Mitt Romney, Untrustworthy Literary Flip-Flopper

With my headline I just thought I’d try out my chops as a writer of currently high level American political discourse.

Seriously, though, Romney needs to lay hold of a literary position and dig in to the trenches rather than pandering to pundit expectations. This past summer the media exploded with disgust and disdain that Romney declared his favorite book to be L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, a book that I confess has yet to make it to the top of my pile but which John Dickerson at Slate says indicates “very deep levels of weird.” Sensing a scandal in the making, Romney—or rather Romney’s “people”—backpedaled quickly, declaring that Romney’s favorite book was really the Bible. As if we didn’t know that. Battlefield Earth is merely his favorite novel.

This seems to have done little to diminish the very high levels of weirdness the blogosphere detects in the choice of overly long fiction written by the founder of Scientology. My guess is that Romney would have done better to choose something that would overcome the Mormon factor, which for many people, rightly or wrongly, also signifies very high levels of weirdness. (On the other hand, anything sniffing of religion strikes many people in the media as highly weird, so this may not be saying much). Still, I don’t think Mitt’s people wanted the electorate going in to the voting booth with the image of the Romney family Bible stacked on the bedside table alongside the Book of Mormon and a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, especially since that novel focuses on the predatory practices of “hairy 9-foot high, 1000-pound sociopaths” called The Psychlos.

In the passing months, Romney and his people have apparently backpedaled yet further. A gander at Romney’s Facebook page now lists a dozen solid, not to say stolid, books with one novel—Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. What Hemingway described as the foundation of modern American literature takes its place on the Romney bookshelf alongside a variety of business leadership manuals and scary books about the evils that face us: jihadism and Thomas Friedman’s flat world. The weirdness factor seems to be tamped down for good (though I admit I tend to find leadership manuals highly weird, my being a middle level manager in an academic institution notwithstanding).

L. Ron Hubbard has gone the way of all flesh. But so, apparently, has the Bible. The Book of Mormon still has yet to show its face and I really think that some intrepid reporter needs to ask Mitt why that may be. Just what, exactly, is he hiding? Religion is represented by Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. For many politicos, Warren is clearly much safer than the Bible. He is after all “a new evangelical,” which in our current political lexicon tends to mean an evangelical you could bring to fundraiser without worrying about whether you could offer him alcohol. Certainly Warren’s book can be brought up at a Republican cocktail party without raising eyebrows, something you can’t always say about the Bible. Depends on the cocktail party. I’m not sure that this says a lot for Rick Warren, or for how well people may be reading his book, but the image does go along with Romney’s well-coifed hair and perfectly massaged public image.

Last year I wrote a paper, still being revised, where I speculated a bit on the ways people used books to identify with others. We signal our desires, values, goals, interests through the kinds of books we read—or pretend to read—and how and where we read them. But what exactly is Mitt signaling with all this shelf-shuffling? Probably nothing, except that he wants to be president. I was prepared to write a few paragraphs on the peculiar choice of Huckleberry Finn as a boy who stood against the status quo, willing to give up his status and his standing—little as it was—to try and do the right thing. How different and odd that choice seemed given that Romney seemed mostly about status and the status quo. However, I suspect, frankly, that the leadership manuals are Romney’s real favorites and Huckleberry Finn is a book he remembers from his days as an undergraduate English major at BYU.

I actually think Mitt really likes Battlefield Earth, that this literary slip of the tongue was the real literary Mitt before he realized the weirdness quotient could do him in with the 1% of the electorate that actually cares about what he reads. I liked him better because of it. We all have our perverse reading pleasures. Things we get in to against our better natures. This devious pleasure-taking in the alternative world of literature is one of the great things literature affords us. I think of myself as a half-baked pacifist but I can’t get enough of war movies. Heaven forbid, but I sometimes prefer a vampire novel to the latest tome by Don Delillo or Philip Roth. I actually like the fact that Mitt Romney loves shlocky sci-fi novels that have been badly-written by a man a few pancakes short of a full stack. It suggests to me that Romney’s hair isn’t perfect when he gets out of bed in the morning, that maybe when he can’t sleep late at night he gets on a sci-fi chatroom and becomes Megalorg, laser scourge of the planet Kryl-9.

Or whatever.

Makes him human and interesting, a little like Hillary’s tears earlier today.

What I don’t like is that he seems to change his favorites at the first whiff of scandal. Too much like the guy in high school who always seemed to find a way to like whatever the cool kids liked. The guy held in contempt by even the people he calls friends.

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