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Saturday, Sep 01 2012 10:00 PM

A rich tradition of awkwardness

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    John Harris

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By JOHN HARRIS

What Mitt Romney needs to do is loosen up, act more natural, show some emotion and give voters a reason to like him. Also: Stay on message, stop making cringe-worthy comments, stake his claim on competence over charisma, and, above all, stop trying to reinvent himself at age 65.

The torrent of unsolicited advice from commentators and political handlers is not always consistent. But nearly all of it is animated by the same puzzled question: How did someone with so little gift for political performance manage to make himself a major-party nominee?

The history of the modern presidency suggests something of an answer: There is nothing surprising about a stiff guy like Mitt Romney coming so close to the top prize of U.S. politics.

For 52 years -- since the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960 -- the ascendance of television put a premium on politicians with a theatrical flair, performers with an ability to create the impression of genuine human connection before an audience of millions.

But there is a less-noticed facet of this phenomenon. Every one of those 16 presidential elections featured at least one candidate, and sometimes two, who would have a measure of sympathy for Romney's plight, who similarly suffered through press reviews about his awkwardness and painful inability to connect.

The pattern is striking enough that it is at least possible there is some paradoxical cause and effect. A media-saturated age somehow keeps churning out disciplined, dogged and even dull candidates who seem at first blush singularly ill-suited for the media age.

The reason seems to be ambition, focus and a gift for the more mechanical dimensions of politics -- fundraising, interest-group stroking, the relentless marathon of showing up to fight every damn day after another -- that offsets their weakness at the more intuitive and improvisational dimensions of politics.

The rap on Romney is that he can sound stagy and pompous even, especially when he is trying to come off as casual and at ease. It is a nearly perfect echo of the rap on Democrat John Kerry in 2004. The defense of Romney is that it is a shame that average voters could not see the person that friends and close associates know, someone possessed of charm and intelligence and mischievous wit. This was what the friends and associates of Al Gore said, and so, too, the admirers of Walter Mondale in 1984.

One doubt about Romney is that his practical mind is so drawn to process and doing what needs to be done that the poetry of politics seems utterly beyond him. By the end, even Bob Dole's admirers didn't bother to rebut this.

Romney, similarly, is like George H.W. Bush in being able to command respect in many of his individual business and political relationships but is regarded with deep and justifiable suspicion by many ideological activists who question whether he holds any deeply felt political views.

And like Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, he sometimes seems to be slogging through politics not because he takes spontaneous joy in its people and rituals but because success is demanded by some inner code of achievement.

Richard Ben Cramer, whose book "What It Takes" made him the foremost writer on the intersection of character and conviction that drives people to pursue the White House, said the people who enter the arena of modern presidential politics are entitled to more dignity and respect than the process gives them.

Television is to blame for making otherwise charismatic politicians look stiff and boring when running for president, Cramer said.

"These guys, they're stage-managed until they just can't see straight. They're told stay on the message, stay on the message, stay on the message. So that means don't react honestly to anything," he said. "They're wearing their little suit and they're wearing the little powder on their nose and no man looks good in that situation. They look terrible but actually, they're huge winners."

Even presidential nominees who are not natural performers in the mold of Reagan, John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton tend to be better at the game than their reputations would suggest.

"Each and every one of them wouldn't have gotten the nomination of their party if they were unable to communicate and give people some sense of who they were. And I'd say that about Mitt Romney, too. It's not some fluke that he's here," said Michael Feldman, a senior adviser to Gore during all eight years of the Clinton administration.

But Gore, in the end, decided he just did not enjoy politics very much anymore, or consider himself especially good at it. He told his hometown paper, The Tennessean of Nashville, in 2007: "I don't think that the skills I have are the ones that are most likely to be rewarded within this system. It's like a washing machine that is permanently set on the spin cycle. It doesn't stop spinning. That creates real problems for a politics based on reason."

But Gore was good enough at it to win the popular vote in 2000 despite commentary about his alleged stiffness and inauthenticity.

Likewise, Kerry came close to unseating president in 2004 -- and won his nomination in the first place largely because of his implacable ambition. While Howard Dean was, at least for a time, a more compelling public presence, Kerry was the more disciplined and thus more successful politician. But even his own team enjoyed lampooning Kerry's pompous speaking style, with aides taking lunch orders by announcing, "And so I ask, who among us would not enjoy a delicious Subway sandwich?"

Romney daily suffers similar ridicule, if not -- so far as we know now -- from his own team but from the reporters sentenced to covering his parade of awkward campaign-trail remarks and encounters. Take his efforts to win average-guy voters with the revelation that, "I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners." He cited his wife's "couple of Cadillacs" in an effort to win over the Detroit Economic Club.

And yet: If Romney is such a clumsy politician, how come he's running close to an incumbent who is -- or at least once was -- regarded as a supremely gifted communicator while countless other Republicans are watching from the sidelines?

John F. Harris covered the Clinton White House for The Washington Post from 1995 to 2001. He wrote this article for Politico with the assistance of Reid Epstein, Ginger Gibson and Darren Samuelsohn.

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