Frame Game

The Man We Never Saw

The only time Mitt Romney managed to be himself was when he thought no one was looking.

A five-minute video of Mitt Romney losing his temper has lit up the Internet. The clip, excerpted from an off-air conversation with an Iowa radio host in 2007, has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it was posted a few days ago. Democrats think it exposes Romney as an anti-choice Mormon fanatic. They’re completely wrong. It’s the best five minutes of Romney I’ve ever seen. It’s Romney without the pandering and the phony smile. It’s a man defending his church and his integrity with conviction, nuance, and even an ironic edge. If this is the real Romney, the tragedy of this election is that he didn’t run as himself.

To understand the context, you have to watch the full 20-minute video from which the clip was taken. It was recorded by cameras in a studio at WHO-AM, a Des Moines radio station, on Aug. 2, 2007, during Romney’s first run for president. The interviewer is Jan Mickelson, a conservative news-chat host. It begins with Romney smiling, making small talk, and flattering Mickelson and the locals. Mickelson doesn’t come across as a jerk, but he keeps interrupting Romney and asking about his religion. Romney’s patience wears thin.

Halfway through the recording, Mickelson, perhaps sensing his guest’s ire, takes a commercial break. He tells Romney that they’re off the air and that Romney is making a political mistake by distancing himself from his faith, since evangelicals share Mormon values. Romney, his hackles up, steps in to correct him. “There are Mormons in the leadership of my church who are pro-choice,” Romney says, and their views “do not violate” church teachings. Citing alcohol and premarital sex as examples, Romney explains the difference between obeying a moral code and imposing it on others. “Every Mormon should be pro-life?” Romney asks incredulously, his voice rising. “That’s not what my church says. There are leaders of my church that are pro-choice! You’re wrong!”

Going back on the air for half a minute, Mickelson tries to get Romney to tell the audience he’ll stick around. Romney demurs, saying he has to run. He doesn’t want to talk any more about his religion in front of all those listeners. But he’s not done with Mickelson. As they put down their headphones, Romney wheels on his host and closes in to lecture him about Mormonism and politics. “You don’t understand my faith like I do,” he begins. Mickelson starts to describe the church’s position on abortion, but Romney leans forward with a livid stare and a question—“Are you disagreeing with me?”—that looks like the prelude to a fistfight.

Mickelson changes the subject to Mormon teachings about the second coming of Christ. He says the church believes this will happen in Missouri. Romney corrects him, detailing with scholarly precision the church’s doctrine on this matter. The prophecy Romney describes is nutty—for a thousand years, Christ “will reign from two places,” Missouri and Jerusalem—but it’s no nuttier than the Book of Revelation or the parting of the Red Sea. And when Mickelson, turning back to abortion, declares, “I take this stuff real seriously,” Romney parries his piety with sarcasm. “Oh, I don’t,” the candidate deadpans. “For me, this is all frivolous.”

Romney tells Mickelson he has never violated his church’s strictures against participating in or encouraging abortion. “I’ve made other mistakes,” he laments. But in general, he explains,

The church does not say that a member of our church has to be opposed to allowing choice in society. … It says, “Look, we are vehemently opposed to abortion ourselves, and for ourselves. But we allow other people to make their own choice.” I disagree with that view. Politically, I looked at it. I said, “You know what? That’s wrong.” And it’s not a Mormon thing. It’s a secular position to say … we should have as a society a prohibition on abortion in the following circumstances. But it’s not violating my faith.

Five minutes after putting down the headphones, Romney finally leaves the room. He’s still fuming: “You’re trying to tell me that I’m not a faithful Mormon.” Watching the video, I’m chagrined that I missed it in my review of Romney’s abortion record. It illuminates the degree to which Romney, by 2007, had convinced himself of the edited version of his abortion conversion. At the same time, it shows how clearly he continued to distinguish between morality and the law. It doesn’t resolve whether he’s really pro-life or pro-choice. It simply adds to the evidence that emotionally and intellectually, he’s both.

But what comes across, more strongly than Romney’s ideas about abortion or prophecy, is his authenticity. He’s indignant at the misrepresentation of what he and his church believe. He’s particularly offended by the suggestion that he isn’t being faithful. But he’s no idiot. The complexity of his exposition makes clear that he has thought carefully about how to interpret his church’s teachings in a way that can be sensibly lived. He has struggled to reconcile faith with reason. And even in the heat of argument, Romney keeps his sense of humor. His mockery of Mickelson’s piety is delicious.

I never saw this Mitt Romney. Not in 2007 or 2008. Not in 2011 or 2012. Why? Where was he? Why does he show up only in this video?

In a CBS News interview sometime after the Iowa incident, Katie Couric asked Romney: “When was the last time you lost your temper?” First Romney denied it: “I don’t think I lose my temper.” Then he acknowledged, “There was a TV or radio talk-show host the other day in Iowa that began drilling me about my faith. And I became intense in confronting what he had said. And we went back and forth. Unbeknownst to me, he had a hidden camera on the console. So this then popped up on the Internet.”

Mickelson claims the camera wasn’t hidden. It was set up on a tripod, he says. But when you watch the video, it’s obvious that once Romney put down the headphones, he assumed he wasn’t being recorded. And that’s the answer. Romney was being himself because he thought no one was looking. Off came the plastic grin and the cardboard chuckle. He was angry at Mickelson, he had given up on sweet-talking him, and he just let him have it.

Oh, Mitt. Why did you work so hard to hide this? Why did you dress up as a series of characters—the earnest reformer, the capitalist savior, the devout conservative, the bipartisan healer? They all looked fake. They were fake. You were fake. And you did it because you thought we wanted it. You thought we’d love you. We would have liked you more if you’d just been yourself.

If the returns don’t go your way tonight, Mitt, let it go. Toss the script, take off the mask, walk away from the cameras. You don’t have to be president of the United States. You can just be who you are.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: