Friday, December 21, 2007

On Hubris and Hyperbole

Every cynical observer of politics knows the old saying, "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." These days, you don't have to be a cynic to believe it.

When Mitt Romney first arrived on the political landscape in 1994 to run against Ted Kennedy, I thought that a guy who didn't smoke, drink, swear or have impure thoughts would be just what we needed to excise the warts of cynicism growing on America. I was none too happy when, in his debate against Kennedy he said he did not vote for Ronald Reagan or when he professed to being firmly pro-choice. But at the time I believed that personal honor, humility and intellectual honesty were gold standards that required vigorous burnishing if people were going to genuinely trust our government, and I thought Mitt was the guy that could do that.

But I confess, I am more convinced in Lord Acton's observation now that ever, in large measure because if a man of Romney's character can be so demonstrably tainted, then who is immune?

What Lord Acton actually said was this:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Great men are almost always bad men. This observation that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases is a parable told a thousand times in literature and history. Now it seems to be touching even the once untouchable.

When Mitt Romney professed his pro-choice beliefs in the 1990's, I believed him -- because he so convincingly told us how he came by them, campaigning with his pro-choice mother in Michigan. Surely a man then in his 50's, avowing his long-held political beliefs, could not be so facile a liar!

Yet recently we are told that his once-held beliefs were uprooted by a chance visit to a stem cell laboratory, where his newfound understanding of human biology opened his eyes to the miracle of life (or some such drivel). Why, he was so convincing that even callous old neanderthals like my father -- the sharpest knife in any drawer -- were taken in by him. "I believe his conversion is sincere," he professed to me. It is the only time in my life I felt that my father was more gullible than I.

Now we are treated to the evolution of his memory on the subject of Martin Luther King.

But first: Mitt tells Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he "wept with relief" when the Mormon church announced a 1978 revelation that the priesthood would no longer be denied to persons of African descent:

"I can remember when I heard about the change being made. I was driving home from — I think it was law school, but I was driving home — going through the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept. Even at this day it's emotional, and so it's very deep and fundamental in my, in my life and my most core beliefs that all people are children of God..”

Poignant story, for sure. Apparently he wasn't the only Mormon who heard the news while riding in his car. Here is what Marlin Jensen, the LDS church historian said in an interview in March of 2006:

Where were you when the revelation came about the black priesthood?

"Great question. I know right where I was. I was on 26th Street in Ogden, Utah, and I was in my car; I heard it on the car radio. ... I was absolutely thrilled, stunned, thrilled, elated, and have been equally elated with the way that has played out now in the intervening 20 or so years."

Quite a coincidence, isn't it?

Now we are presented with another instance that raises the eyebrows -- and curiously pertains to a similar subject - civil rights.

Romney is facing questions regarding statements he has made in the past regarding his family's involvement with Martin Luther King.

Mitt has apparently repeated numerous times that his father, Goerge Romney, then Governor of Michigan, "marched with King" at a civil rights march in Detroit. He has said publicly on several occasions that he "saw my father march" with Rev. King.

And according to the Globe story, Romney stated in an interview with the Boston herald in 1978, "My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit."

How does Mitt choose to explain this to us?

Romney said his father had told him he had marched with King and that he had been using the word "saw" in a "figurative sense."

"If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described," Romney told reporters in Iowa. "It's a figure of speech and very familiar, and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King. I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."

I suppose it is only fair to Romney that he did indeed point to sources that reported (incorrectly) that his father had marched with King in Grosse Pointe. And it is clear that Mitt's father was indeed a strong supporter of civil rights. And there is this generous observation given by Clayborne Carson, director of the King Project at Stanford:

He said he often jokes that if all the people who say they marched on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in 1965 had actually been there, the bridge would have collapsed.

"I think it's partly the desire of everyone that supported the civil rights cause to say it was not just rhetorical support but an active support," Carson said. "To say you supported civil rights and to say you never marched is just not the way you want to remember your past. So, I think easily I could imagine where 'I supported the march' became 'I was actually at the march.' "

But in the business of choosing a President, "my father supported the civil rights movement" cannot become "I marched with Martin Luther King." The fact that he said that back in 1978 might have been a warning that "squeaky clean" does not prevent hyperbole, or to be less charitable, prevarication.

And his propensity is not confined to such heady issues as civil rights, as we have seen. How can Romney explain how a foray into the rabbit patch when he was 15 and an outing in a fenced game preserve in Georgia last year are the equivalent of being a hunter all his life?

Is this propensity for embellishment unique to those who are lured to politics? Is it impossible in politics today to avoid the hyperbole that turns fact into fiction, genuineness into fraudulence? Or is it the human nature in all of us to make more of our life experiences than exist in dull fact?

It is disappointing indeed, but I have come to my decision on who to support in this Presidential campaign based almost exclusively on who I think will be most straightforward and honest in his dialogue with us. Only time will tell if he turns out to be a storyteller as well.

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