In the early 1840s Charles Dickens published a series of short stories in serial form. The protagonist was Little Nell, a virtuous little girl who stepped up to take care of her bumbling grandfather when he lost his little shop to an evil financier. She went in and out of adventures and relationships, always pursuing a safe haven for her beloved grandfather. It was a popular series, and folks throughout the British Isles and in America devoted themselves to following Little Nell through her travels.
Finally, the end of the series came, and Nell found a village and a home for her grandfather. Then, in frail health, she died a sad and dramatic death.
The sentimentality shook readers profoundly. During the series, people talked, opined over back fences. They speculated how she would endure, what her next step might be. At her death, grown people wept. One of those was the great Daniel O'Connell, the Irish patriot who fought long and hard for basic rights for Catholics. He was said to have thrown his copy of Little Nell's odyssey from a train in rage and grief. People took their fiction seriously back then.
Mitt Romney has me thinking about Little Nell as the voting nears in New Hampshire.
It is emotionally satisfying when an untruth teller gets tripped up in his own web. The eye roll provoking nature of the Mitt Romney campaign amplifies the euphoria when the fellow gets deflated from most any direction.
His ham handed attempts to cast himself as the common man leaves observers gaping wide enough, and long enough, to allow adenoid examinations. The latest was this past weekend.
I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.
Up until then, many of us thought the prize would go to the smarmy faux self-deprecation of his aw-shucks-how-did-I-get-here denial that he ever thought he might run for President:
I have to tell you: This chance to run for President of the United States, I never imagined I’d do it. This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of.
I mean, I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs. And, you know, I imagined that I’d be, you know, in business all my career. And somehow I backed into the chance to do this.
Yeah. Only in America could a little kid with skinny legs dare such a dream. Yet, with nothing more than the shirt on his back, the meager contents of his little piggy bank, a small but sturdy credit card, and a father from a poor but honest background as the head of American Motors Corporation, the Governor of Michigan, Presidential candidate, and United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, little Mitt had managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Yes, he had come a long way from the little log cabin in the hardscrabble backwoods village of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was raised.
In fairness, it can't be easy, even for a fabulously wealthy individual to run for President. It is a grueling, no-sleep, shake-every-hand marathon. But Mitt has been (come on, let's be charitable) ill at ease in his clumsy attempts to be one of the guys.
Other rich folks have become working class heroes. John F. Kennedy was deeply moved in 1960 while touring the mines of West Virginia. Franklin Roosevelt so profoundly touched the lives of ordinary people, he became the icon of ideal politics for most of America well after his passing. Neither felt compelled to claim a humble beginning that was not rightfully his.
Mitt is not the only person who seems awkward at times. Bobby Kennedy was never the grand, fluent orator that Jack was. His halting, sometimes stumbling, style became a rhetorical strength. The vulnerability was, more than anything, real. When he spoke of personal loss in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, nobody even thought to question his own journey through the valley of darkness. That was how his presence brought piece to Indianapolis that night. It is hard to imagine him claiming a background other than his own.
Every candidate has some flaw. Each member of this year's Republican crop seems to be an almost whole person. It is as if, were they somehow to be joined, there would emerge a sort of Über Candidate with a vision that would at least be coherent.
Rick Santorum gives us a wild extremism composed of homophobic fears.
Rick Perry offers to most of us our own perpetual inward cringe of anticipation of the next loopy slip. You get the feeling that tying his shoe is an exercise in multi-tasking. Every time he completes a sentence without crossing his eyes or dropping his teeth on the podium, we feel a sense of deep relief. Another dodge ball has missed.
Newt is the attack poodle. Defanged, but snarling, he runs at Mitt Romney and others, only to bounce harmlessly into some wall. It's okay. He isn't hurt. Just furious enough to take another bugle accompanied charge at the nearest amused target.
Individually, they are a pitiful lot. Joined magically together in some Percolate-a-tron 2012 Model, they could meld into a single credible alternative to President Obama. You be the heart. You be the brain. You be the courage. The Grand Oz Party.
Mitt could never join that composite mixture. His mendacious bent is too ingrained to be explained by a voracious desire to win. The stories he tells, sometimes elaborate, sometimes petty, hurl at us like road flies into the teeth of a helmetless biker. He tells little fibs when there is no apparent electoral purpose. The need is, has to be, inward.
His problem is not that his voter base does not like him. They don't, but Nixon won with the same baggage. The one, the only, answer that seems possible is that his most important constituency cannot abide his true character. He does not like himself.
And so he resorts to constant self-invention. He writes, then re-writes, himself as Little Nell. The maudlin, sentimental phoniness is not an asset. Every vote he scores comes to him, not because of, but in spite of it all.
The greatness of Charles Dickens did not come from his little serial writings, even though they produced a brief degree of commercial success. His greatness came later in life. Oscar Wilde finally offered the verdict that has lasted longer than that early sentimental effort.
"One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears of laughter."
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