At a nationally televised GOP debate in New Hampshire last month, broadcast to a Sunday morning audience on NBC’s Meet the Press, Mitt Romney looked straight into the living rooms of America and told a lie.
It wasn’t a major lie, perhaps more like a fib. But when Newt Gingrich challenged him about the ads that the super PAC affiliated with Romney had been running, the former governor pleaded ignorance. “I haven’t seen them,” he said indignantly.
Then, barely 15 seconds later, perhaps forgetting he had just claimed never to have seen one of the ads, he offered a detailed description of “the ad I saw.”
Whether Romney never saw an ad or not is not the issue. What matters is that Mitt Romney seems to have no problem staring the American people in the face and flat out lying to us.
Is Mitt Romney is a serial liar?
Throughout this nascent campaign year much has been made of Romney’s various gaffes that reveal him to be not one of us but rather a well-heeled man of privilege, shockingly unfamiliar with the lives of ordinary Americans.
Recall his $10,000 bet offer, his disingenuous “pink slip” worries, his statement about earning “not very much” from giving speeches even though he raked in $374,000 from speechmaking in 2010, or his claim that we shouldn’t worry about the very poor because they have a safety net to catch them – yes, a safety net that provides families of four barely $20 per day for all their meals.
But we know that Romney is rich, privileged, and fairly isolated in his wealth. That’s become a meme in this campaign. We also know he changes positions to fit his political needs – perhaps more so than other politicians and thus his flip-flopping has become another Romney meme for 2012.
What we don’t yet want to admit is a more discomfiting idea: that the man our country may elect as President seems to have no problem lying to us, that he is accumulating a record of lies and misrepresentations on the campaign trail that goes far beyond the exaggerated rhetoric characteristic of most candidates.
Yes, politicians might fudge a statistic, mitigate a failure, embellish a story, or take a little extra credit for success, and because of that most pundits and journalists have folded Romney’s lies and misrepresentations into the big tent of exaggerated political rhetoric that reporters now take for granted even if they roll their eyes when hearing it. No big deal, we’re led to believe.
But Romney is different from the others. He seems to make claims that he knows are not true. This is a very smart man, a maven for details and a stickler for precision known for his data-driven business decisions, yet he looks us in the eyes and makes statements and claims that he knows to be misleading or false.
As George Costanza said in a classic line from Seinfeld, “Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.” But if you don’t believe it, or if you know otherwise, it’s a flat out lie. How else to label those who do it regularly but to call them liars?
On January 25, less than a week before the Florida primary, Romney told a Univision audience that even though his father was born in Mexico, he was born to American citizens who were living in an American Mormon colony in Mexico at the time (originally created to escape U.S. laws against polygamy).
Therefore, he said, it would be “disingenuous on my part” to claim he was Mexican-American even though that might be popular with Latino voters. “I don’t think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I was Mexican-American.”
Then, at a nationally televised debate a few days later, a debate considered decisive for the Florida primary, Romney angrily responded to a Newt Gingrich accusation that he was anti-immigrant.
“I’m not anti-immigrant,” he snapped at Gingrich. “My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Clearly he was implying that because his father was born in Mexico and he “came to this country,” that he himself has immigrant roots. Didn’t he just say a couple days before that it would be “disingenuous on my part” and not “honest” to make that claim? Isn’t that misleading if not lying?
On his own personal ambitions, he portrays himself as a reluctant politician, not driven to lead a life in politics but guided by a calling to apply his business acumen to the nation’s problems.
“I have to tell you,” he humbly said to the people New Hampshire in January, “This chance to run for President of the United States, I never imagined I’d do it. This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of.”
He said that he imagined being in business his entire career, but “somehow I backed into the chance” to run for president. “I’m very proud of the fact that I have stood up as a citizen to battle when I felt it was best for the nation. And – we’re talking about running for president.” At other times he said “I never thought I’d get involved in politics.”
Yet Romney has been in politics about as long as he was involved in business, starting when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, began strategizing a run for the 2008 GOP nomination in the middle of his term, and has been campaigning for president ever since.
Nor can he claim that he never harbored these ambitions. In a 2005 Atlantic Magazine profile, he mentioned not really knowing George W. Bush when they were both Harvard Business school students, but “If I knew where he was gonna go, I would have been on him like white on rice.”
On hunting, Romney told a man wearing a National Rifle Association cap at a 2007 question-and-answer session in Keene, New Hampshire that he was a lifelong hunter: “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.” He had said that a number of times on the campaign trail that year.
What his answer conjured up was an outdoorsman comfortable in the woods, a kindred soul to the working class hero whose pick-up truck has a gun rack, someone you might see walking the aisles of a hunting store like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops.
Then came the truth. After the Associated Press reported that he had never taken out a hunting license in any of the four states in which he lived, and that he had hunted only twice during his lifetime, once when he was 15 and again in 2006, Romney admitted: “I’ve always been, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter, alright? Small varmints, if you will. And I began when I was 15 or so and I’ve hunted those kinds of varmints since then, more than two times.” In South Carolina this year during a debate, he admitted: “I’m not a serious hunter.”
In 1994, during his Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, Romney claimed that his company, Bain Capital, helped to create about 10,000 jobs. He qualified that, insisting that his firm didn’t create the jobs but simply helped in their creation.
“That’s why I’m always very careful to use the words ‘help create,’” he said at the time. “Bain Capital, or Mitt Romney, ‘helped create’ over 10,000 jobs. I don’t take credit for the jobs at Staples. I helped create the jobs at Staples.”
Now Romney trots out a much higher job creation number, which the Associated Press says is “unsupported.” But even if we trust his new math, look at how he phrases it: “We created over 100,000 jobs,” he said in one interview, and in a debate he claimed “we created something over 100,000 jobs.” Unlike what he said in 1994, he seems to be taking full credit for whatever jobs his company may have helped to create.
Romney claims that “President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” that “we’ve understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise,” and that “we’re going to stuff it down his throat that it is capitalism and freedom that makes us strong.”
Now that can certainly be dismissed as hyperbolic political rhetoric that Romney knows is not true even if it is the type of raw meat that makes the Republican base salivate. So journalists have given him a pass on that.
But curiously, Romney then defends his record at Bain Capital by saying that his work there was no different from what President Obama did when he “took the reins at General Motors and Chrysler — closed factories, closed dealerships laid off thousands and thousands of workers — he did it to try to save the business,” Romney said.
So how can the President be an enemy of free enterprise if one of his signature economic accomplishments is no different from Romney’s own version of free enterprise? Romney knows his rhetoric is a lie yet he continues to deliver it regularly on the campaign trail.
Then there’s the legendary story about Romney strapping his crated dog Seamus to the roof of the family station wagon for a 12-hour trip from Boston to Ontario in 1983. Midway through the trip, Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, noticed that there was diarrhea dripping down the back window, a clear sign of trouble from a traumatized Seamus. So Romney drove to a service station, hosed down Seamus and the car, then returned to the highway to finish the trip.
When asked about this incident, a smiling Romney indicated that Seamus liked traveling that way – a dubious claim to any dog owner – but then said, as if to show his decency, that he put the dog in an “air-tight container.” But how could it be airtight if Seamus’ fecal matter flowed down the car? Why wouldn’t Romney simply admit he was wrong? Why did he feel a need to lie to excuse what he did?
Perhaps Romney’s lies don’t rise to the level of Richard Nixon’s self-pitying and manipulative deceptions, or George W. Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They seem more like the lies a teenager tells – to impress, avoid trouble, shade the truth, or evade responsibility for something gone wrong.
But we expect these lies from teenagers and assume they will grow out of them. We do not expect them from an adult running for the highest office in our land. Looseness with the truth in small matters might herald an unwillingness to be honest with the American people on matters of state.
Think what you wish about Newt Gingrich, but we should take his warning about Mitt Romney seriously: “Somebody who will lie to you to get to be president, will lie to you when they are president.”
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.