Thursday, March 15, 2012

David Copperfield Update

We are reading this book. (There have been some inquiries.) I'm running a little behind getting posts up on Copperfield, as I've been trying to round up some final posts on Nixonland. (Send me your posts if you have them!) Let me know if you'd like to put up a post or two on Copperfield. I would appreciate it!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Nixonland Post: Nixon vs. Romney (vs. Obama)

Making my way through Book II of NIXONLAND, reading about that fateful spring and summer of 1968, I kept thinking of the current GOP primary, and the superficial similarities of Nixon and the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney -- though, after even a minimal amount of thought, one realizes how violently different these two men are.

The obvious differences are background and pedigree: Romney the rich, successful, Harvard-educated son of a rich and revered governor, ambitious, but entitled and self-satisfied, to a fault; Nixon the son of a shopkeeper, striving and insecure, all elbows and desperation.

But both men seem to share the desperate willingness to do and say almost anything to win the Presidency. In his 1960 campaign, Nixon drove himself almost to exhaustion. In his 2008 campaign, Romney tried his hardest to reverse positions he had held for all of his political life and convince conservatives that he was one of them. For both men, their first presidential campaigns flamed out -- though Nixon's just barely.

Both men returned for their second run for the White House calmer, more assured, and as the default front-runners. And both played it exceedingly safe:
[A]s the GOP nominee in 1968, Nixon suffered from a maddeningly vague and platitudinous platform, featuring a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, that made his campaign too easy to disregard or dismiss. The cautious, wary, disciplined Mitt Romney suffers from similar tendencies: So far, few voters can identify bold or dramatic proposals associated with his campaign . . . .
Daily Beast.

These are all, however, simply superficial similarities. Romney is a cipher. God knows what motivates him, besides his desire to be President. What does he want to do once he is President? What does he actually care about? What is the passion that drives him? WIth Nixon, it was clear that he wanted to do something with the office: as compromised and paranoid as he was, he truly did think he could do something to bring "peace" to world affairs. And it was obvious that he was deeply engaged in foreign affairs -- that's what excited him.

What engages Romney? What does he care about? Reorganizing ailing companies? Making bajillions of dollars? No one really knows. There's been speculation that the most important force in Romney's life is his religious faith, and his sense of duty to his faith. But he doesn't talk about this aspect of his life, leaving those of us who would like to figure out what Romney wants frustrated.

Nixon, in his jealousness, paranoia, insecurity, and bitterness, is a distasteful figure, but an all too human and understandable one. He's the Orthogonian outcast trying to get his revenge, trying to show the Franklins, beat them at their own game -- and perhaps finally win their respect. Romney's visage is out of Central Casting: he was born royalty. Nixon had to cake himself in make up; his handlers had to manage the lighting and the air-conditioning to make their boss look acceptable on television. Nixon remains such a powerful figure in our national memory because it was so incredible that such an "unpresidential" man could've ever been elected President. And if he had not torpedoed himself through his own paranoia, his tenure would perhaps have been looked back upon as highly successful. (Maybe.) Nixon is like Gollum: a villain whose evil has a long backstory, whose bad acts are, in the end, all too tragically understandable.

There is no foothold for one trying to relate to Romney. The facts suggest that he is virtuous, faithful to his family, committed to his church and to charity -- a good man by conventional standards. But his public persona -- and all that we know of him -- also suggest that he is plastic, equivocal, irresolute, willing to say whatever it is that he thinks people want to hear. He seems at once perfect and devoid of any guiding passions or principles.

Obama could, and does strike many as aloof and unrelatable. But we know that he is the biracial son of a single mother who relied for a while on food stamps. Obama is, in his own way, a striver of the same species and ruthless ambition as Nixon. (Throw Bill Clinton into this box as well.) As Americans, we tend to side with the strivers and the graspers, at least emotionally, over those born into privilege. Obama likely shares many of Nixon's dark qualities, unbeknownst to most of us, but I, at least, get the sense that there is more light and generosity in Obama's soul, given the lifetime of affirmation he's enjoyed since his childhood.

Romney, unlike Nixon, hasn't given us enough to ever see him as a tragic figure. We can't feel sorry for a Ken doll that utters empty phrases into microphones across the nation. Nixon was an asshole, but he wanted and craved and needed, and everyone could see that. One could hate Nixon, while sort of feeling sorry for him. One can neither hate nor love Romney.