2012-01-18 / Commentary

People needing people

By David Brooks

SUMTER, S.C. — When I started covering presidential primaries, the best part was getting to know the candidates. We journalists would ride around in vans and buses with them and get an intimate look at what it’s like to endure this soul-destroying process. But the ubiquity of webcams and tweets has ended that off-the-record culture. As the technology gets more open, the lines of political communications become more closed.

Now the best part is meeting the people who come to the rallies. It’s best to get to the events an hour early and treat the waiting crowd like a cocktail party. First, you ask people about the local economy. Then you ask them about their lives (about which they are always interesting). Then you ask them about what they think of the issues and candidates (they generally repeat the banalities they have heard one of us pundits utter on TV the day before).

Over the weekend in South Carolina I met, among many others, a soldier leaving for Afghanistan who quoted the Book of Revelation from his iPhone, a Vietnam vet who movingly described the death of his first wife, a textile factory middle manager whose job got sent to El Salvador and a pawnshop manager who supports Ron Paul and said he has clients who buy a new gun every time the government does something they don’t like.

I came here wondering how voters would react to the charge that Mitt Romney was a corporate vulture when he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital. I asked dozens of people. They were all familiar with the attacks, thanks to the TV ads. Almost everybody thought the charges were ridiculous, even supporters of Newt Gingrich.

A Realtor looked at me dismissively: Sometimes deals work, he said, sometimes they don’t. You have to be efficient to survive. That’s the way capitalism works. Romney’s opponents would have been smarter to hit him for being a flip-flopper, not a businessman.

I was also struck, as in New Hampshire and Iowa, by the mood of this year’s rallies. Republican audiences this year want a restoration. America once had strong values, they believe, but we have gone astray. We’ve got to go back and rediscover what we had. Heads nod enthusiastically every time a candidate touches this theme.

I agree with the sentiment, but it makes for an incredibly backward looking campaign. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.

The other pleasure of covering campaigns is getting to play American Idol judge, evaluating the political performances.

Mitt Romney is never going to be confused for Pericles on the stump. Every sigh and utterance is scripted, so watching his rallies is like watching the 19,000th performance of the road show of “Cats.” And he has terrible reaction responses. When somebody else is talking and he means to show agreement, he mugs like someone from a bad silent movie. His wife, Ann, is much warmer and more natural on stage.

But Romney’s awkwardness seems to endear him to audiences, because he’s trying so hard. He spends an enormous amount of time after the speeches shaking hands, taking pictures and holding babies. Beads of sweat form on his forehead as he throws himself graciously into the crowds. He also has a nice startle response. When something unexpected happens, his face lights up and you get a burst of happy humanity out of him.

Gingrich’s presentations are forceful. He has a genius for pithy formulations and a consistent theme: The solutions to everything are obvious if only the idiots would get out of my way.

Ron Paul’s supporters are so grateful. The world was once confusing, but then they read “End the Fed” and the scales fell from their eyes. Paul himself is fascinating because as some smart person observed (I’ve forgotten who), he thinks serially, not causally. The income tax happened and the Patriot Act happened and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, bailed out the banks and job growth stinks. Paul doesn’t bother with logical links. He just strings events together and assumes causation.

I brought my 12-year-old son on this latest trip. My rule is that if a candidate can’t relate well to a 12-year-old, they’ll never win a general election. He approached all the candidates, and they were all wonderful except Gingrich.

But that wasn’t Gingrich’s fault. My son, whose heroes include John Boehner and Tupac Shakur, picked an argument about gay marriage. Gingrich engaged, but after 10 seconds signaled security to brush my kid away.

Rick Perry ran a poor campaign but seems like the guy you’d most want to have a beer with. He took the time to tell my son how important it is to study hard and prepare for whatever you do.

Dad really appreciated that one.

David Brooks writes for The New York Times.

letters@timesrecord.com

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