A seemingly perfunctory reference offers insight into Romney and his possible White House path. For a man so accomplished, Romney still has not managed to introduce himself. It is not his nature to do so, but it is the nature of the job he seeks. It was a similarly difficult mission for a man he mentioned almost in passing: Neil Armstrong.
By following Armstrong’s lead, Romney could turn the small step of his acceptance speech into the giant leap of this campaign.
Romney’s Tampa speech was his biggest. It was also his hardest because it focused on him. His goal was to go within himself and over the media to finally reach the American people.
Self-revelation is part of the presidency’s job description. Today, America must at least feel comfortable, if not like, its presidents. It is not an unreasonable request.
Our presidents are before us 24 hours a day, seven days a week for at least four years — and usually eight. Today’s president embodies a government that controls ever more of our lives. Now, in increased economic uncertainty — its control appears even more precarious and important.
If Americans are going to have you continuously with them — and you are going to run the biggest variable in their lives over which they have a say — they expect to know you, they have to trust you, and they would like to like you.
But while a public figure, Romney is a private man. Intensely so. He has extended himself in many endeavors but without revealing himself.
So as he stood at last before the Republican Party to accept its nomination, he faced a new mission. And so he started: “I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer.… When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we would get there, it was only when we’d get there. The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche… God bless Neil Armstrong.”
Certainly, Armstrong had died just days before Romney’s speech, but far more can be taken from the reference than that. Like Romney, Armstrong was humble, quiet, and accomplished. He had excelled in everything he had undertaken — up to the moment he made himself monumental.
He was a man whose moment was bigger than he was, and he was man enough to let it be so. He did not need to embellish it, or his role in it; it spoke for itself and for all time. It fairly sums up Armstrong’s life: he was always the right man at the right moment. Talent alone constantly put him in place for the next mission, until it led to his ultimate one.
The parallel with Romney is striking. Romney’s struggle is that to undertake his mission he must seemingly aggrandize himself. Politics is not like Armstrong’s area of endeavor — a reason why he assiduously avoided it. Long gone are the days when politics was thrust upon the most deserving, like Eisenhower. Today, you succeed only by thrusting yourself on it.
The dichotomy between Kennedy and Armstrong is equally telling. Its broad outlines trace that of Obama and Romney.
We still remember Kennedy’s words; Armstrong’s most memorable line — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was actually flubbed (he intended it to be: “One small step for A man…”) and a point of controversy thereafter.
Kennedy was eloquent, charismatic, the one who brashly threw down the gauntlet. Armstrong was the engineer who picked it up.
Obama too is the man of soaring rhetoric — of hope and change and promise. And Romney could be the man who fulfills that mission. He knows that mission is more important than he is — than anyone is — and is not only comfortable with it, but welcomes it overshadowing him.
America is more than familiar with politicians who have talked themselves into a job. What America hasn’t seen are ones who have talked themselves into success. Real success is earned, not “spun.”
In his acceptance speech, Romney revealed more of himself than ever, and perhaps more than he intended or realized. As he continues to do so, as he must, then he should keep his sight on his Armstrong reference. As someone who can accomplish the mission on his own terms.
America did not reject Armstrong for that. They embraced him all the more. If conservatives are right and America is awakening finally to the crises it faces, it is ready to elect someone willing to embrace the mission for the mission’s sake.