Denial this deep holds a kind of fascination for me.
I know you don’t want to hear about Mitt Romney but how about the weird psychological spectacle of massive denial in public figures. Does that interest you at all?
A vivid example came ‘round today in an excerpt of a new book by Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s most experienced political reporter. His chronicle of campaign 2012 will be out next month. In late January Balz went to visit Mitt Romney to interview him. Of course, the topic of the “47 percent” video came up. Romney still cannot accept the reality of what he said. He’s not even close.
I expected him to be somewhere in the vicinity of, “I know what I meant to say, but when I listen to the tape I clearly said something else.” Maybe not all the way there, but on the way to reconciling himself to his actual words. But he isn’t on the way. He’s actually going backwards. He tried to convince Dan Balz that everything we know about the 47 percent video is just “perception,” that when you read the words themselves that perception is contradicted.
In reality it’s the reverse. His deluded perception is completely unsupported by the words themselves. Here’s what Romney told Balz, followed by the transcript of the 47 percent video. The bold-ing is mine. Romney starts out in semi-normal territory: the difference between what he meant to say and what people now perceive him to have said:
"That wasn’t what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.” I interjected, “But when you said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility — ” Before I finished, he jumped in. “Actually, I didn’t say that. . . .That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”
Scanning his notes on an iPad, he began to read a long quotation, offering commentary as he read. At one point, he focused on the question posed at the Florida fundraiser.“Audience member: ‘For the last three years, all of us have been told this, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it in two months before the elections, to convince everyone you’ve got to take care of yourself?’ And I’m saying that isn’t my job. In two months, my job is to get the people in the middle. But this was perceived as, ‘Oh, he’s saying 47 percent of the people he doesn’t care about or he’s insensitive to or they don’t care — they don’t take responsibility for their life.’ No, no. I’m saying 47 percent of the people don’t pay taxes and therefore they don’t warm to our tax message. But the people who are voting for the president, my job isn’t to try and get them. My job is to get the people in the middle. And I go on and say that. Take a look. Look at the full quote. But I realized, look, perception is reality. The perception is I’m saying I don’t care about 47 percent of the people or something of that nature, and that’s simply wrong.”
So according to Romney, he didn’t say there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility for their lives. And now let’s look at the full quote, his actual words to see how deep this denial runs:
Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?
Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…
To many people I discuss this sort of thing with, there’s nothing to discuss. Romney is simply lying about what he said, and he’s not very good at it. But this isn’t lying. Lying is trying to conceal what happened with an untruth. The truth of what Romney said is already out there. He knows it’s out there. But he cannot accept it. The right name for that is denial, not lying. And what a spectacle it remains!
The only journalist I know of who’s ventured seriously into Romney’s capacity for denial is Frank Rich in this essay from January of 2012. Rich argued that Romney’s Mormon faith was foundational to who he is and how he thinks, but the campaign he ran had placed it off limits. This meant that deep denial was a constitutive feature of the Romney-for-president project. Rich wrote:
We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.
"This is something else." I agree with that. Denial was at the heart of the Romney campaign and it remains there.
Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.