Greg Whiteley has made three films in his life. His latest is called "Mitt," a six-year project he began when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's initial run for the presidency in 2008. It's a fascinating look into not just Romney, but his entire family. The word on the street has been that you'll watch "Mitt" and like the candidate more, and think of him as, well, more human.
I felt neither.
Before we get to "Mitt," let's take a quick glimpse into Whiteley's second movie, a 2007 piece called "Resolved." On the surface, this documentary takes a fabulous look into the world of high school debate teams. But a closer, quieter, more nuanced look at this film proves there's more here than just a bunch of high school nerds striving to become the next great debaters. "Resolved" is actually a story about race and class in American society. It's a story about how the kids from the "right" side of the tracks live through the lens of debate club and how the kids from the other side of the tracks experience the same world, but through a very different lens. Frankly, how white kids see their worlds, their futures and how black kids view the same America are astonishing. It's purely fascinating and worth your time. So is watching "Mitt."
I talked with Whiteley yesterday in anticipation of "Mitt's" exclusive premier on Netflix tomorrow and asked him if he consciously meant to make two films about the have's and the have not's. To my surprise, he told me he wasn't "conscious of that theme" recurring between "Resolved" and "Mitt," but that it was "interesting" that I had noticed it. When I pressed Whiteley further on this issue, he innocently said it was "not my motive in making the movie" to highlight the constant struggle that occurs on each side of the proverbial American tracks.
And that's what threw me for a loop when I watched "Mitt" last night: At no time during the entire 94 minutes did it occur to a single member of the Swiss Family Romney that in fact there was perhaps, just maybe, another view of the world other than their own.
I like people's words. I also like their actions. I don't treat them equally. Romney's actions in the film are comforting. That must be the part where fellow journalists told me I'd like him more. The way he treats his children is fabulous. His love for his grandchildren is actually quite moving. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Mitt Romney is a fantastic husband to his wife, Ann, that he loves his children equally or that the lights of his life are his grandchildren. I can respect a man no more than the one who shows these qualities.
But then there are Romney's words. Either he has absolutely no clue what he's saying or he so firmly believes in his words that he's blind to their very real life ramifications.
The list of "words" is endless. While I could go into the already-aired 47 percent saga, and surely that's the crown jewel in the "RED," aka the Romney English Dictionary, (puns intended), there's plenty more. Whiteley bravely confronts this gaffe, but more importantly, he doesn't edit out some of the other doozies.
Take, for example, when Romney states emphatically, "I represent the party that represents half the people in the country." Actually, not in reality. Last week's Gallup poll wasn't earth shattering, telling us less than 24 percent of Americans identify as Republicans. Democrats sit at a whopping 29 percent. What Romney failed to do was tap deeply enough into the 45 percent of Americans who are independent. But at no time did Romney ever represent half of Americans. When you lose the presidency by more than 5 million votes in the middle of a recession, clearly you don't connect with 51 percent of your potential voters.
And then there's the point in the documentary when Romney and one of his sons are debating how the press corps (and the American people) view him. Romney says, "People will know me, they'll know what I stand for, the flipping Mormon." His son replies, "the guy that'll say or do anything to get elected." Romney replies: "Yeah, yeah, the flipping side, in which case I think I'm a flawed candidate. I can't fake it."
At first glance, one would think Romney understands that his flaw is that he can't connect with the average American family. He even states later in the movie, "I started off with money and education," and goes on to say he attended both Harvard Business and Law Schools. Word to Mr. Romney: Most Americans didn't "start" with any of those things. Later, when talking about starting a small business, Romney says "[Democrats] don't know how hard it is, they don't know, they have not been in a setting where you're going to make it, where you've got a little business and people trying to make it."
Now close your eyes for a moment and take out the word "business." Yes Romney, you just described the poorest Americans, but your only thought was how small business owners want to make it. What about the employees of that small business?
And that was, is and always has been Mitt Romney's problem: He only sees the world through the lens of the "good" side of the railroad tracks. He didn't grow up on the black side of the tracks in "Resolved." He never will understand the plight of the 13-year-old Hispanic teenager trying to make it in his severely conservative world. He doesn't comprehend that there's even a good side to earning a higher minimum wage. In Romney World, America is great and awesome and everyone can make it on their own.
The question I would ask Mitt Romney if I had the chance is: Why silo up the warm, personal, endearing side of grandfather Romney from the cold, robotic, impersonal side of candidate Romney? It was a disservice, frankly, to the American people who had the chance to vote for him. Simply put, he lost because most of those Americans thought at the time that President Obama could understand their plight in life and Romney couldn't.
Therein lies the rub. Romney was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Bill Clinton wasn't, but damn if he couldn't "feel your pain" all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue twice. I'd love to meet Mitt one day and ask him if he could put himself in my shoes as a gay American or to put himself in my friend Jacinto's shoes, a guy that works 12-hour days, has a wonderful wife (who cleans three houses a day) and three beautiful kids. Jacinto's kids are the same ages as many of Romney's grandchildren.
The difference between them? It's easy to find. Just Google "Romney Christmas card" and then do same for "Jacinto christmas card." Trouble is, you won't find anything for Jacinto's, because they can't afford to hire a photographer to take that picture.
Therein, my friends, is the telling story of the right side and wrong side of America's tracks and why, while Mitt Romney may love his grandchildren, he doesn't have a clue about the world of Jacinto's children. He was right when he said "I can't fake it."
No governor, that you can't fake.