A Bad Man Is Easy to Find

The chronic mendacity of Willard Mitt Romney

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Photo illustration: Ed Johnson

“… you have no sense of responsibility toward anyone or anything. And that is a tragedy in a man and a disaster in a president.” —Gore Vidal, The Best Man

I never much cared for Gore Vidal, and I don’t like quoting him. He was an anti-Semite and a cynic whose sniggering contrarianism extended to expressing sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, the butcher of Oklahoma City. I find his popularity among so many people on the left today appalling. (His books are perfectly fine. There just aren’t any people in them, save for himself.)

But the climactic lines above from his play, The Best Man—directed at his thinly veiled Nixon stand-in, “Joe Cantwell”—seem tailor-made for this year’s Republican presidential nominee.

There is no love lost here for Barack Obama. Over the last four years, I’ve probably written more harsh words about the president than the most perfervid Weekly Standard hack.

But for this country to elect Willard Mitt Romney and his sidekick, Kid Damien, would be for us to surrender every last remaining shred of our self-respect as free citizens in a functioning democracy.

Mr. Romney’s reversals since his days as governor of Massachusetts way back in 2006 have been well documented. In less than six years, beginning at the age of 60, he has gone from being pro-gay rights to wanting an anti-gay-marriage amendment enshrined in the Constitution; from an advocate of choice to a firm believer that abortion is murder; from an ecological watchdog to a man who thinks climate change is a punch line.

During his time on the road with the Republican party’s traveling Klown Kollege this spring, he not only renounced pretty much everything he actually did in public office, but also stood placidly by while audiences of the faithful booed a gay American soldier, and applauded the idea that a man without health insurance should be left to die on the streets. During a private fund-raiser with major party contributors around the same time, he famously opined that nearly half the American public was “victims and dependents.”

As the general election campaign kicked into gear, the lies and obfuscations came faster and thicker than ever.

For the record, Mr. Romney was never poor, not even in college, when he had to eat tuna fish. He was never even not rich.

As a young man, he backed our intervention in the war in Vietnam, and even demonstrated in favor of it. But he never served, using six years of deferments to finish his education instead and to proselytize for the Mormon Church in the south of France.

He never started “a small business,” in any generally recognized sense of the term, or made it into a going concern. What he did was start a leveraged buyout shop, capitalized at the get-go with $37 million in funds from his daddy’s friends—then made an even greater fortune buying up, reorganizing, and sometimes melting down and dissolving businesses other people started.

He refused to release most of his tax returns, perhaps because he didn’t want anyone to see how little he paid on them, perhaps because he was embarrassed that, while running for governor of Massachusetts, he claimed residency in Utah in order to save a small amount in state taxes.

When it came to the issues, he had no difficulty telling national debate audiences that he could balance the budget and make the deficit disappear while giving everyone massive tax cuts and doubling military spending. That he would retain all the most popular benefits of “Obamacare” while eliminating any of the taxes necessary to pay for them. That his plan to replace Medicare with a voucher program was not a voucher program. That our Navy is not as strong as it was in 1916, and that our Air Force is not what it was in 1947. That Mr. Obama is an Arab-appeasing weakling who has betrayed our allies in Israel and Poland, that our real enemy is still Russia, and that he will commence a trade war with China on Day One of his administration.

It has become the standard boilerplate to say that Mr. Romney, like all our presidential nominees, is “a good man.” But that’s not true either. I’m not talking about how he treats his wife or his sons, or whether he tips well in restaurants. In public life, which is all we know, and all we can truly know about him, his has been a thoroughly dishonorable record, devoid of any principle or consistency.

Some observers see in this changeability a wily pragmatism. What I see is democracy’s worst nightmare: a clever man willing at every turn to choose his own momentary advantage over the long-term needs of his country—at a time when those needs, when the choices we must make, are more critical than ever.

To win election, this infinitely malleable individual has put himself in the hands of a rigidly ideological party. He has surrounded himself with many of the most venal and fanatical people in American politics today: Karl Rove, Robert Bork, John Bolton, Ralph Reed. Not to mention a corrupt hatemonger like John Sununu, or his leading economics adviser, Glenn “Give It Your Best Shot” Hubbard, so deftly exposed peddling his intellectual integrity in the documentary Inside Job. Mr. Romney swore a solemn oath to Grover Norquist long before he ever swore one to the Constitution.

In order to appease these people and enhance his own immediate prospects, Mr. Romney appears willing to throw millions of the aged and the needy into poverty, blow an irreparable hole in the deficit, start a catastrophic war and recklessly accelerate the climatic shifts that are already changing our world. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama’s thin agenda—and I don’t feel it’s sufficient for the challenges facing us—it has to be said that Mr. Romney doesn’t even have a plan. What he has is the political equivalent of that old Times Square staple, a three-card monte game mounted on an old cardboard box, ready to be kicked into the gutter at the first sign that the jig is up, the cash of the bewildered suckers disappearing with the faceless grifter as he vanishes effortlessly back into the crowd.