At the Republican National Convention in 2012, the Romney campaign released a piece of political propaganda that quickly came to plague Mormon men everywhere. Using a few clips of old home movies and interviews with the Romney brood, the stylishly edited 10-minute biographical video masterfully portrayed the candidate as a doting husband, a committed father, and a successful breadwinner who still got home every night in time for his kids to playfully smear frosting on his face. To most of the GOP delegates gathered in the convention hall that night, the video depicted a good family man for whom they would be proud to pull the lever come November. To Obama supporters, it was merely slick editing meant to mask the sinister motives of a political villain. But to millions of Mormons watching from home, Romney’s particular brand of domestic heroics was recognized as the product of a lifetime of Sunday school lessons and grooming by LDS religious culture — the gold standard of Mormon manhood by which the rest of us would now be judged at home. My wife, alas, was in this last group.
It’s easy to see why the video struck a chord. Like the Romneys, we had chosen a relatively traditional Mormon lifestyle, with my wife — who was four months pregnant at the time — preparing to quit her job and stay home with our first child. Unlike the Romneys, the family patriarch still needed some polishing if he was going to live up to the ideal set in those golden-hued family home videos.
It wasn’t long before my every husbandly action was being compared to the extended campaign commercial. When my wife caught me scrolling through Twitter on my phone during dinner, trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of the campaign I covered for a living, I was gently encouraged to follow the example of Mitt Romney, who, we learn in the campaign video, “left his briefcase by the door and … never thought about work again until he left the next morning.” Whenever a spousal spat began to escalate, I was reminded that Mitt Romney was unfailingly sweet to his wife. (“We could never, ever say anything bad about my mom,” Mitt’s son, Josh, helpfully recalls in the video.) And as we prepared for the arrival of our first child, the footage of Romney horsing around with his kids, his tie loosened after a long day at Bain Capital, served as the omnipresent backdrop to every discussion.
“What would Mitt do?” came the inevitable chiding response whenever I failed to live up to the candidate’s shining example.
So, you can imagine my anxiety when it was announced last year that Netflix would stream Mitt, a documentary by filmmaker Greg Whiteley, who was given expansive access to the Romney family over the course of the candidate’s six-year pursuit of the White House. If a couple of secular political operatives with a few minutes of home video were able to inadvertently turn Romney into the perfect embodiment of Mormon family life, how would the subject emerge in the hands of a Latter-day Saint filmmaker with years of footage?
So far, the reviews of the film, which went live on Netflix Friday, have been remarkable for their consistency. Mitt, we are told in one identical article after another, reveals a shockingly likable “other side” to the candidate. It “humanizes” him. It “pulls back the curtain,” or “goes behind the scenes,” to “reveal a fuller, more intimate portrait” of a man who proved elusive during the election. If only this movie had been released during the campaign, many have argued, it might have changed the outcome of the race. If only voters had been able to meet the Real Mitt Romney.
It’s a sentiment Romney’s most avid supporters — and Mormons, in particular, who most closely identify with Mitt — are eager to embrace. But, if anything, their reaction to the film illustrates the hopelessness of our quadrennial quest to discover the Truth about the people who run for president.
As I watched the movie with my wife and another Mormon couple on Friday night, I began to take note of every time something on the screen provoked a sympathetic sigh from our small audience. It happened when one of Mitt’s grandkids jumps on top of him in the snow; when the ever-frugal Mitt opts to keep his old sturdy winter gloves instead of new ones that were gifted to him (“These work great!”); when a tearful Ann Romney kneels in a hotel on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary and leads the family in prayer, telling the Lord that their “motives are pure” and asking for strength to endure the daily persecutions of campaign life; when, upon realizing he’s going to lose the election, Mitt immediately begins consoling his family members, worried that the failed campaign may harm his sons’ careers.
When Mitt is shown, hours before a big debate, diligently cleaning up after a trash can that has tipped over on a windy hotel balcony, someone watching with me remarked, “He’s such a good guy.”
And when Mitt, upon seeing the 2008 New Hampshire primary returns, stifles a curse word by adopting a silly falsetto and exclaiming, “That’s not good!” my wife turned to me and said, “Oh my gosh, Mitt Romney is my dad.”
The reaction to the film in my living room was essentially a tribal one. This was no crowd of right-wingers — everyone present had been at least mildly critical of Romney’s politics during the campaign, and at least one had voted for President Obama — but in this portrayal of Mitt, they saw shades of their grandfathers, bishops, and Boy Scout leaders, and they instinctively sympathized with him.
It’s safe to say that if the documentary had been released during the campaign, it wouldn’t have been widely greeted with the same generosity.
For example, one of the most candid moments captured by Whiteley’s camera takes place immediately after the candidate’s triumphant performance in the first general election debate. At the top of the notepad he had the podium, Romney had drawn a sun to remind him of a verse in the New Testament — “Let your light so shine” — and beside the doodle, he had written the word “dad.”
“He was the real deal,” Mitt says, marveling at his late father, George. “The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became a governor,” Mitt goes on, contrasting his father’s achievements with his own. “I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.”
“I’m standing on his shoulders,” Mitt concludes, before kneeling in prayer and thanking God for the opportunities his parents provided him.
The scene will likely be treated by Mitt’s admirers as singularly revealing — proof that he is a decent man, humbled by his privilege and duty-bound to use it for good. But in the heat of a campaign, Romney’s opponents no doubt would have seen a selfish plutocrat content to take advantage of his own good fortune while writing off 47% of the country. His words in the film would have been spun and spliced and used to fill out various political caricatures. Critics would have cynically dismissed his reference to the New Testament as religious pandering. And Romney’s comment about his father’s birth in Mexico would have become fodder for the birther message boards in the internet’s fever swamps. By Election Day, the documentary would have brought us no closer to consensus about Mitt Romney’s inner life than the video the campaign released at the convention.
When you run for something as big and important and hard as the presidency, you forfeit any right you once had to shape your own identity, and you become a canvas on which political factions, religious groups, and various socioeconomic tribes project their own biases. The ads for Mitt ask viewers to do something that is antithetical to our popular political instincts: “Whatever side you’re on, see another side.” That’s much easier to do now that Romney has lost.