Oscar Levant once noted: “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
On the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama sat in the office cabin of Air Force One wearing a look of heavy-lidded annoyance. The Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement and, for all its limitations, the most ambitious social legislation since the Great Society, half a century ago, was in jeopardy. His approval rating was down to forty per cent—lower than George W. Bush’s in December of 2005, when Bush admitted that the decision to invade Iraq had been based on intelligence that “turned out to be wrong.” Also, Obama said thickly, “I’ve got a fat lip.”
That morning, while playing basketball at F.B.I. headquarters, Obama went up for a rebound and came down empty-handed; he got, instead, the sort of humbling reserved for middle-aged men who stubbornly refuse the transition to the elliptical machine and Gentle Healing Yoga. This had happened before. In 2010, after taking a self-described “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Obama caught an elbow in the mouth while playing ball at Fort McNair. He wound up with a dozen stitches. The culprit then was one Reynaldo Decerega, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Decerega wasn’t invited to play again, though Obama sent him a photograph inscribed “For Rey, the only guy that ever hit the President and didn’t get arrested. Barack.”
Oh the wit! The banter! The bons mots! And with a gratuitous swipe at George Bush. This could only be The New Yorker (or Harper’s, or The Atlantic, The New Republic, or every other glossy magazine).
Usually, Obama spends Sundays with his family. Now he was headed for a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another. The prospect was dispiriting. Obama had already run his last race, and the chances that the Democratic Party will win back the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections are slight. The Democrats could, in fact, lose the Senate.
Obama spent his flight time in the private quarters in the nose of the plane, in his office compartment, or in a conference room. At one point on the trip from Andrews Air Force Base to Seattle, I was invited up front for a conversation. Obama was sitting at his desk watching the Miami Dolphins–Carolina Panthers game. Slender as a switch, he wore a white shirt and dark slacks; a flight jacket was slung over his high-backed leather chair.
Let me quote another wit, and contemporary of Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
“Preposterous” mansions, “dispiriting” prospects—the poor lad flies in unmatched comfort to be feted by the high and mighty, and still lays his head on his own pillow that night. Oh, and about his spending Sundays with his family? That’s if he got a round of golf in on Saturday. If not, it’s hasta la vista, babies.
I don’t have no journalistic training, but it seems to me that a behind the scenes, warts and all profile might want to include a few warts. (“Slender as a switch”? Gag. How about “Skinny as a bean pole”?)
A new documentary about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney premiered Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film, “Mitt,” is an extraordinarily intimate look at the former Massachusetts governor as he ran for president twice, in 2008 and 2012.
[F]or viewers who follow politics closely, especially for Republicans who desperately wanted to defeat Barack Obama, there is a revelation in “Mitt” that is not just unexpected but deeply disheartening. At a critical moment in the campaign — the two weeks in October encompassing the first and second general election debates — the Romney portrayed in “Mitt” struggled with a nagging pessimism and defeatism, unable to draw confidence even from a decisive initial debate victory over President Obama. Deep down inside, the Romney seen onscreen in “Mitt” seems almost resigned to losing to Obama in those crucial showdowns.
Then came the debate. Romney gave a dominating, near-perfect performance, while Obama struggled. The president didn’t even hit Romney on “47 percent.” It was a smashing victory, a big, big win for Romney.
Such a clear-cut triumph would seem a huge confidence-builder, but afterward, Romney seemed mostly concerned that Obama would come back and beat him badly the next time. “Sitting presidents have a very hard time in these debates,” Romney told the family. “They feel like, who is this whippersnapper coming up here who knows nothing? And so they don’t prepare, and they just think they can waltz through it. Then they get crushed in the first debate, and then they come back.”
“He’ll be better next time,” Ann said, as always trying to build her husband’s confidence. “But you can be better next time, too.”
Romney wasn’t buying it. Instead, he went into an extended monologue on how his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was a better man than he will ever be. As he spoke, Romney held the notes he had made during the debate (candidates are not allowed to bring any notes with them to the stage, but are allowed to make them during the debate). Romney pointed out that in every debate he began by writing “Dad” at the top of the paper.
“That’s what I start with: ‘Dad,’” Romney explained. “I always think about Dad and about I am standing on his shoulders. I would not be there, there’s no way I would be able to be running for president, if Dad hadn’t done what Dad did. He’s the real deal …”
“You’re the real deal,” said one of Romney’s sons.
Romney didn’t pause. “The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became a governor. It would have never entered my mind to be in politics, how can you go from his beginning to think, I can be head of a car company, I can run for governor, I can run for president?”
Romney wasn’t finished. “The gap — for me, I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education, Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School. For me it’s moving that far” — Romney held two fingers close together — “for him, it’s like that,” Romney said, holding his arms wide apart.
Do you think Obama has those same feelings about his father? Do you think he has any feelings about his father? Bill Ayers did, but Obama?
This humanizes Romney, but it also greatly disappoints. I often said of him that he was every Republican’s third choice; but at the end, he was the party’s choice. We needed—deserved—a better showing.
And he knew that better than anyone:
“I cannot believe that [Obama] is an aberration in the country. I believe we’re following the same path of every other great nation, which is we’re following greater government, tax rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff. And I think we have a very high risk of reaching the tipping point sometime in the next five years. And the idea of saying ‘it’s just fine, don’t worry about it’ — no, it’s really not.”
That was the case to make, Mitt, and you didn’t make it. History is made of great eras and great men and women. The decline of America hastened by Obama needed a great man to reverse it. We didn’t have one in Mitt Romney. Sadly, he knew that better than anybody, too.