In watching both the recently released Netflix documentary Mitt, as well as NBC’s putting out to pasture of Jay Leno (again), I was struck by the current cultural attitudes toward those generally perceived as “nice” people. Apart from the hackneyed “If it bleeds, it leads” response you’ll get from most people when the topic of how we treat household names in the media comes up, there is a real (and I would add sick) pleasure Americans experience when nice guys finish last.
We like jerks. And if someone isn’t a jerk, but we don’t like their politics or street-cred as a performer, we call them jerks louder and longer than the actual ones all around us.
In the documentary chronicling Mitt Romney’s six years worth of presidential campaigning, the clearest impression that emerges is that the guy is exceedingly kind and gracious. He loves his family. He’s serious about his faith. He’s earnest in his desire to help the country. And while none of these things equates with actually winning an election in our modern day and age, it speaks to the character of a man who was willing to put so much of himself on the line to serve the nation.
Frankly, as someone who voted for the guy, I think Mitt Romney and his team ran a lackluster campaign. He didn’t deserve to win. But the guy is not the heartless Scrooge the media portrayed him as, just as Barack Obama is clearly not the genius commander-in-chief the media claimed he was (before serving a day in office).
At one point in the film, Governor Romney says to a group of donors, “I know there are people in this room and in board rooms all around the country who are more qualified than I am. But I’m here and have been given this opportunity. If not me, then who? Help me serve and better America.”
Who, indeed? We’ve forced our best and brightest out of politics by making it an on-going soap opera where we need dirt on everyone delivered to our smart phones before we wake up from a Xanax-induced coma in the morning. Mitt has no record. He’s never done drugs. He’s been married to the same woman for over forty years. He’s got a loving family and five impressive sons. Aside from his politics – which the bulk of the media and entertainment world despised – he was most often attacked for being a square loser who was too nice to be relatable and too successful in his private life to know how to manage the beleaguered economy.
Democrats themselves have never accused President Obama of being nice. No one wants him to be nice. They praise him for being cool under pressure (unless by “pressure” you mean asking him a question he doesn’t like). But “nice” really isn’t a characteristic our culture deems important in a leader. And I’m not even saying it must be. What I am saying is that Mitt Romney was a nicer man than America deserved.
All of the jokes about him being weird and strange and creepy turned out to be code for “we disagree with this extremely nice gentlemen.”
Then there’s the Jay Leno situation. While the contexts and level of importance involved are wildly different, the same strain of smugness and condescension that worked to undermine Romney for having “nice guy, but total loser” qualities have been at work in tearing Mr. Leno down for years.
Leno’s humor is not my cup of tea. I love Conan and wish he had been given a real chance to build something at The Tonight Show. I love the snark of Kimmel and Letterman. But Jay Leno is the overwhelming king of late night and has been for two decades. His numbers have consistently mopped the floor with those from all other similar programming. Aside from the few that “took sides” in the post-Conan fiasco at NBC a few years back, celebrities love coming on Leno’s show and attest to his personal kindness and charity to no end.
Comedian Adam Carolla—a frequent Leno guest and close personal friend of Leno-hater Jimmy Kimmel—regularly talks on his nightly podcast about the grief people like his buddy Kimmel give him about being chummy with Jay. Carollla’s response is always the same: “I’ve never met anyone in this business as genuinely nice as Jay Leno has been to me from the first day I met and every day since. All the guy does is crush in the ratings and churn out a product that makes NBC money. And everyone hates him. I don’t get it.”
I do. Leno’s a nice, clean comedian. He tries to entertain everyone watching – including old ladies in Oklahoma – not just ironic, black-rimmed-glasses-wearing Millennials who have Huffington Post blogs. His goal in life is not to shock-and-awe his audience or destroy the Republican Party with satire masquerading as real news.
I’m not fishing for your re-consideration of Mitt Romney as a candidate. And I don’t want you to petition NBC to bring Leno back. All I’m saying is that when you look at the landscape of maniacs, drug-abusers, and all-around loathsome people who consume our attention and praise as a society, the fact that decent guys who have achieved success in an admirable way are tossed aside like Justin Bieber trying to discard his Purple Drank before the cop gets up to his driver-side window signals that something isn’t right.
We don’t value “nice” and we’ll only see less and less of it as a result.