Having spent time at political conventions, I can tell you that a speech always sounds different inside the hall than it comes across on TV. Inside, it’s easy to get caught up in the fervor, project the partisan cheers onto a nation. But when you’re watching in a quiet room with your spouse and your Twitter feed, you view these speeches more skeptically. You approach them with more questions, such as, “Why does Paul Ryan’s iPod stop at the letter ‘L’?” And “What’s that Ann Romney just said about tuna fish?”
That tuna fish question came up during Mrs. Romney’s much-heralded Tuesday night address, which, depending how you feel about Condoleezza Rice, might have been the biggest hit in Tampa this week. In her red dress, with her broad smile, Romney showed why she has been such a campaign asset this year: She’s sincere and warm and comfortable with crowds, she likes people, she loves her husband.
And then she ruined it all by pretending she once was poor.
Empathy is a tricky thing for presidential candidates and their spouses. There’s an imperative for them to be relatable, and yet, by definition, they aren’t like the rest of us. They’re more cloistered, more scripted, more narcissistic. They’re also, as history shows, more likely to be rich.
Let’s be clear: The Romneys’ wealth, otherworldly as it might be, is not a disqualifier for the presidency. You don’t have to have been poor or middle class to be a good leader, or to care about the welfare of the middle class and poor.
But it helps if you don’t insult people’s intelligence. There Ann Romney was, reminiscing about her newlywed days, when she lived in a basement apartment (sample from my Twitter feed: “NOT A BASEMENT APARTMENT!”) and cleaned her own floors and “ate a lot of tuna fish and pasta.” Plus, her grandfather, lucky for her, was a coal miner in Wales. O, the humanity!
As most people know by now, the Romneys’ “poverty” was temporary, and born of choice; rather than hold down jobs, they sold stock to get by while he was in graduate school. But this was one of many glossed-over facts in a campaign that seems to gravitate toward gloss — see Paul Ryan’s fiery, factually challenged speech.
Did Ann Romney really need to stretch the truth? There are plenty of real humanizing details in her story, which is why she performed so beautifully during the media rounds this week. Her interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley was mesmerizing: As her husband looked on adoringly, she talked about how a miscarriage had affected her youngest son, Craig, how she hadn’t had a chance to tell him what was happening, how the boy came home from school and burst into tears. Mitt Romney said he’d never heard that story before.
The interview raised some questions of its own — Why didn’t she tell her husband? Was she protecting Craig? Or Mitt? — but it was more relatable than a thousand tales of eating Hamburger Helper on an ironing board. It showed a family muddling through a difficult situation, a parent making mistakes but trying hard to set things right, a son who eventually found a way to heal.
And it exemplified the actual lesson of Ann Romney’s life: that while money can buy you houses and horses and a Cadillac for each coast, it can’t shield you from personal tragedy, miscarriage, or disease. It can’t make day-to-day parenting decisions any easier.
Could Ann Romney have talked about that from the podium? It would have been enlightening to hear how Mitt handled family crises, though it might have run afoul of certain GOP policy positions. Ann Romney bravely fought MS, but she never had to worry — thanks to the health care policy that her husband once championed, but now wants to disavow — about losing health insurance because of her preexisting condition.
But then, Ann Romney was never supposed to delve into policy. Most of this week’s speakers were there to shore up the base, and deliver red meat to the partisans.
Ann was one of the few who was meant to address the skeptical TV viewers, to offset the campaign’s gender gap, to assure people that the Romneys could empathize with them.
When the dust settles, different speakers will leave different impressions. Chris Christie: Quite enamored with Chris Christie. Condi Rice: Getting ready for 2016.
And Ann Romney? Someone who, on the biggest stage of all, couldn’t be completely honest about her life. By play-acting poverty, overshooting on the “I’m-one-of-you” theme, she came across as precisely what she didn’t want to seem: a nice, distant lady who doesn’t understand.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.