He stood at a lectern on a bare stage overlooking a sea of mostly hostile faces. The master of ceremonies had just finished a lukewarm introduction, fulfilling a responsibility while hiding his distaste for an assignment that he couldn’t avoid. A polite smattering of applause, then a silence – an electric silence – so charging the atmosphere that one might imagine the smell of ozone rising to the rafters.
Mitt Romney, presumptive Republican presidential nominee is addressing a convocation of the NAACP. He’s not there to impress his audience with rhetorical hi-jinks, nor to ingratiate himself by pandering to its unmistakable political preferences; he’s is there to deliver a message – a straightforward description of his positions on the big issues that confront the nation – to make a case for his intended solutions, and to critique those of his adversary. But it’s easy to see from the frowns and barely contained displeasure of the crowd, that little he says will gain their support. As he offers his arguments, they are met mostly with silence, or, on occasion, with a mild, polite applause. The pervading mood of the audience is betrayed by several loud rounds of booing – and finally – a roar of disapproval as the speaker explains his opposition to the incumbent’s health care program.
He knew it would be this way long before he stepped before the microphone. What on earth would prompt a candidate for the highest office in the land, to expose himself and his candidacy to the slings and arrows of an audience almost universally devoted to his opponent? Fellow Republican George W. Bush, in his earlier campaigns for the presidency, turned down five NAACP invitations over the years before finally accepting the sixth, his reluctance to step forward vindicated by the paltry nine percent of blacks who actually voted for him in 2000 and the slightly improved sixteen percent in 2004. In 2012 Romney will face an incumbent president who gained more than ninety-five percent of the black vote in 2008, and, moreover, is expected by some to attract ninety-eight percent of that vote in 2012.
The answer to why Romney hung himself out on the NAACP wash-line, making himself attractive game for black angst and media hyperbole may in the end be known only to him. Of course others have their opinions: Nancy Pelosi – in her characteristic off-the-shoulder and over-the-top way – painted Romney as a masochist, actually looking to be booed by a black audience so as to secure firmer support from his own base. Think about that. Other more charitable observers opined that he simply intended to demonstrate his political courage, sort of a ‘Horatio at the bridge’ move, designed to appeal to the drama lovers in his camp. Still others like Ben Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP organization, thought Romney was intent on disrespecting President Obama – thereby disrespecting the NAACP; after all, he (Romney) referred to the “Patient’s Protection” healthcare plan as “Obamacare”, a term Jealous considered pejorative (believe it or not). Yet another news analyst went so far as to accuse Romney of attempting to distract his audience by speaking of the civil rights credentials of his father, George, as a cover for the son’s own lack of credentials.
There we have it; take your choice. Is Romney a plotting masochist, a Walter Mitty, a slanderer, a pretender, or worse? Or is he just a man who is seeking public office by citing his convictions and facing up to his opposition. Mona Charen of the National Review OnLine, speaking of Romney’s NAACP speech, put it well:
“Is it not exactly the sort of straight talk that pundits and analysts are forever lamenting the lack of in our politics? Is it not the polar opposite of the interest group chuck wagon Mr. Obama has been driving for months?”