Archives for: May 2012, 14
For almost half a century, Don Ritchie would approach people contemplating suicide at the edge of The Gap, just 50 metres from his home in Watsons Bay, his palms facing up.
Mr Ritchie told his daughter Sue Ritchie Bereny he would smile and say: "Is there something I could do to help you?"
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President George W. Bush was campaigning for re-election in 1992. The country was in an economic slump. The President appeared detached, unaffected by the suffering of his constituents. His staff pushed him to acknowledge and emphasize some feeling for those for whom unemployment was not a statistic: those who had lost jobs, or were afraid of losing jobs, or knew others who had lost jobs.
He was speaking to a group of employees in New Hampshire and began expressing his own disregard for political adversity. The hardship of others was the important thing. The rock musical "Evita" about the political evolution of Evita Peron from Argentina's first lady to a sort of activism for the poor had had a successful run on Broadway and was still playing in dinner theatres across America. So the President, in a moment of semi-hipness, used a phrase from one of the Evita songs to express the thought that the real trials were felt in the homes of Americans, not by him. "Don't cry for me, Argentina," he said.
Most Americans are not into cutting edge phraseology. So the point was getting lost in the weeds. The staff, trying to get on track, supposedly put up a cue card, to get the President back on target. Express in clear, emotional terms an empathy for people hurt by the economic downturn.
The cue card read, "Message: I care."
President Bush saw the card and went from the baffling "Don't cry for me, Argentina" directly to what he saw. "Message, I care," he said obediently.
The moment was a small one, but it became iconic. It was used as a minor line in a larger theme. Democrats were successful in portraying the President as artificial and uncaring, having to be cued into caring, and stepping even on that. "The economy, stupid" was really "They don't care about the hardships you face."
The perpetual awkwardness of Governor Mitt Romney sends a similar message. It aligns with policy, but transcends it. For the most part, he does well in prepared speeches. It's the unscripted moments that cause him to trip over his shoelaces.
He laughs at the cheap makeshift rain gear worn to NASCAR events. He tries to make it up with a sort of kinship with the masses, telling folks that, like them, he also enjoys stock car racing. He is personal friends with some of the wealthy NASCAR owners. He can chuckle, while meeting with unemployed workers in Tampa Florida, at the pain of unemployment, because he is also unemployed. Little joke there. He tells the Detroit Economic Club how much he appreciates GM, because his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs."
When I heard about the bullying incident, I was a little sore. The major purpose of growing up is to mature. And part of the completion of that maturity is the development of a decent respect for the personhood of others. Attacking Mitt Romney as a child, even after that child is grown, is out of line.
And I was irritated from a partisan point of view as well. It was so transparently unfair to bring up events from teenage years, that another Hilary Rosen controversy seemed to be brewing. Attack Mitt Romney for a horrible bullying incident from when he was growing up? Mitt Romney could hit it out of the park in a solemn acknowledgement of the pain he must have caused for this callused, youthful cruelty. That was then, this is a regretful, mature, empathetic now.
Instead, he reminded me of the villain Boone in one cinematic version of The Jungle Book. Immediately after a fellow traveler dies horribly in quicksand, Boone remarks casually, "Well, let's not be discouraged by every little thing."
Romney said the following, chuckling as he began:
They talked about the fact that I played a lot of pranks in high school, and they described some that, boy, you just say to yourself, "Back in high school," you know, "I did some dumb things." If anyone was hurt by that or offended by that, obviously, I apologize. But overall, high school years were a long time ago.
It was a bit jarring that he still considers an instance of teenage cruelty to be a prank. What doesn't come across in the print version is the mirth he seems to feel. He laughs in another interview as he protests his lack of memory those pranks. The amused chuckles may be a simple nervous reaction, an awkward, ever awkward, mark of not quite knowing what to do or say.
But they are also reminders of earlier chuckle at what cannot simply be written off as a nervous reaction. When he told what he said was a humorous incident, it was about his father as CEO of American Motors closing a plant in Michigan, throwing people out of work. Mitt chuckles at the humorous story of his father's discomfort at reminders to Michigan workers of the incident as he later campaigned for governor.
Certainly a high school teenager might consider his cruelties to be pranks. That's part of the immaturity of youth. We grow out of that view to a grownup regret for hurtful actions we took as kids.
Conservative publications were able to find an incident of cruelty from Barack Obama's book Dreams from My Father. When a group of students teased ten year old Obama, jeering that he was the boyfriend of a girl he just met, he pushed her away hard enough so that she stumbled back. His reward was that he suddenly switched to the jeering majority, leaving her as the victim. His 1995 rendition is tinged with regret. Later in his book, his young self-examination led him to conclude that fear had been the motivator and that he needed to overcome fear to be a complete human being.
The importance of childhood cruelty fades to triviality with time. A bullying incident from half a century ago does not demonstrate a lack of character or compassion in an adult today. A laugh does not prove a lack of compassion, especially if it is a simple nervous reaction. A series of awkward moments does not show to a certainty an out of touch lack of caring. We look instead to adult values, sometimes including how such things are remembered.
Those of us who are Christians are joined by others who are mindful of our own cruelties, and have a strong belief in the power of redemption. Governor Romney is now presented with an opportunity to demonstrate a level of introspection, empathy, and regret at the pain we as children often cause to others as we grow toward a compassionate adulthood.
So far, Mitt Romney seems determined not get caught up in ancient tales of youthful pranks. Let's not be discouraged by every little thing.