What goes into a Romneyism?
I only ponder this because midway through an otherwise peaceful day I felt a great disturbance in the Awkward Force, as though a million voices cried out that something tremendously awkward was happening and were suddenly silenced.
This often happens when Mitt Romney speaks.
Sure enough, it turned out he was delivering a speech in Detroit at Ford Field.
And, as usual, he informed everyone that one of his favorite things about Michigan is that “trees are the right height.” He has said this repeatedly.
I have no idea what this means. Neither, I suspect, does Mitt. It bears a resemblance to what on TV sitcoms is called chuffa — something that sounds sort of funny but isn’t an actual joke. Most Romney jokes fall into this category. They’re verbal clockwork oranges.
Mitt Romney’s normalcy in artificial environments like GOP debates is only exceeded by his artificiality in normal environments — like, say, Michigan. Some attribute this to the Uncanny Valley — that space that dolls and CGI creations occupy wherein they are just real enough to be unnerving.
Bushisms were one thing; Palinisms another. They had a peculiar logic to them. You could sense the thought within that was trying to break out. But Romneyisms are strange concatenations of words that you’d find in, say, a legacy comic strip from the 1950s, currently written in an underground bunker by people who only know of the 21st century what they read in Brookstone catalogue.
What does this mean? Nothing? Anything? Who knows! “People often speak to each other, using sequences of words,” Romney seems to be saying to himself. “Here’s a sequence of words, mentioning this state and one of its natural features. Why isn’t there laughter?”
There’s awkward, and then there’s Mitt Romney. He speaks Speech English fluently. Conversational English? One time he read an article about it in the Economist. And he bought the Rosetta Stone set! But that’s about as far as it went.
In November, the scope of Mitt Romney’s awkward remarks was wider still, including things like grass color: “Everything seems right here. You know, I come back to Michigan; the trees are the right height. The grass is the right color for this time of year, kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing. It just feels right.”
What? Kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing? In general, when you find yourself in kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing, stop walking and clean off your shoe.
Friday afternoon, he spoke in Michigan to a crowd of close family, many empty chairs, and some bewildered-looking people who did not seem to understand the joke about the trees, which he dutifully repeated. In the course of a single speech, he mentioned the height of the trees, the lack of people in the crowd, and the fact that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.”
Multiple Cadillacs, huh? Gee. It’s not even silver foot-in-mouth at this point. Hayden Christensen delivered more believable dialogue.
It’s as though Romney prepared all his off-the-cuff remarks very carefully in advance and carries them on index cards in his pocket. Spontaneity? “I read a book on How To Be Spontaneous once and can now recite large swaths of it from memory!” Romney volunteers.
All Mitt Romney’s off-hand remarks fall into the category of Awkward Brownish-Greenish Things Actual People Do Not Say. These quips! These exhausted jests! It’s CGI dialogue. It has all the characteristic features of speech, but it sounds like nothing you would ever say. Even when it works, there’s something off about it.
It’s not that he hits wrong notes. It’s that he’s tone-deaf. When you have someone who knows how the tune goes, an occasional wrong note is inevitable. But whenever Mitt Romney says something, everyone’s response tends to be, “Who ARE you?”
President Obama is not known for his giftedness in off-hand remarks either. But he has discovered that he can sing. Mitt can’t quite pull that off yet. He tried, though. (“President Obama sings to people,” he seemed to think. “I too will produce singing sounds, to inspire a similar response!”)
The one exception was the debate, Wednesday night, when he quoted George Costanza. He seemed relaxed and at ease. But that was one of those artificial environments where he thrives. There were no trees to throw him off.