I had a private little laugh and moment of startled disbelief while my wife and I were watching Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last night. Romney described his father as having started out in life as an apprentice "lath and plaster carpenter," a term so arcane in the age of Home Depot building materials that Fox News actually recorded it in their transcript as "laugh and plaster carpenter."
More on laughing plaster in a moment. That wasn't what I personally was laughing about. I knew Romney's father just a little bit, only as a reporter knows a politician, but I did a fair amount of research on the old boy and his family back many years ago when I was a reporter for The Detroit Free Press and he was a kind of returning hero, coming back to Bloomfield Hills to retire after serving in the Nixon White House.
George Romney's parents were monogamy-practicing Mormons, Gaskell Romney and Anna Amelia Pratt, who sat at the head of Utah's most prosperous Mormon family. George Romney bragged to me that his father made and lost several fortunes in the construction business. These were rich people, justifiably proud of their achievements.
I'm sure Gaskell Romney did struggle. The Romney family story is one of genuine courage and audacity. The part where I laughed last night, however, was when Mitt Romney tried to paint his dad, George Romney, as a blue-collar Detroit guy.
The Fox transcript has Romney saying, "My dad never made it through college, and he apprenticed as a laugh (ph) and plaster carpenter. He had big dreams. He convinced my mom, a beautiful young actress, to give up Hollywood to marry him. And moved to Detroit."
What a tale. Sort of hard to believe, eh? What did he tell her? I beg you, leave this meaningless dross of Hollywood glamor, come with me to Detroit, and we shall lead the life of laugh and plaster.
It's lath and plaster, of course, the stuff they used to make wall coverings out of before Sheetrock. And I'm sure George Romney did work for his dad's construction company at some point. But after college and his missionary stint, young George went straight to Washington where he made a brilliant career as a Senate staffer and lobbyist.
George Romney was never a car guy. American Motors brought him out to Detroit from the Automobile Manufacturing Association, the industry's lobbying arm, to be a sort of figurehead chief executive and super-salesman, heading up the innovative "gas-guzzling dinosaurs" ad campaign for the Rambler. He got all kinds of ink and TV exposure through the ad campaign, building the name recognition that later propelled into him into the governor's office in Michigan.
Am I saying there was something fake about George Romney? Oh, no, quite the contrary. What people loved about George Romney was that he was absolutely straight-on, what you see is what you get.
His candor eventually undid him in his 1968 presidential bid: Romney told the truth about Vietnam, saying he (and by implication all of us) had been brainwashed by the Washington establishment to believe it was a good war that we were going to win. The truth was that it was a bad war that we were going to lose.
That finally was too much truth for America at the moment. We still haven't come to grips with losing that war. George Romney was out of the 1968 presidential race, but it was an entirely honorable exit.
Look, George Romney, like his son Mitt, was a rich kid. The point about George Romney was that he took his advantages as a challenge to work even harder, reach even farther. He was proud of who and what he was, and I do not believe it would ever have occurred to him to try to pose as something else.
It looks to me like his son did the same thing -- worked as hard as any poor kid with rat-in-the-belly ambition -- and that's a thing for a rich kid to be proud of. But to deny it and pose as something he is not is just flat disturbing, every bit as much as if he really were a poor kid trying to take on airs as an aristocrat. It is not a thing old George would have gone along with a bit.
That's why the laugh and plaster thing really wasn't funny. It's a window into the soul of a shape-shifter, the being the Indians called a nagual. He can be anything. Just show him what animal you want him to be, and he will appear to you as that creature.
The entire theme of the Republican convention was, "No matter what you see on your TV screen, we are not rich white people." They even had Ann Romney up there talking about how, "We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish ... our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen."
Yeah. At Harvard.
But I guess some posing and exaggeration are to be expected at a political convention, but that's not supposed to include the guy who wants us to to elect him president. Last night Mitt Romney tried to tell me he was from some kind of blue-collar Detroit "car-guy" stock. I hope he tries it again in the debates. I have the rebuttal line right here: "Governor, you're no Joe the Plumber."
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