If you have a gaffe-prone candidate or one who can’t readily express his views you probably don’t want to let him freely interact with the media. But when you have a candidate who knows a lot, is articulate and doesn’t need a cheat sheet to get through an interview you should let him be his own spokesman. Since Mitt Romney generally falls into the latter category, it remains a mystery why Mitt Romney has done relatively few interviews.
He might have been more relaxed and his much-discussed Bret Baier interview less of a problem had it been one of dozens of TV interviews he’d given during the campaign. But while Romney has done a large number of editorial board sit-downs with more scheduled in the future and done numerous townhalls, he’s been the least interviewed candidate in the race. There is message control and then there’s hiding. By failing to use Romney more extensively on TV interviews with largest audiences, the campaign has in essence unilaterally disarmed. Moreover, while impressive, his local editorial board interviews are not widely reported outside that paper’s readership. Like it or not, in order to shape the electorate’s opinion, you can’t ignore the TV and radio interviewers.
Ironically, in other settings Romney is quite adept at speaking without a text. He’s excelled in the debates and done impressively when he’s rolled out complicated policy initiatives with no notes. So why not let Romney be Romney?
Ah, you say that is the problem. He’s not a compelling personality. But frankly, the campaign has underused his biography. In a fluffy Parade magazine piece he tells about several compelling incidents, which are news even to those covering the race on an hour by hour basis. Take this exchange:
Your eldest son, Tagg, has said that the 30-month mission you went on for your church in 1966 shaped who you are today.
I was sent to live in France among the lower middle class. Each month I received $100 or $110 from home, probably equal to $500 or $600 a month today. With it, I had to pay for everything—rent, food, transportation. The toilet was in the hall, shared by a few apartments, and the shower consisted of attaching a hose to the sink faucet, standing in a plastic tub, and holding the hose over your head.
Did it help you become self-sufficient?
Yes. I recognized my life was up to me, and what I became was a function not of what my father achieved or what my mother dreamt, but what I could accomplish on my own.
It was a good growing up experience?
It was a good growing up experience. I made friends and had social experiences with people who lived in the apartment building I lived in and recognized the extreme value of education, the amazing advantage of being born in America and a passion for the principles that make America the land of opportunity. I think most people going through college consider it just something that you do that’s kind of fun and entertaining and engaging, but the relevance to one’s life is not clear. If you go to a foreign place, particularly if you’re living with people of very humble financial circumstances and you see the impact of education and the power of freedom and opportunity that we enjoy in America, you become motivated. It concentrates the mind.
Why hasn’t he ever talked about this before?
And when you have an event this compelling, you’d think you would want to talk about it:
How did the 1968 car accident in France [in which a vehicle crossed into Romney’s lane, seriously injuring him and killing a passenger] change you?
It brought a seriousness to my life—a recalculation of what was important and a recognition of life’s fragility. Young people think bad things won’t happen; I recognized that bad things can happen to me and those I love.
That’s interesting when you talk about fragility. Did it make you have a sense of being accountable every day as opposed to thinking, “I just can take it easy?” After Ronald Reagan was shot, it deepened his sense of commitment.
I think for me it deepened my sense of purpose. Growing up in a Judeo-Christian religious foundation, one measures one’s life by the contributions one has made to God and to the children of God. As the fragility of life becomes more clear in one’s mind, the need and passion to help others becomes more of a daily motivation.
Again, why is this a secret from the voters? It is as if someone instructed him to only tell the boring and unilluminating parts of his life.
Likewise, the most sympathetic biographical pieces on him have concerned his work as a lay leader in the Mormon church. He generally comes across as capable, empathetic and responsible. So naturally, the campaign doesn’t want to talk about it. Yes, yes, there’s that Mormon thing. But I think the voters pretty much know about it, and nothing prevents him from discussing what he learned and how he related to people, leaving church doctrine entirely out of it.
Now, perhaps, the Romney approach is changing. He did the Saturday forum with Mike Huckabee. He was out on radio programs today. And I understand he’ll be doing Neil Cavuto’s Fox News show tomorrow. If the Romney team is in fact self-adjusting, that’s going to help him. The race is certainly a different one than it was in the spring or summer, or even a few weeks ago. Candidates who don’t recalibrate for changed circumstances end up on the sidelines. And, as just a few of the extracts above suggest, there is much Romney could do to make himself a more compelling figure and to feature his considerable finesse in explaining policy. The lesson of the Baier interview shouldn’t be to avoid the Sunday and evening cable news programs; it should be to do more of them and tell us more about himself.