Maureen Dowd / Patricians for president: Poppy and Mitt flip and flop and you wonder who they are
Share with others:
Watching Mitt Romney in the Myrtle Beach debate gave me acid flashbacks to Poppy Bush.
Maybe it was when Mittens decorously noted, in front of the raucous, bloodthirsty South Carolina crowd: "When I get invited, I'm delighted to be able to go hunting."
Maybe it was Mr. Romney sounding all 19th century recounting his sharp right turn on abortion as governor of Massachusetts: "I penned an op-ed in The Boston Globe and said I am pro-life."
Maybe it was when Rick Santorum pushed the front-runner to justify an attack ad financed by his "super PAC" and Mr. Romney gazed at Mr. Santorum the way a CEO regards an impudent mailroom clerk. "We have plenty of time," Mitt instructed him with a tight smile, looking as though he wanted to give him a copy of "Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers." "I'll get there. I'll do it in the order I want to." Mitt would probably be asking for "a splash" more coffee at a truck stop if he drank coffee.
Poppy is an Episcopalian East Coast patrician, and Mitt is a Mormon Midwest patrician; their fathers were both archetypal moderate Republicans.
Poppy drinks martinis; Mitt drinks chocolate milk and Coke Zero. But 41 and the man he endorsed to be 45 share the gee-whiz language, hokey humor, awkward stage presence, sense of entitlement and noblesse oblige, need to break away from powerful patriarchs and prove themselves in business, gentlemanly demeanor that masks surprisingly sharp elbows and the willingness to make whiplash switches from blue-blooded positions to red-state ones, leaving everyone to wonder: "Who is this guy at his core?"
It's easy to picture Poppy and Mitt sitting in a wood-paneled room in a country club, chatting about tennis, Marquess of Queensberry rules and how they're above being gutter fighters like the Clintons (except when they aren't). Poppy was compared by some to Chatsworth Osborne Jr., the rich kid on "Dobie Gillis," and Mitt was compared by some to Thurston Howell III, the millionaire on "Gilligan's Island."
Twenty-four years ago, David Letterman did a "Top Ten Ways to Make George Bush More Exciting." ("Shorter speeches, tighter pants.") Last year, Mr. Romney went on Mr. Letterman's show to read "Things You Don't Know About Mitt Romney," including: "I'm the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame."
Their political philosophies were not shaped by a passion for ideas as much a desire to serve and an ambition to climb higher than their revered fathers. Pragmatism trumps ideology; survival trumps conviction. Both men, to the manner born in Greenwich and Bloomfield Hills, adapted uncomfortably to the fundamentalist tent meeting mood of the modern GOP, knowing their futures depended on Faustian deals with the right.
Poppy went from denouncing "voodoo economics" to embracing it as Ronald Reagan's vice president. "He understands," a friend explained, "that you have to do politically prudent things to get in a position to do what's right."
Worried that a platform of mere civic duty would not suffice to stir the emotions of voters, Poppy and Mitt waved the flag and demonized opponents with ethnic names as less American. Bush senior toured a flag factory and said the Pledge of Allegiance at every campaign stop; Mr. Romney parses patriotic songs and his advisers refer to Mormonism as "the most American of religions." Just as the Ivy League Poppy mocked Michael Dukakis for being a member of the "Harvard boutique," so Harvard grad Romney makes fun of President Barack Obama as an elitist from "the Harvard faculty lounge." It's like watching little boys in Topsiders act all gangsta.
Bush 41 went from supporting Planned Parenthood to declaring at his first debate with Michael Dukakis that abortion was a crime that might need penalties. Mr. Romney went from being a passionate supporter of abortion rights who appeared at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood and endorsed the legalization of RU-486 to being "firmly pro-life."
What the late Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield said of the resentment-stoking, red-meat-throwing Mr. Bush in 1988 could apply to Mr. Romney now: "If his father were alive, I'm sure his father would see it as a shocking transformation."
Mitt and Poppy sacrificed authenticity but never inspired Reaganesque passion. When Mr. Romney went in and out of his hotel here this week, the Charleston Place, he passed a blue El Dorado Cadillac in the parking lot with a new bumper sticker reading: "Reagan for President."
On Fox News Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that if Mr. Romney wants a big victory here Saturday, he will have to "let his hair down a little bit" and show his heart. (Does anybody really want to see that?)
Many conservatives here don't trust Mr. Romney to stay conservative if he becomes president. What if he began to think it's his civic duty to cut the deficit by raising taxes, like Poppy? What if he flips back from his flops?
Who are these guys at their core?
First Published January 19, 2012 12:00 am