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Garry Wills writes last word on Romney’s failed presidential run

Updated: December 20, 2012 6:26AM

The 2012 presidential election was hanging around the back of my mind like that last lingering party guest who just won’t go home after everybody else has left, but stands planted in the living room telling another story you’ve already heard.

And I didn’t even realize it, not until Garry Wills strode in, grabbed him by the shoulder and the back of the belt, and gave the election the bum’s rush out into the street. Which felt so good, so final and liberating, I have to share it with you, even though doing so violates the writerly code against quoting another writer at length.

Wills, in case you are unfamiliar, is a Northwestern history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of some 40 books, many resonating his Jesuit training and deep understanding of the Catholic Church. He started out as a conservative, had his eyes opened by the Vietnam War and wound up on Nixon’s enemies list.

The article that rocked me on my heels was in the New York Review of Books. “What Romney Lost” is the most devastating coup de grace I’ve ever seen delivered to a politician. It begins, like a classroom discussion, with a question — “What happens to those who lose a presidential campaign?” — which Wills answers by looking at candidates over the past half century who failed to grab the ultimate political brass ring.

George McGovern, though trounced by Richard Nixon, “was a man of integrity, some of whose ideas were continued by people who worked on his 1972 campaign.” He was re-elected to the Senate, where he continued to fight for what he believed in, often successfully, accepting the contradictions in his politics, such as being a World War II aviation hero who nevertheless opposed unnecessary wars.

“What public service do we expect from Mitt Romney?” Wills asks. “He will no doubt return to augmenting his vast and hidden wealth, with no more pesky questions about where around the world it is stashed, or what taxes (if any) he paid, carefully sheltered from the rules his fellow citizens follow.”

That is the opening jab. Then Wills turns to the opposite end of the political spectrum from McGovern, to Barry Goldwater, who though routed by Lyndon Johnson, nevertheless “stayed true to his principled conservatism,” helping the Republican party rebuild, a complex figure, both right wing and “an acidulous critic of the religious right and a strong advocate for women’s rights (like abortion). He had backbone.”

Then back to Romney.

“What vestige of a backbone is Romney left with?” Wills wonders. “Things he was once proud of — health-care guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination.”

Wills visits five other defeated candidates. Nobel Prize winners Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, John Kerry, still fighting “for the principles he has always believed in as a Democrat.” Michael Dukakis returning happily to be “the college professor he always was.” Bob Dole aids McGovern in his projects to fight world hunger.

And then the final paragraph. And I know I’m spending my column quoting another writer, but credit where credit is due. Words by the billions have been spilled and will be spilled about the 2012 election, not only in newspapers, magazines and books, but in a wide array of more recent technological platforms — Facebook and blog postings, Twitter feeds and emails. Yet it was Garry Wills, 78, who nailed it, who has earned the final word. His piece ends:

“Many losing candidates became elder statesmen of their parties. What lessons will Romney have to teach his party? The art of crawling uselessly? How to contemn 47 percent of Americans less privileged and beautiful than his family? How to repudiate the past while damaging the future? It is said that he will write a book. Really? Does he want to relive a five-year-long experience of degradation? What can be worse than to sell your soul and find it not valuable enough to get anything for it? His friends can only hope he is too morally obtuse to realize that crushing truth. Losing elections is one thing. But the greater loss, the real loss, is the loss of honor.”

Save your ripostes, your counter-arguments, your ad hominem attacks on him, or me, or both. There is always a bleat of insult or dismay that can be emitted in lieu of actually thinking. “What can be worse than to sell your soul and find it not valuable enough to get anything for it?” is a little long for a tombstone, but then Romney is still rich, and can afford a big political tomb. It is an epitaph Romney chiseled himself — Garry Wills is merely the one who read it aloud in the clearest voice.

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