In the 12 hours or so since Mitt Romney announced on Facebook that he hadn't been picked by Donald Trump to be secretary of state, the conventional wisdom has already cemented: The 2012 GOP presidential nominee lost his dignity by begging for a job in the Trump administration.
Romney, after all, denounced Trump as a “fraud” and a “phony” during a much publicized speech in March only to visit with Trump twice in the transition period — including a dinner in New York City a few weeks back that produced this epic photo:
For many, that picture typified the extent of Romney's humiliation. Trump, grinning, knowing that he had made his biggest critic bow — symbolically — to him. Romney, pained, but sitting there nonetheless, willing to let bygones be bygones in exchange for the possibility of a post in an administration he had once vilified.
For me, that picture said something else. I don't quibble with the interpretation of Trump: I think he was reveling in his unexpected victory and all of the kudos from unlikely sources — including Romney — it won him. And, I agree that Romney looks pained. But I think what that picture tells us is that Romney knew that Trump would turn their dinner into a photo op and was willing to do it anyway because he genuinely believed he might be able to do some good as Trump's top diplomat.
Why? Think about this:
1. Romney is no fan of Trump. The two men have taken radically different approaches to their lives — whether in the personal or the professional space. The mild-mannered Mormon and the brash New Yorker are diametrical opposites. It is impossible that Romney suddenly decided he liked Trump. Or vice versa.
2. Romney believes Trump is potentially dangerous. In his March speech, Romney said that Trump's “bombast is already alarming our allies and fueling the enmity of our enemies,” and it's hard to see how anything Trump did between March and now has quieted Romney's reservations about the president-elect's motives and judgment.
3. Romney knows Trump likes a show. Per my point above, Romney knew that agreeing to chat with Trump about any sort of job in the administration would be seized on by Trump as a way to parade an outspoken opponent of his candidacy in front of the world to show the completeness of his victory over the GOP establishment. But Romney did it anyway.
As I've written before, there are only two explanations for Romney to subject himself to this sort of treatment from someone he clearly does not care for personally: ambition or a commitment to public service.
I think it's quite clear that Romney was motivated more by the latter than the former. That's not to say ambition didn't factor into Romney's calculations — just that his desire to help was the greater motivation in all of this.
Think about it: This is a guy who made tens of millions in the private sector. He ran the Winter Olympics. He ran for president — twice. He has a very good life. The last thing that Romney, at age 69, needs is to suck up to Trump to get a Cabinet job. The only explanation that makes sense to me for Romney's willingness to subject himself to Trump's whims is that he was genuinely convinced he could help make the world a better and less dangerous place — even, and maybe especially, under a President Trump. Romney's willingness to be courted by Trump always struck me as a greater good argument; Romney believed that the most important thing was the well-being of the country not his own ego or his personal distaste for Trump.
In the end, no matter his reasoning, Romney didn't get the job. But, that's sort of besides the point. At a time when many talented and successful people in the private sector are resistant to putting themselves forward for public service, Romney continues to do so. He should be commended, not mocked, for that instinct.