It was back in 1994, when Mitt was running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts against the incumbent Ted Kennedy (an election he did not win). I was out walking on Beacon Hill in Boston, minding my own business, when I turned a corner and found the corporate-raiding son of the famous Michigan Governor on the sidewalk in front of me, flashing his smile and extending his hand to the pedestrians.
There was no way I was shaking this man’s hand. Mitt Romney a Massachusetts Senator? His Congressional candidacy was as distasteful to me then as his Presidential candidacy is today. But, being a naturally polite person, my first instinct was to cross the street rather than be rude to him. (I have since overcome this personal failing, and I am now quite happy to be rude to politicians.) Unfortunately, the parked cars were packed tightly beside me. Avoiding Mitt Romney would require climbing over auto bumpers and then hopping down into oncoming traffic–an honest physical expression of my revulsion, but also a cowardly display. I resigned myself to walking past him.
As luck would have it, I reached him alone. He had just dispatched a small group of (to my eye) lukewarm voters with handshakes and assertive eye contact from his outsized face. (Like television news anchors, successful politicians almost always have large heads.) The next group of citizens was yards behind me. For six or seven long seconds, it was just the two of us, me and Mitt Romney.
He thrust out his hand and gave me the polystyrene smile. People who compare Romney’s physical presence to an auto-dashboard bobble-head or a department-store mannikin are not just being cruel. That’s exactly the way he comes across. I wish I could say that I gave him a good tongue-lashing for having the gall to use his ill-gotten private-equity riches to buy himself an anti-American run at national political power–in Massachusetts, of all states. But I didn’t say that, or anything else. I simply refused to shake his hand, and walked widely around him like something bad on the sidewalk.
And that was when I met the real Mitt Romney. He didn’t shrug or smile or just look past me to the next batch of fresh meat coming down the pike, as he would no doubt do today. Today, Mitt might even get off a joke at my expense. But he was a political greenhorn back then, not adept at concealing his true identity. What he did, when I refused to shake his hand, was to lean toward me as I walked past him and give me one of the most vicious dirty looks I’ve ever had in my life. It was a truly remarkable experience, like being hurled back to seventh grade. I wish I had a photo of the pure hatred in his big face to share with you, but I don’t need a photo for myself. I can see it as vividly today as the day it happened.
Like the vampiric bankers and hedge-fund managers who gave us the economic collapse of 2008, Romney’s business career was based upon inventing clever ways to game the system to enrich himself and his cronies at the expense of lower-level participants in our “free market economy.” Now he has a political career devoted to making the world safe for oligarchs like himself. His fundamental orientation is ruling-class and anti-democratic, and it’s now cliché to note that he’s a cynical opportunist willing to shift positions and say anything that might get him more power.
But with Mitt, this old familiar bad act comes wrapped in lifelong religious devotion–or, at any rate, lifelong service to a specific religion, one that didn’t even exist until the early 1800s and that was plainly an extremist (and widely disdained) cult until it cleaned itself up less than a century ago. Mitt doesn’t see any conflict between his religious zealotry and political service, and that works fine in an America that started to inscribe “In God We Trust” on its currency back in the commie-hating Joe McCarthy days (which have never left us), a country that still refuses to remove that slogan even though our nation is supposedly based upon separation of church and state.
In the squirrely collection of Republican Presidential candidates for 2012, Mitt Romney looks good to many people. He’s a seemingly sanitized suit in a world still easily fooled by expensive suits and haircuts and big tanned faces, and his lifelong religiosity makes some voters assume that he must be a basically decent guy. But you don’t grab the kind of loot that Mitt has grabbed by being decent. My brief but unforgettable encounter with him took place long after he’d been a young Mormon missionary in France, and after he’d already held various leadership positions in the “LDS” church. And I can testify that somewhere deep inside the sanctified politician with the multiple fancy houses, the fat bank accounts, and the elder status at the gigantic temple on Belmont Hill above Boston lurks a nasty man whose main conviction is about his own entitlement.