How to Act Human, Take Two: The Search for the Real Romney

An imaginary edition of Inside the Actors Studio. Photo: Photos: Chris Haston/Bravo, Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

On May 15, New York published a piece I’d written on an idle Sunday for, I thought, my own amusement and that of a few friends and colleagues, one of whom sent it to the magazine. This is how I defined my purview: “In this media-saturated era, the line between politics and performance has virtually vanished, and the public is having a hard time believing Mr. Romney’s persona (as in dramatis personae) — a potentially fatal flaw for any actor, but especially for a presidential candidate.”

His obvious unease with the common folk (whom he would eventually disown as “the 47 percent” — until he disowned the disowning) prompted me to end the piece with this counsel: “Since the evidence indicates that you lack the skills to simulate what you’re not, you should stick to typecasting and go with what you’ve got and who you are.”

Within an hour of the posting of the piece, the communication devices in my study lit up like Christmas trees, with invitations to amplify my views on talk shows of various political hues — that day, that evening (twice), the next morning, and many times in the ensuing weeks. And so began my journey from one electronic venue to another, in search of the “real Mitt Romney” that I was advising him to be.

As the political campaign has shifted into high gear, I have been appraising Mr. Romney’s performance and persona — and on occasion, the president’s — from a parochial point of view that is narrow and, I fear, politically guileless, compared to the sophisticated views of the pundits with whom I have been invited to share a TV desk.

It’s been a mystifying and sometimes tortuous path, principally because its subject has proven elusive, adapting to each new environment as readily as a chameleon, turning, despite my counsel and to my surprise, into a quite accomplished character actor, able to assume identities at antipodal odds with his previous roles, without hesitation, with apparent conviction and with growing confidence.

I think that this unexpected skill is the explanation for his decisive victory over the president in the first debate. Obama has been criticized for insufficient preparation, but what would thorough preparation have availed him when the opponent for whom he prepared never showed up, and sent in his stead a character he’d played in the distant past and long since abandoned: a middle-of-the-road, compassionate moderate who blithely ignored the conservative policies he’d been fervently espousing for nearly two years — with the tacit permission of the tea party, to whom he’d sent a wink and nudge at the outset by announcing the imminent demise of PBS, a cause dear to their hearts, and a signal informing them, “Don’t worry about this moderate stuff you’re about to hear. I’m still your guy.”

The moderate Romney reappeared in the second debate, but this time the president was prepared for him, and the result was a resounding victory for Obama. By the time the third debate occurred, the governor had refined his persona once more, into a reasonable, rational echo of the president himself, presenting Obama with a dilemma: Each time the president accuses Governor Romney of flip-flopping into a centrist candidate, he is confirming and reinforcing precisely the portrait the “moderate” Romney is trying to paint, a potentially comforting thought to puzzled middle-of-the-road voters.

As I tried to make clear in my original essay, I’m not arguing Governor Romney’s political positions, which may direct us to a righteous or ruinous path.  That’s beyond my charge. I am saying that his changing positions are mutually exclusive. One may be valid, but not both, since they contradict each other. The question that is within my assignment is, which position is true to him? Which one does he truly believe, today and tomorrow, and, if elected, will employ on our behalf? That, of course, brings me back to the search for the Real Romney.

With the governor turning out to be a far more adroit actor than I thought, identifying the Real Romney has proven to be a sizable challenge. As this political spectacle (now there’s a proper show-business term!) has evolved, I’ve thought from time to time that I had him perfectly cast, until that Mitt Romney vanished in a puff of smoke and mirrors, and another skipped nimbly into his place.

But in the course of the final two debates, I’ve spotted someone, in glimmers at first, then with growing clarity. Is this emerging figure a severe conservative or a sincere moderate; does he condemn — and contemn — the 47 percent, or respect and represent the 100 percent? Is he of and for the people or the privileged? Or none of the above?

I think, finally, that au fond, in his hard or soft heart of hearts, truthfully, unequivocally and forever, Mitt Romney is a Boss.

Boss is a respectable word seldom heard these days, replaced by an array of labels: management, employer, CEO, and the one used by the Republican candidate and his party, job-creator, which has several distinct advantages, one being that second word, which needs only a capitalization of its first letter to seal the heavenly imprimatur.

A business school professor might argue that a more accurate term would be profit-creator, since, when all is said and done, that is a business’s raison d’être. The political problem is that creating or maximizing profit occasionally requires eliminating jobs.

So, in this election campaign, boss has been banished to the political attic, but should it be? It’s an honorable term for an honorable occupation, identifying someone who may be good or bad, revered or loathed, trusted or feared. Bruce Springsteen rightly revels in the title. And so, after a lively chase, I’ve finally decided it is the Real Romney’s role on the public stage, the “who you are” I urged him to go with five months ago.

Because of Romney’s newfound acting skills (for which, a sincere “Hat’s off!”), we’ve seen variations in the role. The first version was that boss many of us have encountered who makes lame jokes, at which he laughs (remember the early Mitt’s hollow ha-has?) while his eyes remain glacially fixed on us, waiting for a response, which we dutifully and advisedly deliver.

A sterner version showed up in the second debate when he exercised the executive privilege of delivering a peremptory rebuke — “You’ll get your turn!” — to the President of the United States.

Whichever version would show up, if elected, on November 7, at the present moment the emergence of what I take to be the Real Romney does us all the service of bringing the political campaign into sharp focus.  The American voters are faced with a clear choice between a sitting president and a Boss. Since boss, in its various verbal forms and with its traditional perks, is how Governor Romney chooses to present himself to the electorate, he should have no objection to the label. And since a sitting president has a record to run on, for good or ill, neither should President Obama.

Faithful to my mandate to analyze “politics as performance,” I believe that the candidates are definable at last, and if it turns out that more Americans prefer a boss in the White House, that’s exactly what they’ll get in the Real Mitt Romney.

James Lipton is the creator and host of Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo, the founding dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, and produced cultural events in the Carter White House.