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There is a reason that so many ostensibly qualified GOP leaders decided to sit this election out. It was not that they thought they could not win. It was because they feared they would win.
A cultural analysis
By Jay B Gaskill
The incumbent president and his challenger present a study in contrasts –
- Dreams of an absent father vs. the real deal;
- A literary response to childhood vs. an achievement response to rearing;
- A pattern of grandiose gesture vs. one of modest accomplishment.
The soviet dissident poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, once wrote, “One day, posterity will remember these strange times, when ordinary common honesty was called courage.”
A paraphrase suggests itself: One day, posterity will remember these strange times, when ordinary decency and extraordinary achievement were called “square.”
For the postmodern sophisticates who inhabit our commentariat, Governor Romney is an alien presence in our midst, a square peg inhabiting a rounded culture.
The truth is more startling than the metaphor. Mitt Romney is an unusually decent man who has been transported by unique circumstances from an earlier time. Think of a character like Don Draper of Mad Men, unscarred (i.e., without the war experience, the booze and smokes, having learned the lesson of spousal loyalty and family values early and without the angst and divorce[i]); then imagine our character is lifted out of the late fifties and early sixties, undamaged; then he is briefed on the modern culture and inserted into the present. When he is placed in a series of modern educational settings, Harvard Law and Business School among them, he then succeeds in both business and politics.
When we examine the pattern of Governor Romney’s achievements, we don’t find much extraordinary luck (there are countless males born into well-off families who have escaped insanity, suicide, loss of siblings or children, drug addition, sexual scandal and who lived entirely civilian lives out of range of gunfire). But in Mr. Romney’s life experience we do find a combination of five major elements that are rarely so well coordinated in a single life: high intelligence, great personal discipline, tireless perseverance, a high moral standard of conduct and the absence of catastrophic bad luck. Mitt Romney’s parents had excellent reason to be proud of their son, but Mormons are not given to braggadocio.
Writers have spilled a lot of virtual ink by contrasting the life paths of Romney and Obama (See for example, The Businessman vs. The Professor by James Ceaser[ii] and the piece by Noemie Emery – later cited in endnote iii) with other leaders who arrived at that White House on Pennsylvania Avenue having dealt with and overcome some difficult personal challenges. One thinks of FDR’s polio, JFK’s back injury and other medical problems, George H W Bush’s WWII parachute escape, and even Bush the younger’s battles with depression and alcoholism. Some of the compare-and-contrast rhetoric is delivered as if the current contest is between two “golden boys”, one of whom suffered from being “not white”, while the other suffers from being “too white.”
I’ll leave a discussion of the personal challenges faced and overcome by young Obama for others to address.
The Romney piece of this discussion tends to give zero weight to the challenges of a modern male holding together a family consisting of a wife living with MS and five strapping sons. Character does matter, as does its formation. While Romney’s life was apparently free of major trauma, it was not free of challenges. His character was formed in the crucible of a Mormon upbringing. As a young man, he served 30 months as a missionary in France (Mormons are trained early in surviving rejection). He was beaten while defending two young women missionaries who were attacked by a horde of rugby players. To put it mildly – France was not a particularly easy mission field for the LDS. Yet young Romney emerged unscathed from all of it and from all the other frictions that attend being Mormon in a non-Mormon world. Another LDS male characteristic is a degree of reticence and humility.[iii]
Please stay with me on this. Allow me to follow the “America tends to get the leaders it needs” theme for a moment. Assume arguendo that our best leaders – the ones that we may have opposed at the beginning but later are grateful for – tend to emerge on stage when needed, equipped with the traits that will matter most. Often, these are traits that were not fully appreciated at the time. For that matter, many leaders were not fully appreciated at the time.
Harry Truman was not a gifted orator, but he had moral integrity; he was plain-spoken and stubborn when he thought he was in the right; and he was not decision challenged. Without those traits, there might well have been no Israel, and the US could well have lost the Cold War at the very outset.
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Governor Romney might – just might – have been called by history to undertake some extraordinarily difficult executive responsibilities for the next four years, something very few presidents have faced. As an intelligent man in full possession of the facts, Mitt Romney is well aware of the grave difficulties facing this country.
Now ask yourself – What are the advantages at this exact moment in history of having a fresh, emotionally undamaged leader[iv] with a record as a determined and effective problem solver?
I believe there is a reason that so many ostensibly qualified GOP leaders decided to sit this election out. It was not that they thought they could not win. It was because they feared they would win.
Almost any ordinary politician who has looked squarely at the truly daunting problems that this country will face[v] during the years 2013-2017 will want to sit on the sidelines: Let someone else fail or take the heat for doing the difficult things that the situation requires of a great leader.
The next president needs to be emotionally undamaged, and possess the skin of an armadillo… because no one will get through the next four years without taking a merciless beating from all sides.
Before the outbreak of WWII, the greatest generation had not yet proved itself, but it would rise to meet the greatest challenge of the century because of the prevalent character of the culture and of the men and women with character that inhabited it. The undamaged went to war and many returned damaged, but few were daunted in the sense that they rejected the entire premise of the war itself. That was to come later, as the generic “anti-war’, “back to roots and berries”, “tune-in, turn-on and drop out” subculture congealed around an anti-imperialist, anti-Western ideology. At its worst that movement was fed by the false dichotomy – “Join us against ‘the man’ or be called a ‘racist / fascist’”. This mindset has a stronger lingering influence over the commentariat that it does the “commoners”, especially among the now-displaced blue collar workers.
Romney just seems like an alien because the postmodern moral culture has radically deteriorated from its pre-WWII condition (common sense, morally robust); but he (the man out of time) has not. All specific policy disputes aside, this election is about the value of accomplishment and the accomplishment of values.
Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
As always, forwards, links and quotes with attribution are welcome. For everything else, please contact the author via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] The “naturalistic” thread in modern fiction has predisposed us to expect dysfunction and cynicism and to suspect healthy models. Think of it. We’re living in a culture that has almost given up on virtue except the “oppressed” version. Does anyone stop to think – Is the culture itself dysfunctional?
[ii] “The dimension of personal qualities promises in 2012 to be highly interesting. It stands out, in the first place, because of the things that seem to be off the table. One of them is consideration of the candidates’ military records, which has been an issue in every contest dating back at least to 1988, whether it was a matter of the candidates’ heroism or valor (George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain) or whether questions were raised about service itself or special treatment (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama served in the military, and we will likely hear nothing about this issue. Also off the table are matters relating to candidates’ personal turmoil, substance abuse, or infidelity. Search the nation, nay the universe, and you will not find two more scrupulous and exemplary family men than Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. If there is any issue to be raised on this account, it will likely focus on their treatment of the family dog. As for substances—Obama’s youthful experimentation aside—Mitt Romney does not drink even beer, and President Obama during his famous beer summit looked like he didn’t know how to.” http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/businessman-vs-professor_640523.html
[iii] The author is not a Mormon, but had the pleasure of growing up in “Mormon Country” with some exemplary representatives of that faith, a number of whom went on to Harvard Law.
[iv] “The Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys never knew what it was like to be one paycheck away from utter privation, but they were abundantly damaged by pain and bereavement and reminders that life is unfair. John Kennedy and the elder George Bush were chauffeured to private school in the depths of the Depression, but they also belonged to a war generation, joined the armed forces as soon as was possible, nearly drowned when their vehicles were sunk or shot down by the enemy, and saw friends, comrades, and relatives die. Franklin Roosevelt had polio, a famously terrible marriage, and long separations from the woman he loved. Theodore Roosevelt struggled with asthma, and at age 25 had been so shattered by the sudden and simultaneous deaths of his wife and his mother (the latter at 48 still a stunning young woman) that he fled to the West to hold on to his sanity. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the elder George Bush buried very young children; and Kennedy was part of his family’s struggle to raise his retarded sister as normal, a struggle it finally lost. George W. Bush was a failure until he was 40, and almost became one of a long line of dynastic children, starting with the sons of John and John Quincy Adams, who were destroyed by depression and alcohol. John Kennedy had gone through such stress in his earlier years—repeated hospital stays, back pain, and adrenal gland failure; war, PT-109, and the deaths of his brother, sister, and brother-in-law—that he was a basket case by the time he reached 30, and took several years to regain his élan.” From Authentically Yours in the May 7 Weekly Standard, by Noemie Emery, columnist for the Washington Examiner http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/authentically-yours_642176.html?nopager=1
[v] The hollowing-out of American manufacturing, the outsourcing of those jobs, the crippling sovereign debt, the risk of destabilizing inflation and the chronic, structurally-embedded underemployment, the pending European economic collapse with its concomitant ripple effects on a fragile US economy, the out-of-control entitlement growth, the risk of a nuclearized Middle East are just some of the no-win (damned if you fixit – because of the pain, and double-damned if you don’t fix it) challenges facing POTUS 2013… If you haven’t been following all of this, you are sleeping better than you should.