When a friend was writing a novel, he was concerned that his protagonist was too perfect.
People can’t identify with perfection, he said. For the character to be sympathetic, he needs to have a flaw. He needs an injury or a wound of some sort so that people can identify with and care about him.
“Why don’t you give him a limp?” I suggested, thinking of my own bum leg from a long-ago car accident. And thus, the character, an otherwise near-perfect man — good-looking, smart and talented — began to walk with a slight pause in his gait. To the reader, it was love at first limp.
Literature often reveals what life occludes, and the man with a limp provides clues to why people are so reluctant to support Mitt Romney despite his picture-perfect résumé of skills and accomplishments. We keep hearing that he’s “too perfect” and that so-called “ordinary Americans” can’t identify with him. Indeed, there is something vaguely unfamiliar about Romney.
Handsome, rich and successful, he is happily married to a beautiful wife, father to five strapping sons and grandfather to many. At the end of a long day of campaigning, his hair hasn’t moved. His shirt is still unwrinkled and neatly tucked into pressed jeans. He goes to bed the same way he woke up — sober, uncaffeinated, seamless and smiling in spite of the invectives hurled in his direction.
What’s wrong with this guy? Nada. Which is precisely the problem. Romney could use a limp.
To humanize him, helpful critics have suggested that he smile less during debates and try to show a little anger. Thanks to a new coach, he has become more aggressive and has begun punching back. Even so, audiences know instinctively that this is not the real Mitt. He’s just not that mad, and why should he be?
He has earned enough money never to have to work again. His investments produce multiples of millions in barely taxable income. When he looks in the mirror, he gets to rest his eyes on a relentlessly handsome face.
For most everyday Americans, life is less tidy. Half have been or will be divorced. Someone in the family is an alcoholic or a drug user. Most can barely pay their bills, and there’s not much to look forward to. When most Americans of Romney’s vintage look in the mirror, they see an overweight person they don’t recognize.
The idea that they might put some of their investments in the Cayman Islands is so far beyond the realms of imagination and experience that Romney seems mostly a creature of fiction.
It isn’t that Romney can’t connect with people, as has been pronounced repeatedly. It is that people can’t connect with him. This also helps explain why the far less perfect Newt Gingrich can attract support against all reason, or at least against all reasonable expectations.
Gingrich the serial husband, whose marriages merged one into another; his questionable ethics and cosmic grandiosity are by now familiar. Though smart, he is often unwise — morally lapsed and physically undisciplined. By those measures, he seems pretty much like most everyone else — fallen, but who isn’t?
Mitt Romney, that’s who.
Metaphorically speaking, Gingrich has a limp that makes it easier for voters to identify with him. For reasons more emotional than rational, we imperfect humans tend to be attracted to others more like us than not. But it is entirely possible that we are wrong and should examine this template of behavior before selecting a president.
Is it really necessary that a president be like the common man or woman? It is possible to want to do something about poverty, unemployment and debt without having experienced them. The desire to eradicate cancer does not rely upon one’s having suffered it.
Having a common touch is certainly helpful in politics. We greatly admire those who are equally at ease with kings and paupers. But these skills may be less important than they seem when it comes to problem-solving. Ultimately, the nerdy, disciplined numbers-cruncher who has turned around failing businesses for a living might have a greater palliative effect on the nation’s ills than someone who, by virtue of his own transgressions, feels others’ pain.
It seems the question for voters is not whether they can forgive Romney his imperfections, which is most often the case in politics, but whether they can forgive him his perfections.