Mitt's Character, and Presidential Virtue

While voting is currently rather academic for me since I haven’t naturalized yet, I’ve been following U.S. politics with a certain amount of bemused interest since I first came here almost ten years ago. To an Aussie, American politics are strange, indeed.

Leaving aside my astonishment at levels of institutionalized corruption that leave me stunned, and at an equally shocking disregard of constitutional protections if the target is sufficiently despised, I find the U.S. insistence that the president be a paragon of virtue distinctly odd. Australian culture is heavily affected by being the offspring of a collection of political prisoners and petty criminals — the base assumption is that anyone going into politics is either already corrupt or highly corruptible. Add this to an Australian distrust of anything professed loudly, and you end up with people who are pretty good at figuring someone out based on what they say or don’t say and how they behave.

So despite my initial cynicism towards all the Republican candidates, I find myself warming towards Mr. Romney the more I see of him. Mostly this is because what he’s done is generally more admirable than what he says.

To start with, there’s the matter of his faith. To Australians, Mormonism is one of those funny not-quite-a-cult things that Americans produce in ridiculous numbers. Before anyone gets up in arms — Australians hold this same opinion of most of the Baptist churches, practically all the mega-churches, 100% of televangelism, and a good chunk of the traditionally “black” churches. For most Aussies, if it doesn’t fall into the buckets of Catholic, Anglican (aka Episcopalian), or Uniting (formed by a merger of Methodist and Presbyterian), it doesn’t really count as Christian.

Anyone who gets up and talks about how their faith says they should do this or that is an automatic target for ridicule in Australia, because it’s invariably either a holier-than-thou thing or a way to browbeat everyone else into doing what they want. The Aussie view leans much more towards “the actions make the person.”

And Mr. Romney simply doesn’t talk about his faith. He just gets on and does things. As far as I can tell — not being Mormon and not knowing much about the faith — he simply does his best to follow the principles espoused without making a fuss about it. It’s just … something he does.

The same applies to how he handles his wife’s multiple sclerosis. He doesn’t claim any special privileges because his wife is suffering from an incurable chronic illness — he just does what needs to be done. He doesn’t call out the insensitivity of those who mock his wife over the riding therapy (which, incidentally, is a fully recognized and normal treatment for multiple sclerosis, and which the Romneys fund for other people who don’t have their resources. Contemptible, no?). He doesn’t claim to be a better, more empathetic person because he has a loved one with MS.

I have a sister with MS, and I live with narcolepsy, so I do have a little experience in the challenges of dealing with chronic, incurable illness. Ultimately, all of us have to make decisions about what’s essential, very important, important, and what can be passed on if needed. On good days, the essentials and very important things gets done, and maybe even some of the merely important ones. On bad days, sometimes it’s not possible to get the essentials done — and family members or friends need to step in and help.

It’s clear from Mr. Romney’s manner that he steps in whenever needed without complaint because he regards this as just something that needs to be done. And to an Australian, that attitude is admirable. We tend to respect people who do this regardless of whether we agree with their beliefs (with the caveat that those beliefs don’t harm anyone else — the kind of belief that says Person X is less than human tends to get short shrift).

Mr. Romney’s so-called “wooden” manner is also a factor here, and yes, in my view it’s admirable. The thing about MS is you don’t know what it will take next. There’s no way to predict episodes, no way to guess what area of the brain will be attacked. It can’t be pleasant for Mr. Romney to see his wife suffering this kind of deterioration, and since he needs to be strong for her, he’s built up a pleasant, cheerful demeanor so that she doesn’t see how much her pain hurts him. It also protects him to some extent: the masks allow him to defer his suffering while he deals with the more important matter — namely supporting his wife. I’d be willing to guarantee that Mr. Romney’s calm assurance is something he only drops in the presence of those he trusts absolutely and knows he won’t hurt when he drops it. After any length of time, something like this becomes reflex: it takes conscious effort to drop it.

So no, I don’t expect to see any spontaneous reaction from Mr. Romney unless he’s badly shocked, and I certainly hope he never finds himself in that position. This is a good thing. No, he will never be spontaneous in politics, but he is also unlikely to throw unseemly tantrums.

Then there’s his tax returns, and the fact that he doesn’t claim all the deductions he’s entitled to. Many politicians would be trumpeting this to the heavens. Mr. Romney doesn’t. He simply does it.

I could spend a lot of time here talking about the many good things Mr. Romney has done for many people, but I’ll leave it at this: not once has Mr. Romney mentioned them himself. Not once.

Every single incident of kindness has been brought up by someone else, usually by a beneficiary of Mr. Romney’s time, efforts, and financial resources. This is a man who has repeatedly gone out of his way to help others in whatever way seems most appropriate at the time, and who doesn’t believe in trumpeting it.

As for Mr. Romney’s wealth: he’s earned it. Yes, he had advantages. So do celebrity dropouts like Paris Hilton, but all she’s managed to do with her advantages is become a high-maintenance tramp. Mr. Romney worked for his money, saved, and yes, lived lean. This is all publicly available information. Yet it isn’t something the Romneys tell people, any more than they tell people about the time they invest in various charitable organizations (which, unlike the money, does not appear in tax returns). Those who object to this are being petty: you don’t get to be wealthy without a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. I don’t begrudge those who have done the hard work their bit of luck, although I do wish some of it would come my way once or twice.

Yes, he’s screwed up. No one gets to adulthood without a few messes and mistakes. As far as I can tell from the public record, Mr. Romney has done his best to remedy the mistakes he has made, all of which seem to be pretty minor in the scheme of things. He’s never supported mass-murdering tyrants for a start, and so far shows no sign of wanting to adopt the methods used by mass-murdering tyrants.

It’s a refreshing change to see someone who appears to be looking at the presidency as a responsibility and a difficult job that someone needs to step up and do, humbly.

I’ll take that over the ideologues any day.