Mitt Romney summoned all the righteous indignation he could muster after a Newt Gingrich ad called him “anti-immigrant.” Romney blasted the ad shortly afterward in an interview: “It’s just inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate.” For Romney, that qualifies as a stinging rebuke. He also regretted in the strongest possible terms the Gingrich ad’s “terrible terms.” The Republican campaign now pits, in Newt Gingrich, a man expert at channeling and expressing emotions, against a man, Mitt Romney, who can’t or won’t.
“I have emotion and passion,” Romney said the other day, in an assurance an overtly emotional and passionate person would never have to make. In Gingrich, Romney is fighting fire with reticence. He is a throwback to a cultural archetype that lost its purchase in American culture decades ago. Mitt Romney is the last WASP, Mormon edition.
Romney skeptics worry that he’s another John McCain or Bob Dole. Maybe he’s another Leverett Saltonstall, his mid-20th-century predecessor as Massachusetts governor. “Salty,” as he was known, was of, by, and for the WASP ascendancy. His family had been here for centuries. He rowed for the Harvard crew team and won the Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. One of his daughters became a horse breeder. Saltonstall apparently had a common touch as a politician, but he still might understand Romney better than many Republican primary voters do.
In his book The Way of the WASP, Richard Brookhiser summarized the main traits of the species as “Conscience,” “Industry,” “Success,” and “Civic-mindedness.” All can be seen in Romney, the private-equity titan and Mormon bishop who served as the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics and once swept the floor of an aide’s garage when he had an idle moment. The same charges that were leveled at the long-ago, buttoned-up WASP establishment are now directed at Romney — stiff, boring, inauthentic.
There is an inherent politeness to him. Interrupted by a heckler in New Hampshire, he says she lacks “courtesy,” obviously an offense he takes seriously. Whenever he resorts to trash talk — at one debate he promised to take President Barack Obama’s attack on his wealth and “stuff it down his throat” — it feels awkward. It is as if the Marquess of Queensberry briefly strayed into a mixed-martial-arts octagon.
It’s not that Romney won’t fight. His super PAC filleted Gingrich in Iowa, and his entire campaign apparatus is now working to crush the former House speaker in Florida. Yet, Romney himself has no relish for the task. In the first Florida debate, he worked early on to hit Gingrich with his entire opposition-research file. Rushed and uncomfortable, he seemed to enjoy it as little as Gingrich did. When he got off the attack, he shifted back into his accustomed measured and unflappable mode.
Gingrich is unburdened by any inner guardrails. He loves combat. As a campaigner, he can be loudmouthed, unscrupulous, and angry. It’s a style that fits the public mood, and it has been validated through the decades in our culture. We’ve been taught to trust a let-it-all-hang-out spirit over an ethos of emotional restraint. Unfortunately for Romney, if there were a yearbook for presidential candidates, he would be deemed “Least Likely to Weep in Public.” It’s an irony of Romney’s candidacy that his genuine reserve is taken as confirmation of his inauthenticity.
If Romney doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, he doesn’t wear his riches there, either. He seems uncomfortable with his own success, a classic WASP trait. When he says he makes no apologies for his wealth, he clearly would rather not be talking about his wealth at all. Donald Trump surely would advise him to mention his net worth, and inflate it, in every interview. But he lacks the brassiness of the natural braggart.
If Romney seems alien, it’s not his Mormonism or bank account so much as his adherence to a code of conduct that was overthrown long ago, and now feels quaint and odd. His is the plight of the last WASP.