This morning, Mitt Romney created a stir when he said in an interview, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He was trying to make the point that there’s already a social safety net for the poor and his economic plan is focused on the middle class, but in the process he handed an attack ad to Democrats on a silver platter. What’s interesting is that this is part of a long history of Romney statements that make him look totally callous, even though he’s personally very generous. If you read the Real Romney, a new biography by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman that I highly recommend, it’s full of stories of Romney’s quiet charity – helping neighbors, fellow church members and others with not only money, but personal time. This is a side of him that rarely comes across publicly.
In their book, Kranish and Helman recount a perfect example of the contrast between his public image and his personal generosity from his 1994 Senate race in Massahcusetts against Ted Kennedy. Roughly a week before the election, Romney did a campaign stop at a Boston shelter for homeless veterans. The director of the center, Ken Smith, told Romney that their budget was being hammed by the cost of milk. In his political mode, Romney awkwardly joked that they should just teach veterans how to milk cows. Obviously, that did not go over well.
Then, Kranish and Helman, write:
(S)everal days later, Smith got a phone call. It was Romney. “He personally called and said something to the effect of, ‘I want you to know that I truly do support American veterans, regardless of what has been said or how this was portrayed.’” Romney told Smith he wanted to cover part of the shelter’s milk costs, and he didn’t want any publicity for it. “He said something like, ‘I’m looking to do it because it’s the right thing,’” Smith said. He didn’t know exactly how Romney had done it – he figured Romney had arranged something with one of the shelter’s milk suppliers. But now, instead of paying for a thousand pints a day, the shelter was paying for just five hundred. And it wasn’t just some political stratagem. “It wasn’t a short-term ‘Let me stroke you a check,’” he said. “It happened not once, not twice, but for a long period of time.” In fact, Smith said he understood that Romney was still supporting the shelter when Smith left in 1996.
There are plenty of things to criticize Romney for, and the Weekly Standard's John McCormack makes the point that the context of today’s comment is even worse for Romney because it “isn't merely tone-deaf, it's also un-conservative. The standard conservative argument is that a conservative economic agenda will help everyone. For the poor, that means getting as many as possible back on their feet and working rather than languishing as wards of the welfare state.”
But as Othello put it, “Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate.” And if the media is going to criticize Romney for the seeming callousness of his statements, they should dig a bit deeper and explore his magnanimous side. This duality also happens to be a better, more complex, story.