The great German filmmaker Werner Herzog has an illuminating formulation to describe his unorthodox way of making documentaries. There is, Herzog says, an "accountant's truth," and there is an "ecstatic truth."
Herzog is all about seeking the latter, as he explained to Slate magazine:
In his own nonfiction films, Herzog wants to tell stories and he doesn't feel beholden to fact. His approach to documentary is an alternative to cinema vérité, the observational aesthetic that proceeds "as if presenting facts was everything." Just because something is factually true, he argues, "it does not constitute truth per se." Herzog likes to respond to and collaborate with his subjects; if he bends fact—by inventing dialogue, for instance—it is to the ends of "truth." The Manhattan phone directory provides millions of correct entries, he says, "but it doesn't inspire you"; in the film, he says it doesn't tell you what Manhattanites dream. Instead of fact, which is the "accountant's truth," he is after the kind of "ecstatic truth" available to poetry: "These moments are rare but I'm trying to find them, which is why I have had different goals from some of my colleagues."
Which "truth" is former Gov. Mitt Romney going to tell about President Barack Obama's administration: the accountant's truth or the ecstatic truth?
Romney telling an accountant's truth would sound something like his interview with radio host Laura Ingraham, wherein President Obama inherited a bad economy that has improved modestly despite, not because of, the efforts of his administration:
The economy always gets better after a recession, there is always a recovery. There's never been a time anywhere in the world where an economy has never recovered. The question is, has it recovered by virtue of something the president's done or has he delayed the recovery and made it more painful?
To stick with the Herzog formulation, Romney is here reciting the political equivalent of the Manhattan phone directory—uninspiring, to say the least.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich's success, such as it is, lies in his willingness to tell what conservatives would consider the "ecstatic truth": that Obama is a radical un-American to his core; that he is anti-work and pro-dependency.
Savvy conservatives know very well that telling the accountant's truth about Obama is not going to be enough to defeat him, and they're worried that Romney isn't mean enough to deliver the necessary payload of ecstasy.
I think this fear is misplaced.
If you had asked me a couple months ago, I would've said (actually, I did say) there are places Romney just won't go in order to get himself elected. I no longer believe that. He was posturing all along—trying to remain above the fray for as long as he could. After South Carolina, that became untenable. The Romney campaign's self-described "destruction" of Gingrich in Florida is an indication of how much he means business.
Whether enough Americans are going to buy the ecstatic truth from an uncharismatic plutocrat with a strange-seeming religion is an open question. But I have no doubt that Romney will try to sell it.