Monday, August 13, 2007

The big con

A guy I knew once told me how his father used to say that the first person a con man cons is himself. That has always had the ring of truth to me. To hoodwink others, it helps if you believe the bilge water you are selling, at least a little bit.

I was thinking about that over the weekend, spurred by Mitt Romney's bought-and-paid-for victory in the Iowa straw poll. The announcement that Karl Rove is jumping ship also reminded me.

As regular readers will know, I remain shocked that Mitt Romney hasn't been laughed off the stage yet. To say that this man is a faker is like calling the ocean damp.

When he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, and again when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, and won, in 2002, Romney convinced a lot of people that he was what passes for a moderate on social issues. And while he was openly opposed to gay marriage (easy as a lame-duck governor), he never tried to pass legislation to call Roe v. Wade into question or anything like that.

Now that he's running in a distinctly more conservative milieu, Mitt is a born-again pro-lifer. Forget what he said in several campaigns. Forget that his wife gave money to Planned Parenthood. Just pay attention to what he's saying now.

Romney might as well quote the great political philosopher Marx (Groucho, not Karl): "Are you going to believe me or your own eyes?"

And yet people buy it. Not too many people, yet: the latest national poll gives him support from only 14% of Repubs, but enough to make him "credible." (That's credible in a political sense, not in the sense that he's telling the truth.) And, given the defects of the other GOP candidates, Romney's numbers could grow--unless someone is able to unmask him.

How to explain this? The easy answer is that Barnum was right: There's one born every minute. Maybe. But part of Mitt's story is that he believes the snake oil really will cure. He's convinced himself that the man who said government should not get involved with a citizen's personal choices was someone else--a guy who looked a lot like him, but wasn't the same man.

George W, I think, is much the same. He lies constantly, but my sense is that he's not a good liar. So, either he is a very, very good liar or he convinces himself that his inconsistent stories are somehow the truth. I go with the latter. If that makes him a bit more pitiable and less loathesome, so be it.

For a long time, my sense has been that Karl Rove is another story: a malignant manipulator who cynically used W as his front man. Listening to Rove on the White House lawn today, as he discussed his departure from the West Wing, I heard a tremor in his voice and realized that he, too, may have been conned into believing that the stuff he peddled really was the good stuff. Perhaps, just perhaps, there's some tragedy and even farce mixed with the evil that he did.

In his usual excellent way, Paul Krugman makes a similar point: He suggests that the nature of the GOP and its base attracts narcissists; Rudy and Mitt are his primary examples, and as he points out, W is similarly self-involved. Krugman asks an excellent question: Do the American people want another narcissist in the White House?

(Are there any Democrats who fit the same labels? I'll leave it to you to answer that question.)

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