The Odd Couple: Romney Vs. Gingrich

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Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.

The next day, after Romney took that beating in the Charleston debate, there was another rally at the same convention center. As if in response to his plunging poll numbers, Romney amped up the showmanship and the clich´-flogging, driving his tricked-out campaign bus into the building and adding a desperately bizarre patriotic singspiel component to his stump speech. "I love this country. I love this country," he said. "I love its beauty. I love its people. I love the hymns of our nation." And then he started reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful."

"'O beautiful, for spacious skies,'" he said. "'For amber waves of grain.'"

It was the Mormon-underwear version of Bill Murray's "Star Wars, Nothing but Star Wars" routine. All politicians engage in public fakery to some degree, but Romney's plastic-man act is so forced and grotesque, it's actually painful to watch. In this case, the crowd – a small contingent of clean-cut Romney volunteers herded into a convention hall halved in size by a curtain – tittered politely as Romney labored through his hymnal and an assortment of lounge-singer throwaways ("This is a great state – what wonderful people"). When the speech mercifully ended, Romney plunged into the crowd – and that's when the trouble began

I was maybe 10 feet away from him when a pair of Occupy protester-tormenters tried to ask him something. Suddenly, the space around the candidate erupted in commotion. A female police officer roared past me, dragging a young female protester named Adrianna Varedi by the neck. It was such an outstanding chokehold that Varedi's face had already turned purple. The cops rushed her to the exit and, in a moment reminiscent of the scene in Casino in which a gambler's head is used to bash open the exit door, Varedi and another protester were roughly tossed outside.

"I was just trying to ask him a question," Varedi said afterward.

Romney suffers from the same problem afflicting the likes of Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon: He's been living for so long with the delusion that the way he makes his money is fair and honest, he's started to believe not only that he deserves his wealth, but the converse – that the poor deserve to be poor. He's incapable of sympathizing with people who can't pay their bills, because their condition is tied too closely in his mind with the question of how he made his enormous fortune: If you ask Romney to imagine what life is like for someone who's broke, what he hears is you accusing him of making that happen. (In Romneyspeak, you've "attacked capitalism.") In short, he's a narcissist. They're all narcissists, these colossal Wall Street types – they have to be, because the way they make their money makes moral sense only if you're viewing things from the top of the heap. Asking them to step outside that comfort zone, into the world where the rest of us live, is an unthinkable outrage. It's hard to be likable when you can't even temporarily look at things from the bottom up, which is why it was no surprise that Romney flopped among voters in South Carolina who describe themselves as "falling behind" financially; they chose Newt by a margin of almost two to one.

In contrast, even some of the most rabid anti-Republican protesters express a begrudging admiration for Romney's surging foil, Gingrich, who throughout the campaign has demonstrated that he not only doesn't mind yapping with haters and detractors but actually seems to enjoy it. "His security people are pulling him away from us, not the other way around," says Michael Premo, an Occupy protester who riled Romney at a rope line earlier that week.

If Romney is a scripted automaton who could make it through a year's worth of marital coitus without one spontaneous utterance, Gingrich is his exact opposite – taken prisoner in war, Newt would be blabbing state secrets without torture within minutes, and minutes after that would be calling his guards idiots who lack his nuanced grasp of European history, and minutes after that would be lying to two of his captors about an affair he had with the third. In short, Newt versus Romney played out in South Carolina like a classic comic clash of pure psychological archetypes: oral versus anal, chaos versus order, Oscar versus Felix, with Felix throwing a snit and Oscar charging to a wild, messy victory.

As late as five days before the South Carolina primary, Gingrich was still trailing Romney by double digits in the state. His comeback began at the debate in Myrtle Beach, when he had an instantly viral exchange with African-American Fox commentator Juan Williams in which he triumphantly defended the idea that 11-year-olds should get jobs and that black people prefer food stamps to honest employment. The crowd was howling for blood, literally booing Mexico when Williams mentioned that Romney's father had been born there and then, in a moment that one had to see to believe, loudly booing the Golden Rule when Ron Paul sensibly suggested that we "don't do to other nations what we don't want to have them do to us."

You could almost see the light go on in Newt's head. He alone understood that during the primary season, one doesn't worry about how some vacillating Ohio independent might perceive one's rhetoric next fall: One carves up the bloodiest bits of red meat and hurls them at the immediate audience, and one does so with joy and a gleam in the eye. "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: Kill them," Newt said. The debate, remember, took place in the Carolinas, not far from where Jackson's Trail of Tears genocide began, making Newt's remark almost comically offensive. But hey, the Cherokee vote is not a large one, for obvious reasons. The surviving, non-Indian audience cheered wildly.

At the debate in Charleston a few days later, when Gingrich launched into his lengthy tirade in defense of serial adultery, the crowd once again roared with delight. By then, Newt had settled on his winning formula: batter Romney over his personal finances, then get in Romney's face as often as possible, highlighting his "genuineness" in contrast with Romney's seemingly constitutional inability to give a straight answer about anything. A last-minute campaign event laid bare this dynamic. By a curious accident, both Romney and Gingrich had scheduled 10:45 a.m. campaign stops on primary day at a roadside restaurant called Tommy's Ham House in Greenville. The mix-up led to much speculation about a "Ham House showdown," and by 10 that morning the place was teeming with placard-waving supporters from both campaigns, in addition to what appeared to be all 10 million members of America's political media. But the "showdown" never happened, thanks to a classically reptilian cop-out by Romney: Despite his campaign's insistence that it intended to stick to its schedule, Romney showed up 45 minutes early, darted through the restaurant shaking hands Speedy Gonzales-style, and was back in his campaign bus 20 minutes before Gingrich even arrived.

When Newt finally showed up, his supporters greeted him like a Roman emperor back from a slaughter of the Gauls. As he strode into the Ham House, his supporters mocked Romney by erupting in clucking chicken noises. Newt, I'm quite sure, was never happier than he was at that moment in the driving rain and slop of Greenville on primary day. Looking like a king peacock or the mockumentary version of Joaquin Phoenix, gorgeously obese and enthralled with the wonder of himself, Newt plunged through the Ham House crowd, stood on a beer cooler and crowed, "I have a question. Where's Mitt?"

"He left!" someone in the crowd shouted. "He ran!"

Newt grinned ear to ear. "I thought maybe we'd have a little debate here this morning," he said. "I'm kind of confused!"

The crowd cheered again, and Newt settled down to his usual stump speech, about how he was the only choice to stop moderate Romneyism on the right and Saul Alinsky radicalism on the left. The crowd ate him up; everywhere you looked, you found people insisting they were smitten by the "real" Gingrich, as opposed to Romney, who South Carolinians increasingly believed was a closet liberal only pretending to be a heartless conservative.

"When you're being shaped and handled to sound like something you're not, you're going to sound plastic," said Colette Koester, a financial adviser who came out to the Ham House. "Newt's a real person. He's committed to what he says."

The election-night festivities of the two leading candidates were a predictable study in extremes. Romney's event, at the South Carolina fairgrounds, was a morgue. The floor was half-empty, and the campaign barred some of the press from entering, feeding different excuses to different reporters (I was told I needed to RSVP; others were told there was no room in the hall). In the tomblike expanse of the press filing room, you had to pay three bucks for a drink, and all they had was soda.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.