It is awfully tempting for pundits to use people and personal conflicts as stick figures in a polemic play reaffirming one’s preexisting impressions and biases. That’s certainly been the case in the Richard Grenell case.
Today Mitt Romney spoke up for the first time publicly, saying, “[W]e wanted him to stay with our team. He’s a very accomplished spokesperson, and we select people not based upon their ethnicity or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability.” In other words, to the loudmouths who made an issue of this, “I’m not the bigot here.” His senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, was more expansive and irate at the anti-gay conservatives, saying: “Of course there were voices of intolerance that expressed themselves during this debate. That was unfortunate. Mitt Romney has confronted those voices of intolerance.”
The best, fairest and most thoughtful words have been written by reporters who talked to the participants and gained a sense of the motivations and ambiguities inherent in the decision of the openly gay spokesman to leave a campaign for a conservative whose been known to hire staffers and make appointments regardless of sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, those have been outnumbered by pundits with little regard for the personal dynamic and insistent on playing out a political narrative regardless of the facts. This is the “there’s some bigger truth here” school of journalism. So the right bloggers insist this was all about some catty e-mails Grenell deleted. (To a person no one I spoke to involved in the incident thought this was the issue.) The right and left Romney skeptics says this is about Romney being a mush. (Then why hire Grenell?)
But what comes out in the reporting is how messy and maddeningly vague life can be, especially when people are on opposite coasts (Grenell never relocated to Boston).
What I know from talking to many players involved is that Grenell was getting flak principally from the far right, but also from the left challenging how a gay man in favor of gay marriage could work for a conservative (on foreign policy, mind you) whose position is the same as the president’s (neither is in favor of gay marriage). He perceived the Romney camp was keeping him out of sight. The Romney camp thought it was successfully calming the waters, and senior officials may have been only dimly aware of the angst Grenell was going through. Grenell quit. It’s not inconceivable that in a large, bureaucratic campaign discrete actions (e.g. not having Grenell talk on a conference call) can be perceived as deliberate, calculated tactics. I have to think that if they were all in the same room and not on opposite coasts there would have been better coordination between Grenell and senior Romney officials as to what, if anything, to say to the haters lobbing potshots at Grenell.
Grenell felt he had no choice but to quit. The Romney team reacted (“What the heck?” is the best way to describe it) and tried to get him to stay.
But Grenell was right. He had become the story. If Romney or Fehrnstrom had said what they did today before Grenell quit, he might have been understandably reassured. But the firestorm wouldn’t have ended, as we see from a new round of speculation and stories.
It is the sad fact of politics that those who make the loudest noise often do win. Decent people who care about the work they do are noble and retreat rather than let the swarm overtake the mission. And rather than blaming the victim or the guy who hired Grenell, maybe the finger really should be pointed at those on the right and left who made Grenell’s resignation a self-fulfilling prophesy. As for Romney, he’s got no excuse for not being prepared the next time the horde descends.