.

In short, Mitt Romney is of a piece with the American dream. His father was a successful governor and he has it in him to be a successful president. And he is the one man in the race who knows enough about Wall Street, without being of it, to do something of substance about its boiling, seething cauldron of excess.

Editor's note: Whitbeck worked for Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, in Lansing, Washington, and Detroit in various capacities from 1967 to 1972, when Romney was Governor of Michigan and Secretary of the Department of Housing & Urban Development.

Published: Thu, Jan 19, 2012

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