Of the four highly reported mistakes that Romney made on his foreign trip, two seem to have been calculated in advance, one rightly and one wrongly.
When I say calculated rightly, I don’t mean that Romney said the right thing, but that it worked to attract or solidify votes. Romney’s comments about the superiority of Israeli culture leading to its higher standard of living were incorrect and odious in light of the restrictions under which Palestinians have lived in the occupied territories.
But Romney’s subtly racist remark plays into a myth of Jewish voters and another myth of many voters of all persuasions (except Islam). Jews are taught from a young age that they (we, since I’m Jewish) are the chosen people, chosen to be, as Isaiah put it, a “light unto the nations.” Romney’s talk about cultural superiority is something that Jews everywhere will take for granted. The superior culture remark also reflected the views of many Americans, expressed vehemently by Samuel Huntington, that we are in a cultural war with Islam and that our western (Christian) civilization is superior, as demonstrated by our standard of living. Again, I reject this thinking, but at the same time I understand that a large number of my fellow citizens share these wrong-headed notions and Romney has made himself a more attractive candidate to them.
On the other hand, Romney’s distancing from his wife’s Olympic sport had the opposite effect than intended. Romney wanted to rid himself of his image as a patrician of wealth who can’t relate to the average Joe-and-Jane. Instead, he portrayed himself as an insensitive husband, the type that won’t take his wife to a “chick flick” for her birthday or go to the garden show displaying her orchids. Instead of portraying the image of a warm and loving husband, he ended up looking like a complete dolt to both men and women.
That leaves us with the two foreign faux pas that I believe Romney did not say on purpose; of course we’ll never know for sure: His whining concerns about security and his revelation that he had been to a secret meeting. Both of these mistakes show a certain lack of what used to be called “presidential timber.” Have you ever noticed that ex-presidents mostly say good things about the current office-holder or they keep their mouths shut? Romney is the former leader of the Olympics and while there is no written law, most ex-leaders will support the current regime, unless a complete disaster occurs, which clearly has not happened in the very well-run London games. When caught in what I think was an unguarded moment, Romney chose to be competitive, not presidential. It’s something that none of our recent presidents would have done.
Not knowing or forgetting that he had attended a secret meeting reveals a lack of knowledge in the customs of the host. It was a mistake in etiquette, and again, presidents of companies, charities, business associations and countries don’t tend to make those kinds of mistakes. Presidents know the custom in advance or they tend to understand what it is from the subtle cues of others.
Romney has frequently shown himself to be out of touch with the American public, and those who have commented always link this inability of Romney to connect with his life of luxurious wealth. But complaining about a non-existent security problem of your former enterprise and not following the proper etiquette of your hosts (which others through the years have managed to figure out) have nothing to do with being wealthy. Presidents and other leaders tend to have more money than anyone else, and so any behavior that we classify as “presidential” has qualities of wealth attached to it. Being presidential is a kind of grace that makes everyone feel at ease and important. From Reagan through Obama, all of our recently elected presidents have had it, and curiously, none of the candidates they defeated had it, except for Al Gore who actually won the popular vote.
We like our leaders to look and act like leaders. Romney may look presidential, but he is having extreme difficulty playing the part.