Citizen Romney–Is There Anything Inside?

Film Friday

The more I see of Mitt Romney, the more I think of Citizen Kane.

Not that Romney would ever get caught in a love nest scandal–he’s too much of a good family man for that–and he’s not quite as wealthy. But like Kane, it’s not clear why he’s running for office other than that he wants a large projection of himself on a screen. Like Kane he seems desperate for, if not love, then at least approval. And like Kane when running for office, Romney is willing to engage in some particularly despicable campaigning, the most recent example being his statement during the attacks on Americans in Libya and Egypt, “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

What kind of man says those kinds of things?!

That’s also a question that Jim Gettys, Kane’s opponent in the race for New York governor, says about him:

You see, my idea of a gentleman…Well, Mrs. Kane, if I owned a newspaper and I didn’t like the way somebody was doing things, some politician say, I’d fight him with everything I had. Only I wouldn’t show him in a convict’s suit with stripes so his children could see the picture in the paper, or his mother.

Romney doesn’t own a newspaper but he has something just as good in “fair and balanced” Fox News—which as Steve Benen points out, is noteworthy for its over-the-top headlines attacking Obama. Most recent example: “Obama Calls Libyan Ambassador to Thank Him after US Ambassador Murdered.”

What drives Kane (this is the Rosebud secret) is a longing for the love that his mother deprived him of when she sent him away to live with a cold banker. One reason why Kane runs for office, his friend Leland tells the reporter, is because he thinks the love of the voters will somehow make up for the emptiness inside:

He married for love. Love. That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too. Guess all he really wanted out of life was love.

Romney seems to have had a happy childhood so maybe it’s not love deprivation in his case. But approval seems to be a big deal with him. Maybe, as a Mormon, he feels like an outsider and wants to be reassured that he’s one of the gang. Maybe his high school haircutting incident points to a deep insecurity, an instance of a clean-cut moderate trying to fit in with the bullies running the show (the extreme right) by showing that he too can beat up the black guy with the strange name. Although all politicians pander for votes to some degree, his penchant for saying anything that a particular audience wants to hear seems particularly desperate. His positions change at a dizzying pace depending upon who he’s talking to.

The pandering, however, co-exists with a sense of entitlement, which Kane has in spades. In Romney’s case, he and his wife believe that we should just vote for him simply because he is entitled to the presidency. He doesn’t need to show us his tax returns or his plans for the economy or what he would do in foreign affairs—it is enough that he is worthy and his opponent is not. If it requires him to run a “post truth campaign” to get what is rightfully his, he will do so.

His unprecedented mendacity (at least unprecedented in modern campaigning) indicates a certain contempt for the common voter, which is accompanied by a cluelessness about what that voter is going through. In the film, following Kane’s election night defeat Leland calls him out for something similar:

Charles: All right, that’s the way they want it, the people have made their choice. It’s obvious the people prefer Jim Gettys to me.

Leland: You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered…Remember the working man?

Charles: I’ll get drunk too, Jedediah, if it’ll do any good.

Leland: Aw, it won’t do any good. Besides, you never get drunk. You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something is his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges! Then I don’t know what you’ll do! Sail away to a desert island probably and lord it over the monkeys!

Charles: I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Jed. There’ll probably be a few of them there to let me know when I do something wrong.

Leland: Mmm, you may not always be so lucky…You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.

The fit isn’t exact because Kane is running as a populist whereas Romney doesn’t even claim to care about the downtrodden. (He is more Tom Buchanan of The Great Gatsby in this respect.) But the sense that the feels he has a right to white working class votes is certainly there.

There’s a powerful scene towards the end of the film where Kane, after his wife has walked out on him, passes through a twin set of mirrors that reflect him to infinity. He has many faces but no substance—or at least no substance that we can see. Indeed, to find the real Kane is the framing narrative of the film.

Do we know who the real Mitt is? More importantly, do we know what he believes or what he will do as president? It’s as though he is enclosed in a cold glass ball and we lack a way into it.

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