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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Romney, Obama, and Vulnerability and Teaching Persona
November 14, 2012 - 6:06pm

Because I was engaging in a personal brownout regarding election-related news, when word of an “explosive” video of a “visibly agitated” Mitt Romney discussing Mormonism showed up a half-dozen times in my Facebook feed, I ignored it.

The commentary in the posts associated with the video suggested that I should be interested in it because it’s an unfiltered Mitt discussing some of the “weird” parts of the Mormon faith, including that when Christ returns for his millennial reign, he will split his time between two places, Jerusalem and Missouri.

Being a committed ignostic I wasn’t particularly bothered about this aspect of Mr. Romney’s background and didn’t think it would be dispositive, regardless of what it revealed, but election over, avoiding work, I went back and found the video to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s an outtake during a commercial break from a radio interview where Mr. Romney engages in a somewhat heated discussion that is apparently linked to some of the questions the radio host had been asking while on air. The bit about the specific location of Christ’s return is in there, but most of the discussion is about Mr. Romney’s position on abortion rights and how it might square with the Mormon church’s teachings, and it seems clear that the host is accusing either Mr. Romney and/or other members of his church of being bad Mormons.

In the video, Mitt Romney is pissed. He’s verbally aggressive (though also controlled), calling the host out on what I believe to be passive aggressive B.S., while thoroughly explaining how there are indeed Mormons who are Democrats and that this is not inconsistent with the church’s teachings, and that his own “pro-life” stance is rooted in secular values, not his particular membership to a church.

After watching the video, I couldn’t help but think: now that guy I could have voted for.

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Another video popped on to my radar after the election. This one was released by the Obama campaign, and it showed President Obama meeting with his staff the day after the election. In a brief speech, he thanks them for their contributions to his campaign. Towards the end, as he says, “What you guys have done means that the work I am doing is important, and I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you,” and then the President of the United States needs to take a moment because he is briefly overtaken by emotion. It was a moment of vulnerability for the most powerful person on the planet.

After watching it, I thought to myself: I’m glad I voted for that guy.

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My first year of as a graduate teaching assistant, I wore a tie every single day. The rooms had podiums, and I stood behind them always because I could rest the book there, and when in doubt – and doubt was omnipresent in those days – I could read something from the book, and then nod sagely in agreement. I remember entire class periods of reading material out loud to the students, occasionally interjecting asides about the importance of what I had just read.

At times, if not for the podium, I would have fallen down. When I would venture to the blackboard to illustrate something, my ability to spell even the simplest words would disappear, and I would silently mouth each letter to myself before putting it on the board.

With distance, I recognize that I was not teaching, so much as giving a performance of a teacher, a façade designed to fulfill my audience’s limited knowledge and expectations. I think I figured if I looked like a teacher (tie), and quacked like a teacher (acting like I knew everything), they would mistake me for a teacher.

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I have no real wish to join the flood of election postmortems trying to discover the roots of Romney’s defeat. I’m sure there’s some measure of truth in just about any theory be it his alienation of Hispanic voters, or President Obama’s superior ground game, or the “entire moral landscape” being turned “upside down,” but one thing I do feel confident in saying is that there was a significant “authenticity gap” between the candidates, in President Obama’s favor.

We must acknowledge that the self-image that candidates display for public consumption are very much performances, calculated projections meant to maximize their own appeal. This is as true for Barack Obama as it is for Mitt Romney. But where that performance comes from, what it's rooted in, seems to matter.

The “who’s the real Mitt Romney?” narrative may have been grounded in some shifting policy positions, but to me, it was most evident in the public performance of himself. Bob Dole said that Mitt Romney “looks like a president,” and I often felt the same way. Tall, handsome, great voice, what’s not to like?

Except that for the entire period of the unbelievably long campaign, I had no idea what was underneath that façade. Some conservatives accuse President Obama of being a kind of “con man,” but at least a con man has motive and drive, and operates from some recognizable core. Newt Gingrich called him “authentically dishonest.”

From my point of view, the inner Romney looked like a void. I would have preferred a con man.

I’m wondering if Mr. Romney (or his advisers) were somehow afraid to let the “real” Mitt Romney out, but they shouldn’t have been.

Yes, the Mitt Romney in that video is confrontational, but he is also smart, and passionate, and quick, and even while affirming his own beliefs acknowledges the rights of others to their own good faith positions. The talk show host deserved Mitt Romney’s pique. He was rude and condescending and it seems like he figured Romney would have to take it because Romney needed the votes. Romney's anger in the moment is a form of vulnerability, an admission that someone or something can get under his skin.

There’s a fuller version of the video which includes Romney’s time on air, and the difference between the two Romneys, the candidate, and the man, is striking. The on-air Romney is charming, but also, for lack of a better phrase…kind of icky.

That Romney reminded me of my own authenticity problem when I first stood behind that teacher’s podium. Teaching is a performance, but my performance at the time was rooted in what I thought teachers are supposed to be, oracles, rather than what I now believe we are, guides.

My moments in class were filled with anxiety, wondering if and when my mask would slip and I would be revealed as a fraud.

I wonder if Mitt Romney was experiencing something similar, only a gazillion times more intense, during his time as a candidate.

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So what changed? I got tired, I guess. The anxiety surrounding teaching wore me down until I realized I had no choice but to, for better or worse, be myself, or more accurately, a slightly better version of myself.

What I recognized is that my students neither demand nor expect perfection, and that once I started admitting to my flaws – the fact that I’d been a so-so student myself, that I still struggled with certain rules of grammar, that producing good writing is no different for me than it is for them (a continuous struggle) – I relaxed. I became me in front of them.

Because I am an introvert, I still find teaching occasionally difficult, and often have to “psych” myself up for the performance, but because I am performing as me, this is relatively easy to do. The key is to remember that it’s okay to allow some vulnerability to seep into the performance, not only because it’s authentic, but because it seems to engender greater trust from my students.

Mitt Romney reportedly didn’t write a concession speech prior to election day, apparently out of genuine misplaced confidence, rather than as a bluff. When I first heard this tidbit, I reveled in some liberal schadenfreude, but days later, after viewing the video where I got to see a more real Mitt Romney, I found it a little heartbreaking.

His multi-year performance as “future president” had apparently made himself into the RomneyBot caricature. He had lost touch with the roots of his desire to be president. To admit vulnerability, even to himself, was unacceptable.

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