Romney’s original sin

Yes, Romney’s statements about Cairo and Benghazi were meddlesome, opportunistic, ghoulish, and stupid. But they also weren’t true.

You can criticize Mitt Romney for joggling the elbows of the people currently entrusted with conducting the country’s foreign affairs by running his mouth in the midst of an active crisis.

You can criticize Mitt Romney for ghoulishly trying to take advantage of the deaths of four diplomats.

You can criticize Mitt Romney for joining the side of the Muslim-hating Americans and the America-hating Muslims who are trying to foment a worldwide religous war, and against those who are trying to tamp down sectarian hostility, including our moderate friends in the Arab world.

All of those would be fair criticisms. But each of them has an answer: there’s a campaign on and the President’s performance is a legitimate issue; the right of free speech is being questioned and it’s important to defend it; even (if you’re Pam Geller) it’s vital to take the Christian side against the Muslim side in the war of civilizations.

But the aspect of Romney’s statements that no one could legitimately defend is their mendacity. Like most of his campaign utterances, what Romney said about what went on in Cairo and Benghazi wasn’t true.

Let’s review the bidding.

Several hours before the Cairo attack, the Embassy put out the following statement, apparently in hopes of preventing that attack:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Got that? “Free speech” is a “universal right” but we condemn those who “abuse” it. That night, the Romney camp issued a statement in Romney’s name (and, apparently, cleared by him personally):

The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

That was false. What Romney described as the Obama administration response was in fact the Embassy’s statement before the attack. That aside, the statment did not “express sympathy” with anyone. Nor did the actual statements issued by Secretary Clinton and President Obama after the attacks.

The next day, Romney held a press conference at which he insisted that the White House was responsible for anything the Embassy staff said, and that the Embassy’s reaffirmation of the statement after the attack made his comment about its being a response to the attack true (retroactively, I guess).

Romney also said “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” and repeated, “An apology for America’s values is never the right course” and accused the Embassy of having suggested “that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.”

That was another lie. No one had apologized to anyone for anything, or said anything about free speech other than that it was a universal right that is sometimes abused.

Of course none of this matters to Romney’s diminishing cadre of defenders; if they cared about the differnce between truth and falsehood, they wouldn’t have been on his team in the first place.

But it ought to matter to the rest of us. He’s lied his way into within an ace of the Presidency. It would be poetic justice if lying kept him from making that one small last step.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

36 thoughts on “Romney’s original sin”

  1. For a bit more context – which is unlikely to change anyone’s view on the matter – here’s the full version of Romney’s first statement:

    “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi.

    It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

    1. How would this change anyone’s view? Two sentences, the first about Mitt Romney (the grammatical subject of the sentence), and the second a completely untrue slam on the Obama administration. Obama and his people did not condone the attacks, and nothing that the Obama administration did was “disgraceful.” Only one person disgraced himself by his response, and that is Mitt Romney.

  2. The man is not stupid so he is clearly unprincipled and, notwithstanding his supposed religiosity, he is very willing to bear false witness, to say anything however dishonest if it will bring him closer to the office he seeks.

    This is a mormon BISHOP?! How did this moral pygmy ever get to be the Republican nominee?

    That this is the best the Republican party can do is depressing, and that he could be even REMOTELY likely to get elected is beyond staggering. His current 8% chance, acc to Nate Silver, is far too high.

    Which is worse, his character or that this kind of mendacity might work?

    (I am not American. I don’t vote in US elections. I therefore cast a non-partisan — ok, European — eye on this.)

    1. a Mormon Bishop is not the equivalent rank as a Catholic Bishop, if my understanding is correct.

      1. My understanding is that they’re more like an acknowledged and respected community leader than they are like a dedicated religious authority who directs the operations of the clergy in their area and is one or two steps away from the guy who speaks ex cathedra. More like an alderman, to the extent I even understand what an alderman is.

    2. Point stands, PJO – He’s been a golden boy all his life – Mitt is now revealed to be the sacrificial cherub he’s always been.

    3. The comment that “The man is not stupid” reminds me of an old cartoon whose punch line was “If your so rich, how come your not smart?”.

      There are various types of smartness. Romney may be very smart in business (if you count being able to wring money out of companies and people smart) but he is definitely not smart in the realm of public affairs.

  3. “…what Romney said about what went on in Cairo and Benghazi wasn’t true.”

    Better said, it wasn’t on the spectrum of discourse, native to the likes of you and me, that has truth at one end and greater-or-lesser falsehood everywhere else. It was an example of an entirely different mode of discourse, one with which we are familiar in books, but that still always disorients us when we encounter in quotidian life. What Mr. Romney said was a story. A story is not a lie. Telling a story may be, in context, a moral crime as grave as lying, but stories are neither true nor false. They inhabit other dimensions.

    If you wish to rebuke Mr. Romney, assess him as a storyteller. (There’s your hint, by the way: never look at the storyteller; always look at the audience.) We think he ought not be telling stories at all; we think he ought to be using our mode of discourse. On the other hand, his audience doesn’t see the point of our stories — because our “stories” are not stories at all, but that is a fact that is literally unimaginable to them.

    Right-wing discourse is purely literary, consisting largely of parables and allegories. The Star Trek episode entitled “Darmok” is the key to classifying the mode of discourse; we can never hope to understand the discourse itself. In its own way, it is highly sophisticated. Semiotic and stylistic analysis shows that it is a mature art form with its own systematics and conventions; but the more we see it for the kind of thing that it is, the more opaque it becomes to us.

    1. Since this is the dimension of government and it’s most dire responsibilities it is not unreasonable to expect speakers to conduct themselves within the conventions of legal discourse. If Romney made these statements under oath he would be guilty of perjury.
      We cut politicians a lot of slack and hardly expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth but there is a line when ‘story telling’ passes beyond illustration and parable into the relm of false witness and my bible proclaims that as unquestionaly sinful.

    2. Either you’re an extremely clever and guarded manipulator for incremental acceptance of conservatives’ ‘storied’ discourse – i.e., fairy tales – in the public/political realm, or you were uncritically captured by the context-free, postmodern false equivalencies of graduate English courses. Or both. One does not have to accept (and then endlessly analyze, itself a form of legitimization) fairy tales as a legitimate mode of discourse in the public/political sphere, especially when the stakes include peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Which in the public/political sphere they always do. The ‘truthiness’ of fairy tales in terms of the psyche cannot be denied; in childhood we’re lost without myth and legend. As humans age, however, there must be an increasing reliance on verifiable reality, never perfect but necessary if we expect to work with the most accurate and – most importantly – predictive model of what is and what is not in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

      “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” Romney adviser Richard Williamson told the Washington Post. “For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.” Romney advisor, TPM, 9/14/12

      Team Romney has explicitly elected to just go with telling ‘stories,’ to dive right in, to wholeheartedly accept and build on modern conservatism’s open embrasure of moment to moment reality creation as a means to oligarchic/authoritarian ends, and further divide this country into irreconcilable worldviews. I can almost hear the smirks and giggles of the campaign as they strategize their all-in, all in the service of money and power. This might appear kind of silly or stupid, but I think it’s in fact insidious in its proximate effects on this country’s governance the next four years, and ultimate effects on disinterring the U.S. from its stultification and imminent irrelevance.

      1. Steven B, I quite agree with you — all except your first two sentences. I am neither of your two strawmen; where did you find them, anyhow?

        It does not matter how horrified and revolted I, as an individual, am by the reduction of politics to applied literary criticism (intermingled with the occasional primal scream). All I was trying to do was to point out what is happening and let people be horrified on their own time. I can sling white-hot moral denunciations with the best of them, but in this case, I wanted to make an important distinction that I did not see anyone else making, so I held off on the flaming lava.

      1. The previous comment was intended as a reply to Frank Wilhoit above, though it kind of fits where it is.

  4. If you wish to rebuke Mr. Romney, assess him as a storyteller.


    Rebuke him for telling stories when he ought to be discussing reality. I don’t care, nor should anyone else, how good a storyteller he is. If he is elected his stories will someday collide with facts, and then we will suffer for it.

    1. This is very similar to the Muslim notion of taqiyya, or dissimulation, whereby a religious Muslim is allowed to lie about their religion if they think they’re at risk for persecution. Of course, this idea can be manipulated into mere lying very easily.

  5. NPR reported that the film’s supporters included one Steve Klein, who “is a former Marine and longtime religious-right activist who has helped train paramilitary militias at a California church. It described Klein as founder of Courageous Christians United, which conducts protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.”

    Let us see Mitt stick up for his free speech right to protest outside Mormon temples! He has already doubled down, so he has nothing to lose by going one more mile.

  6. And as James Traub said on Spitzer’s show this evening, it shows Romney has no understanding of what a president’s role is.

  7. Mitt Romney is not a storyteller. He is a liar. He cannot justify his candidacy without lying, and he knows it. That is all anyone needs to know about Romney’s “story.”

    1. I think there’s a lot to what Frank Wilhoit says, though the “Reality-Based” have a very hard time grasping it. I know people – honest, decent people – who think that Obama believes that entrepeneurs make no contribution to American wealth. These people aren’t liars, they aren’t even bullshitters in the Frankfurtian sense. You show them a copy of Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech, and it doesn’t matter. They are working from a different epistemology.

      And that epistemology has powerful consequences in the real world. Were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Was Saddam Hussein collaborating with bin Laden? The Reality-Based say, “Of course not.”

      And in every sense except a very narrow literal one, the Reality-Based are wrong. In what way would history have been different had Saddam had WMD? In almost no way at all. We would have invaded his country and seen to it that no such weapons continued to exist.

      On the other hand, if WMD didn’t exist, if there were no collaboration between Saddam and bin Laden, then the idea of an invasion would have been laughable. And if WMD didn’t exist, Bush would have lost re-election, and we wouldn’t be seeing the Iraq War cheerleaders commenting on television today with reputations unblemished by their ridiculous error.

  8. You can criticise the Embassy statement for ineffective speech. It’s an attempt to calm down a mob of religious zealots at the gates. What is the second sentence about 9/11 doing? It doesn’t say anything, let alone address the mob’s passions.
    Apart from that, what Mark said.

  9. Not exactly off topic: Do we still have Marines in our embassies, or has that been contracted out to Halliburton?

    1. Yes. We have Marines at the embassies, and much of the security has been contracted out. I do not think that the consular offices have Marine forces at all. I could be wrong about that.

  10. KLG, I read or heard somewhere (Rachel Maddow, maybe) that there are Marines at the Embassy in Tripoli but not at the consulate in Benghazi where the ambassador was killed.

  11. Here’s another thing I criticize Romney for, independent of the chronological falsehood: He describes criticism of an attempt “to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” as “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks.” As though all Muslims carried out the attacks.

  12. The other thing is, it seems clear that Romney can’t run a campaign. There goes his claim to executive skill and experience. I at least find this surprising.

    1. NCG…

      I think it means he runs his campaign like the flimflam Wall Street man he is…

      What would a leverage-man do when his campaign is angling towards bankruptcy?
      Or to borrow a recent RBC phrasing: How do you perfume over the death stench?

      You make another over-leveraged bet, and try to recoup your losses in one fell swoop.

      What we are seeing here is: The Death Stench informed by desperation…
      And the margin calls are about to come due on R-money.
      He is trendy towards his own Minsky moment….

  13. It almost makes me wonder if someone is sabotaging him? I mean, it’s remarkable the self-inflicted wounds.

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