This past week, I saw for the first time a video shot last December during the Republican primaries. Mitt Romney was confronted by retired Army Sergeant Bob Garon about gay marriage in New Hampshire. Garon, a Vietnam veteran, was seated in a coffee shop with his partner in his hometown of Epsom, N.H. No doubt many of you have seen the video — Romney spots the man’s Vietnam veteran hat across the room and rushes to sit down with the man. Garon asks Romney a simple yes or no question about his support for the repeal of gay marriage. Though the confrontation turns heated, Garon finally accepts a handshake from the candidate and allows him to continue campaigning, despite the apparent offense of the Governor’s statement.
What struck me about the video was the visual — the contrast between the two men. Romney sits down beside the Garon, clearly enjoying his morning coffee before the barrage of press arrives. The two begin to chat and realize that during the years Garon was in Vietnam, Romney had left college for his mission in France, a country full of its own Vietnam veterans at the time.
Despite the fact that they are nearly the exact same age, Romney looks a good 20 years younger. Garon’s face is wrinkled from stress. He wears a thick, red flannel jacket and huddles over a barren table supporting only an empty cup of joe, a pack of cigarettes seemingly bulging out of his front pocket. His face reveals a spartan no-nonsense intensity. The shadow from his hat hides a thin face with deeply punctuated eyes.
Romney, on the other hand, looks perfectly pressed for the occasion. His dark hair, greying ever-so-slightly, is slicked back delicately over his broad face and smooth skin. His crisp white oxford shirt is tucked beneath a navy blue blazer. Even his hands look manicured for the occasion. As he gesticulates, his gold wedding band shines amongst the camera flashes.
As the men speak Garon stutters, makes grammatical mistakes, and jerks his head about. Romney looks the man in the eye while he speaks yet demurs when it is his turn to respond. Staring at the cameras, Romney’s words reek of false confidence, the rote mutterings of a skilled politician.
Now I could speak of the hypocrisy in Romney’s projected image. How a man who fared so well in the lottery of birth, a man brought up atop the acropolis with a faith whose emphasis on purity and abstinence (from caffeine, alcohol, sexual experimentation etc.) casts inherent judgment upon real people, an interest group to which Garon most likely pertains. But I won’t.
Instead, I would like to write about nostalgia, the apparent longing for a not so distant past that defines this election season. On the Democratic side, President Obama invokes frequently a disdain for the last 10 years of American history, the squandered surpluses of the Bush years that ruined a booming digital economy bestowed by Clinton. This is a sort of numerical nostalgia, craving the economic prosperity of the 1990s with budgets in the green and foreign wars resting calmly at zero.
On the Republican side, the nostalgia seems to transcend the modern era, harking back to the times when Romney and Garon were young. On the surface, the 1950s exude everything that Romney seems to stand for: quiet, non-intrusive social conservatism, Cold War political unity, whitewashed vision of prosperity that trickled down through the suburbs. Forget the fact that upper-income tax rates were far higher back then than the Romney campaign proposes. Ignore segregation and social unrest, the draft that defined the wars in Korea and, later, Vietnam, sending anyone who couldn’t wrangle a deferment from their fathers’ well-kept social circle off to hellish danger across the globe. The 1950s were great for Romney — his father was a successful CEO and soon-to-be governor.
In the clip with Garon, Romney is the 1950s incarnate, resisting the tug of the future that shaped the tumultuous 1960s. Age, like progress, is meaningless to Governor Romney. His campaign is based on an effort to restore power to his social strata, which has seen the rise of the rest. Forget policy — Romney doesn’t care much for it. He reads off his focus-group-tested beliefs to Garon as if they defined a political vision. They don’t. Mitt Romney cares more for retro stylistics than he does for any of the multiple political visions he’s held.
Embedded in the words progressive and conservative are two myopic political visions, which, independent of candidates’ actual proposals, tell us something about our options. A progressive wishes to pull the world, as he or she knows it away from an unsatisfying present. He or she hopes to move past the inequalities and inconsistencies imposed by the elite of the day.
A conservative wishes to conserve something from the past that he or she thinks is at risk. In the case of Mr. Romney, this seems to be his idyllic childhood where modern times and the coffee, alcohol and swear words that come with them don’t threaten his perfectly mowed lawn or white-picket fences. This would be absolutely fine if it wasn’t for the skeleton in the closet of this vision. Retired Sergeant Garon sits beside Governor Romney and reminds him of the unpleasant underbelly of those years — the unfortunate poor who fought wars on his behalf, the neglected gay-community that was swept under the rug. Romney can only hope to avoid direct confrontation with this type until November.