Jack Bohrer's astounding addition to the historical understanding of Mitt Romney this morning — and the revelation that an oft-repeated family legend is a myth — is just the latest reminder of the degree to which writers telling the stories of both candidates, and of many other politicians, are trapped in the quicksand of family lore.
We learned about Mitt Romney's father's legendary walkout from the 1964 Republican Convention from Mitt Romney, who now doubt believed it — there's no reason to make such a thing up. He likely heard it from his own father or his father's circle, an after-the-fact embellishment of George Romney's real hostility to Barry Goldwater. Similarly, the exercise of writing a biography of Barack Obama was, for David Maraniss, in no small part an exercise in debunking Obama and Dunham family legends, among them his mother’s alleged experience of racism in Kansas and colonial brutality toward his Kenyan grandfather and Indonesian step-grandfather.
What these stories have in common, in particular, is a politician's utterly human instinct (I first recall doing this in Kindergarten, myself) to tell stories that make your father, no matter how great, look even better.
Romney's father actually lived a great American life. He was self-made, a titan of industry and a major political figure viewed for a time as the frontrunner for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. He was also a true champion of vivil rights at a time when that had a real cost for politicians in both parties, but particularly for those seeking a future in Republican politics. As Bohrer writes:
There is no questioning George Romney’s sterling civil rights record. He had been battling segregated housing in Michigan since World War II. He set the standard for fair employment practices at American Motors, successfully lobbied to make them law statewide, and later established a state civil rights commission at the constitutional convention.
But he was also given to the occasional gilding of the lily, as when he claimed to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit, a claim Mitt Romney was criticized for repeating. (When George Romney did appear at a civil rights march soon after King appeared in Detroit, the head of the local NAACP chapter warned reporters that "he’s going to tell you that he has been out in front of us all along.”)
The political press tends, again understandably, to accept politicians' stories about their lives at face value. That is, Bohrer points out, exactly how a false anecdote worked its way past the dean of Columbia's Journalism School and the storied New Yorker fact-checking department earlier this month. Romney recalled to Nicholas Lemann that on election night 1964, Romney's pollster, Walt DeVries, told the governor, "George, you probably can’t win" as the presidential election went to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.
DeVries told Bohrner that the story isn't true, and that no one had bothered to ask him, since the story came from a man in the room. (Mitt's misremembering may stem from an account documented elsewhere, in which DeVries estimates a 100,000-vote victory, and later revises the number up to 200,000. Romney ultimately won by 363,000 votes.)
It's hard to blame Romney for passing on myths given him by his father or his father's circle, or for having an idealized image of his father. It's equally difficult to blame Barack Obama, in very different circumstances, turning the scraps of memory and reporting of his absent father into a relatively coherent and useful narrative: Barak Obama Sr. appears, in Dreams From My Father, as an appealing, but flawed, man, charismatic and brilliant, pulled away from his family by his desire to reshape post-colonial Kenya, and then broken by a society that couldn't recognize his talents.
There's some truth to that story, but it is more effective as metaphor — for the dashed hopes of an African technocratic elite — than as history. Maraniss reveals that much of what the future president learned about his father was false, beginning with the fact that his mother left Hawaii for the mainland to get away from him, likely because he was beating her. Barack Obama has no George Romney to idealize, but he at least sees his father as having had the missed potential to become a great leader. What he does not approach saying, or thinking is what Lemann wrote in his New Republic review of Maraniss's book: "Barack Obama, Sr., though brilliant and magnetic, comes across as a real horror-show."
And indeed, Obama's memoir skips, perhaps because his mother protected him from it or perhaps because he protected himself, another part of the post-colonial story that's very much in play in his own history: The misogyny and violence common in many traditional societies.
Elements of both Obama's and Romney's mythmaking narratives are self-serving, and Obama's memoir is the consciously-crafted work of an adult who appears to exaggerate at times for literary effect. But it is very hard to condemn either man for worshipping his dad, or to call him a liar for passing on typical family stories. (This also seems to be why Elizabeth Warren thought she was Native American.)
It is, though, worth asking how much of our understanding of political leaders — now and always — is rooted in this sort of family lore. While leaders' public lives are well-documented, their childhood and early professional lives aren't, and they themselves are usually our sources for anecdotes and understanding. Both Obama and Romney prove what a bad idea this is: Obama's memoir is more an obstacle than a guide to actually understanding him; and Romney's view of his father as a man who sacrificed his career for principle is roughly the opposite of Bohrer's analysis of a politician who was much more like his son than is typically thought.
There is a way to get this right. It's just hard. Maraniss spent years reading old newspapers, tracking down elderly relatives on three continents, and persuading ex-girlfriends to share their diaries. Bohrer, doing research for a book on Robert Kennedy, spent a week in the University of Michigan's archives this summer taking notes and photographing thousands of pages of contemporary documents, much of the summer poring over those, the New York Public Library's microfilm archive, and Teddy White's papers in Boston. What that sort of deep reporting and history turns up are also, incidentally, known as facts — solid targets, perhaps, for the fact checkers who have spent much of the cycle trying to arbitrate policy arguments which don't always have their roots in a factual dispute.
There's no real shortcut to this sort of thing. As Jack's editor, I've of course been pushing him to deliver more quickly. But, as he wrote me this morning. "I believe had I rushed this, I would have gotten the story wrong." And all things considered, the few months from reporting to publishing seem lightning-quick. I first met Jack at the Maryland home of Richard Ben Cramer, maybe the greatest American political storyteller and a past master of blown deadlines.
The only pity with this sort of deep and rich reporting is how late it tends to come: You have to have accomplished quite a bit to draw a sane person to dive that deep into your history. It would have been nice to have a more accurate understanding of where Barack Obama was coming from before he ran for president. It would have been nice to understand the meaning of Mitt Romney's father before October. These aren't histories likely to swing votes or have any sort of linear effect on policy or politics, but they are core to understanding the men who want to be president.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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