When Mitt Romney, campaigning in Mississippi on Friday, said "y'all," the collective cringe from the political world was practically audible. Another awkward moment from the GOP's animatronic front-runner! Another terribly off-key pander!
But maybe it was something else: a wry joke.
For all the hype about his woodenness, Romney, I submit, actually has the most sophisticated -- and underappreciated -- sense of humor of any presidential candidate. It is dry, self-deprecating and a bit dark, a far cry from the safely hokey laugh lines of most politicians on the stump. And it bespeaks a confidence and flair not often attributed to the much-maligned candidate.
This is the man who famously went to Michigan, the state he grew up in and then left for good, and praised it thus: "The trees are the right height." You pretty much can't get a better absurdist parody of politicians' vapid sure-is-nice-to-be-here patter than that.
Romney's Southern quip was similar -- a knowing play on how glaringly out-of-place he seemed. This is a man, after all, who is viewed by dyed-in-the-wool Southerners as not just a Yankee, but a Yankee who belongs to a cult. "Stranger in a strange land" doesn't begin to cover it. And so he jests that he's becoming acquainted with the region's exotic folkways: "I'm learning to say 'y'all'! I like grits! Things -- strange things -- are happening to me!"
This is a man who knows how to laugh at himself. Just look at this video, unearthed by BuzzFeed, of Romney at a Republican dinner in Texas in 2007. In a riff that was clearly scripted in advance, but still convincingly delivered, he goofs on the raft of grief he got for having claimed to be a hunter of "small varmints": "Now, by the way, you may have heard some talk about my shooting small animals and calling that hunting. I want you to know that those small animals can be ferocious." He proceeds to pull out a "trophy" from beneath the podium -- a squirrel mounted on a piece of wood, complete with squeaking noise. "Actually, there were very sad faces around the Romney household at Easter," Romney adds. "We had our grandkids there, and they were very disappointed the Easter Bunny hadn't come -- he heard I was packin' heat."
That's funny, and a little bit edgy, too. Romney's self-mockery is pretty vicious, and he's also openly making fun of both hunters and religion, two revered GOP tropes.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, recently, Romney's irreverence extended to his own father's death. Noting that George Romney was buried in the nearby town of Brighton, Romney said: "We didn't live in Brighton. It's like, how did you pick Brighton, Dad? 'Well - best price I could find in the whole state.' So if you're looking for the best deal on a gravesite, check Brighton. They've got a good spot - you're near the former governor and the former first lady!"
Romney's taste in humor runs to the subversive and snarky. In debates, he's referenced Seinfeld (and gottenslapped down by the liberal actor who played George Costanza for his trouble). His favorite movie isreportedly the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- not as twisted as Barton Fink, perhaps, but a good bit quirkier than, say, Two and a Half Men.
Then there's this passage from Sridhar Pappu's Romney profile in this magazine in 2005, when Romney was a Massachusetts governor with poorly hidden presidential ambitions. At a South Boston Saint Patrick's Day breakfast, "the best one-liners at Romney's expense came from Romney," Pappu reported.
Standing at the podium to begin his remarks, he said, "Well, it's great to be here in Iowa this morning--whoops, wrong speech." He threw down a piece of paper and then continued. "Seriously, it's good to be here in Massachusetts. I'm visiting for a few days." Everybody cracked up, and from that moment the room was his. He kept up a genuinely funny line of patter--much of it self-deprecating and based on his presumptive aspirations to higher office--for eight minutes; in comedy terms he killed. (Sample joke: As a Mormon, he said, "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.")
That's pretty risky stuff, even if somebody else wrote it, and it shows that Romney is rather more self-aware, and less stiffly egotistical, than many people in public life. (It reminds me a bit of John McCain, whose well-worn stock of cutting quips includes one about why he wasn't interested in being vice president: "I spent all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, kept in the dark, fed scraps. Why in the hell would I want to do that all over again?") It's hard to imagine John Kerry, for example, to whom Romney's lack of charisma is often compared, taking himself as lightly.
Politicians are people who've made a career of being puffed-up with self-importance. Self-awareness is practically a liability in this business -- it punctures the suspension of disbelief necessary to take seriously all the pomp and ceremony and manufactured gravitas. How refreshing, then, was Romney's quip upon taking the stage with glitter in his hair, thanks to an ambush from a gay activist: "That's not all that's in my hair, I'll tell you that," he said. "I glue it on every morning, whether I need to or not."
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question or distrust Mitt Romney. But the fact that he went to Mississippi and said "y'all" doesn't make him a phony -- it makes him that rare thing in politics, a guy with a sense of humor.