After a third reading of Mitt Romney’s Liberty University commencement speech, I still fail to see how my Post colleague Michael Gerson could have described it as “more than good.”
Romney’s address struck me as standard fare for a college graduation. He hit all the familiar notes: gratitude to school and a nod to parents for sacrifices made; celebration of the virtues of hard work, devotion to principles, individualism, service, family. There was even a little shameless politicking, with Romney telling the audience “what the next four years might hold for me is yet to be determined. But . . . things are looking up, and I take your kind hospitality today as a sign of good things to come.”
It was the kind of speech that could have been delivered — sans the pandering and the references to more-contemporary figures (the late Chuck Colson; the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded Liberty University; and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) — to college graduating classes in the 1950s or even in 1900.
The Liberty remarks, as seems to be true of many Romney speeches, reflected a rather constricted view of the country. Perhaps it’s because Romney chooses to deliver most of his lines to narrow audiences.
Missing in his Liberty offering, as with some other Romney speeches, is any recognition — not praises, mind you, but simple acknowledgment — that 21st-century America is more than a white, middle-class country.
He revealed no sense whatsoever of knowing that the overwhelming majority of Liberty grads will, in their adult lives, inhabit an America in which they will be the minority.
Romney’s speeches seem tailor-made for audiences that look pretty much like him.
At least that is what one is led to believe after observing where Romney chooses to go and what he has to say.
I tried to imagine Romney’s Liberty address being delivered to the graduates and their families at the 2012 commencement exercises I attended a week ago at historically black Howard University in Washington.
I cannot believe, however, that the Romney campaign apparatus would have allowed the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to tell an African American audience numbering in the thousands that Falwell was “a gracious Christian example” and a “courageous and big-hearted minister of the Gospel who . . . never hated an adversary.”
Indeed, Romney lauded Falwell, who famously said: “I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.”
Romney spoke glowingly of the same Falwell who said of the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation decision: “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never had been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
The same Falwell who disparaged Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a phony. (Falwell later apologized for that remark and claimed that he had misspoken.)
And who can forget Falwell’s finger-pointing after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? He declared on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” show: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ ”
I suspect if Romney spoke at Howard, he would have skipped that part about Falwell.
But what does the man who seeks to lead this country have to say about, and to, this rapidly changing nation of diverse people with diverse interests and needs?
Thus far, Romney’s thoughts and policy prescriptions seem focused on America’s largest — and slowest-growing — racial group: his own.
Democratic critics accuse Romney of having values that skew to the rich at the expense of the poor. They say he’s disconnected from the problems of average Americans; that he’s out of touch and just doesn’t get it.
Would that it were only a matter of determining whether Romney is on the side of the rich or middle class.
The question is much broader and more significant: When Mitt Romney thinks and speaks of Americans, do those who don’t look like him even come to mind?
Since he launched his presidential campaign, it’s been hard to tell. And Romney’s Liberty University speech was no help.