Watch for it. At least once a week, as he’s hit in the chops with a sudden impertinent question from a reporter or some seditious moderate in a town-hall forum, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has a Robert DeNiro Moment.
Mitt cannot, alas, meet these crises with the sheer Thespian virtuosity of his arch-rival Newt Gingrich. Faced with a similarly snarky query, Newt responds, first, with a long pregnant pause (also known as the Historian’s Hold), and seems barely able to stifle a sneer as — disdaining any pretense to a straight answer — he delivers a withering, well-honed soliloquy on the tawdriness of the question, the asker’s pernicious motives and the tragic decay of civility in the American body politic.
Mitt can’t even imagine ad-libbing this glibly. Whenever I see him gobsmacked by an unscripted question, I think of DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle, in "Taxi Driver."
You know the scene. DeNiro faces the mirror with an air of bemused surprise and he says, “You talkin’ to me?… You talkin’ to me?…” In both characters, Bickle and Mitt, there’s a sudden awareness of trespass, followed by a defensive crouch.
Of course, there’s a lot of difference between the delusional Bickle and the illusory Mitt. In the film, DeNiro plays a faceless nebbish struggling to fish the shreds of his manhood from a swill-bucket of self-doubt. His life is a string of failures and insults, and his richest opportunities have amounted to little more than a mess of pottage.
Mitt clearly, has it better. His discomfiture with the occasional confrontational constituent derives from a sincere disbelief that anyone, not even Tom Brokaw, nor even a respected peer like Donald Trump, would venture such naked irreverence.
“You talkin’ to ME?”
How could you be so brazen and blasphemous, so bereft of lèse-majesté? Do you know who I am? Who my father was? Do you have any idea how much money I’ve made without breaking a sweat? This money belonged to me even before it was mine although I never, ever (cross my heart) sought mere wealth — no, the money is simply a symbol — because it has fueled, all my life, my powers of leadership. Because I was born to lead, to be a senior partner, a CEO, a bishop, a governor, a president! and I am shocked — shocked — that someone of your ilk would impugn my destiny, would dare to hinder my ascent by questioning my personal life, my financial privacy, my values, my faith, my character, my hair, my inability to wear anything but a suit, my fierce devotion to everything that is good and right and pure and American. And by “American,” I do not mean the squalid, muckracking, peeping-Tom, tabloid America where you live, ya creep, but the real, pure, clean, spotless, homogenized America that I love and cherish and helped build through my passionate belief in free enterprise, with the help of my wonderful wife, what’s-her-name. How dare you ask such a question? Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
DeNiro and Romney, as they gaze at us past the headlights, have the same look. But Travis Bickle, waging a war within his fragile self, is merely shadow-boxing. Mitt, who’s genuinely pompous, is really, truly, honest-to-Joseph Smith surprised.
Although this has been happening a lot lately, Mitt just can’t get over the sheer crust of these people asking stuff they have no right to ask, not to someone like him!
“Excuse me, my friend. You talkin’ to me?”
Mitt remains so inexplicably easy-to-shock because of an almost superhuman air of self-assurance, a cocksure confidence that he’s not just right, but that being right is his birthright. Mitt is so right that if he were to change his position 180 degrees and, a moment later, reverse himself back to where he started, he would nonetheless never be wrong, because people like Mitt — and they know who they are — are always right.
If they were not right, how else to explain their wealth, power, privilege and soaring self-confidence? As we all know, the great American meritocracy selectively bestows wealth, power, privilege and soaring self-confidence only on the deserving, while justly forsaking the timid, the unworthy and the millions who turn their backs on certain success and, instead, reach out for food stamps, Lotto tickets and the sports page.
I’ve wondered where guys like Mitt get all this confidence. His father was a notably modest guy. But I think it helped Mitt to know that his dad, George, was one of Detroit’s great auto barons, then governor of Michigan, and afterwards a Cabinet member and candidate for president. At some point, I think, Mitt figured out that if he wanted to squeeze into Harvard — which he did — all he had to do was float the notion past one of Dad’s several dozen gazillionaire friends who happened to be Harvard alumni.
I can offer a contrast (as most of us can). My dad, when he was still with us, painted houses, tended bar at night. The first time I ever heard of Harvard was when the Carlisle Indian School beat ‘em in "Jim Thorpe: All American," which came around one night on the Late Movie when I was about 12. My parents might’ve met a few real-life college (well, normal school) alumni, but none from anywhere east of Stevens Point.
Travis Bickle acquired self-respect by buying a gun. Whatever confidence I have comes from paying a lot of dues, and it certainly doesn’t soar. It’s held to earth by anxiety, sarcastic friends, a sharp-witted wife, a stack of bills and a lack of firearms.
But confidence, I figure, is the secret ingredient that lifts and separates the one-percenters. Imagine having never once, in your whole life, had to sweat it out ‘til payday, or worried about a credit check, a child-support payment, a vindictive boss or a call from a collection agency. Or a test grade, a college application, an IRS audit, a security deposit, or where your next tankful of fuel is coming from. Or your old man’s drinking, your brother’s habit, your sister’s illness or where to take the baby when her fever won’t break and you got no insurance. Stuff like that tends to gnaw away at your sangfroid.
Confidence is what makes Mitt different from the rest of us. It’s why he’ll always be surprised when one of us stands up, looks him in the eye and pops a hard question, as though we’re just as good as he is. As though all men actually were created equal.
That’s right, Mitt. We’re talkin’ to you.