American Culture

Mitt Romney: The rich boy

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created-nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know and than we know ourselves. – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy

Some find comfort in reading history; others find comfort in reading philosophy; I find comfort in reading what used to be called classic literature. It is to such literature that I turn at times of stress or sadness or confusion. It is to literature that I turn again and again for answers to questions about human behavior. So it is at this time.

Like many of you, I have found the election of 2012 perhaps the most troubling in my life as an American citizen. And so, as I have done in the past when confronted with what is called, in the “Chinese” curse, “interesting times,” as this election season has worn on relentlessly and cheerlessly, I have turned to literature for solace.

The major party candidates in this race both have failings, though my personal opinion is that Obama’s failings are fairly obvious (though I would be loath to choose between whether those failings come more from a Hamlet-like flaw of indecision – or merely from “Peter-ean” tragi-comic ineptitude). Suffice to say, whichever of these might be the source of the discomfit the President gives me, it is enough to give me pause as I prepare to vote.

Mitt Romney intrigues me more, though – at least from a literary standpoint. Until today, I wasn’t sure where in literature I might find his equivalent. I mean – who IS Mitt Romney? (In the literary sense, that is.)

At first I assumed, wrongly, I see now, that Romney might simply represent another tragic hero from Shakespeare – Macbeth – he of overweening ambition. Romney has, after all, shown time and again that he’s been willing to do pretty much anything to win first, the Republican nomination, and now, the general election.

It’s a nice meme, a comfortable meme, a reassuring meme. But it doesn’t comfort or reassure me. It seems to me to apply equally as well to any Republican – candidate or voter – as to Mitt Romney. Romney’s grasping is merely emblematic of his whole damned tribe.

I also thought about Twain. Mitt as Tom Sawyer seemed possible – he plays fast and loose with the truth and he certainly is willing to use other people to make his own life easier. But ultimately Tom has a conscience – and I’ve seen little in Romney to suggest he does.

But there’s another tribe Romney belongs to – one that means far more to him than any yowling racists or sneering religious self-righteousness demagogues he might on occasion express kinship to.

To express it in Carvillian terms, it’s the rich, stupid.


It’s a shame about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Very few of us have read anything other than The Great Gatsby – which is unfortunate, because no one chronicles the foibles and fecklessness of the rich as well as he. In a time when the rich seem poised to overwhelm our democracy, his voice should, perhaps, be one we carefully listen to. Consider this description of Anson Hunter, The “rich boy” of the title of what may be the finest “long short story” in American literature:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

I realized, re-reading this story on a whim this morning, that this description applies to Mitt Romney nearly perfectly. What has made him both an appealing and an appalling figure in American politics is that which makes the rich different from us. He expects us to accept him as a leader because he thinks he’s better than we are. It’s that simple – and that scary.

Before I say more about this, let me digress to address a question that has probably leaped to mind: how about all those other rich boys who have been POTUS?

Well, let’s look at the last 100 years or so – we’ve had the Roosevelt cousins, JFK, and the Bushes pere et fils.

Of this lot, the Roosevelt cousins seem like characters out of Arthurian romance. They sought dragons to slay (In TR’s case, for example, first the Spanish – rightly or wrongly – then the trusts; in his cousin FDR’s case, first the Depression, then, Hitler and Tojo). Like characters from Chretien de Troyes or Malory, they acted from a genuine, it seems, sense of noblesse oblige.

JFK, too, had some of that noblesse oblige about him – although he certainly didn’t hesitate to exercise a little droit de seigneur, if you know what I’m saying. Still, he had youth and charisma – and his actions on behalf of civil rights and in the Cuban Missile Crisis give him a complexity – he’s part Atticus Finch, part James Bond (after all, From Russia With Love was one of his favorite books).

That leads us to the Bush family. Bush the First was a well-meaning man who’d performed well in every other position he’d ever held (here, he’s not unlike his eventual successor Barack Obama, except that Bush Sr.’s pre-presidential résumé is considerably more impressive). But, like a character from Sinclair Lewis, George H.W. Bush was often well-intentioned but ineffectual.

Bush fils was quite a character – a neurotic mix of Tom Buchanan, Peck’s Bad Boy, and Hazel Motes. As Shakespeare’s Caesar warned us, “…such men are dangerous.” Lots of people wanted to have a beer with him. To quote another Shakespearean character: “Lord, what fools these mortals be…!”

This gets us back to Mitt Romney – a rich boy in the truest sense. As Fitzgerald reminds us:

There are no types, no plurals. There is a rich boy, and this is his and not his brothers’ story.

Matt Taibbi offers us an insight into Mitt’s version of that “story:

Romney, on the other hand, is a perfect representative of one side of the ominous cultural divide that will define the next generation, not just here in America but all over the world. Forget about the Southern strategy, blue versus red, swing states and swing voters – all of those political clichés are quaint relics of a less threatening era that is now part of our past, or soon will be. The next conflict defining us all is much more unnerving.

That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege – a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.

This isn’t the world of Fitzgerald’s rich Taibbi is talking about.

It is instead a Swiftian place, the flying island of Laputa, except that the rich have little interest in anything other than getting richer.

So who would Mitt Romney be as POTUS? Would he be the tyrannical king of Laputa? Taibbi seems to think so.

I’m not as convinced of that. Frankly, I suspect Romney of being as prone to dithering as Obama. It’s easier to play the lyre while Rome burns.

Besides, there seems to be little evidence that Romney will win, barring massive fraud – which is not impossible, but unlikely.

Romney, it seems to me, will end up more like Anson Hunter from The Rich Boy. Even if he loses badly, he’ll always have the same attitude:

I don’t think he was ever happy unless some one was in love with him, responding to him like filings to a magnet, helping him to explain himself, promising him something. What it was I do not know. Perhaps they promised that there would always be {those} in the world who would spend their brightest, freshest, rarest hours to nurse and protect that superiority he cherished in his heart.

In that, he’ll be not unlike another rich boy who lost, John Kerry.

The rich are different. As Hemingway noted, “They have more money.”

Illustration by Paul Szep.

4 replies »

  1. Enjoyed this post Jim. There has been much written the past two years about the increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us, but your use of literature to define the issue is very insightful.

  2. Thanks, Frank. One of the things that saddens me about our loss of interest in literature is that we sort of forgotten that it speaks to “character,” that oft cited and little understood part of any personality.

  3. Utterly enjoyable post to read, Jim. But dammit, now my Kindle’s gotten much fatter with the reading list you’ve provided.