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Mitt Romney and his mystifying sense of humor

Posted Aug. 29, 2012, at 12:56 p.m.

At breakfast Monday in Tampa, Fla., Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was responding once again to the question, “Why’d he say it?”

On Friday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney returned to Michigan, where “the trees are the right height,” and waxed nostalgic about his childhood in a wealthy Detroit suburb.

“Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born,” Romney said, referring to his wife. “Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born in Harper Hospital. No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”

When all hell broke loose in Twitterland and beyond, Romney quickly said he didn’t mean anything by his birth-upmanship. It was all a joke. A “lighthearted” one at that, Fehrnstrom said.

That’s the press for you: Can’t take a joke. In politics, a joke is what you label something you said that you really meant or wanted to say, but don’t want to own up to. Regret a previous statement because the reaction is negative? Call it a joke and hide behind your quirky sense of humor.

Romney’s own allies were surprised that he would get birthery. (Isn’t that Donald Trump’s job?) For Romney even to refer to the fallacious charge that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. was surprising; the equivalent eight years ago would have been George W. Bush calling John Kerry’s Purple Heart into question. (That was the job of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)

Even when genuine, humor is a ticking bomb that can grievously injure the person who deploys it. Mistaken attempts to tickle your own funny bone, or those of a few around you, are usually remembered far better than any speech. Yes, we remember Ronald Reagan saying “Tear down this wall,” but we also recall Reagan’s detour as he was about to give his weekly radio address, intoning into an open mic that he’d just signed legislation that would outlaw Russia forever: “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Reagan’s blunder proves that even the most scripted pol longs to go natural once in a while. Voters like it, too. But when Romney goes spontaneous — excuse me, when he tells a joke — it usually reveals a tetchy, petulant personality under that eager-to-please boardroom facade.

It’s no wonder Romney has to reintroduce himself to the American people this week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. His attempts to connect have not been good, and his likeability is low. Last week the Gallup Organization found that Obama beat Romney by 23 points on likability, 54 percent to 31 percent.

This is a gap comparable to Romney’s deficits with women and Hispanics. We elect alderman we don’t like, and sometimes governors, but not presidents (with the huge exception of Richard Nixon). A presidential candidate is required to be carefully revealing, sometimes in his acceptance speech. Bob Dole eventually, if reluctantly, talked about his war injuries, just as John McCain referred to his years of imprisonment and Bill Clinton spoke of looking after his abused mother.

Al Gore, who had about as much trouble convincing voters he was an actual human being as Romney has, used his vice presidential nomination acceptance speech in 1996 to tell of his bedside moment with his dying sister fueling his (putative) crusade against Big Tobacco. Of course, he ended his presidential nomination acceptance speech four years later with the Big Kiss.

Still, this sob story couldn’t match George W. Bush’s tale of redemption — told in his autobiography — of how, after a drunken 40th birthday bash, he found God.

So why, just this week in an interview with USA Today, did Romney say he “won’t be talking about my life” in his acceptance speech? Because that’s a job for his wife. It’s the default position of every male politician — and we fall for it every time. We treat wives as if they are independent observers, as opposed to a wholly owned subsidiary whose fortunes are inextricably entwined with the principal.

Oh, never mind. The tableau works. On the final night of the convention, after his acceptance speech, the Mitt We Will Never Know will accept an embrace from his wife, who used her speech to extol the Mitt I Know. It will have to be enough.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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