I told him I had read Neil Steinberg. I had read the Neil Steinberg obituary of Illinois Tool Works CEO David Speer, the only story on page one of Monday’s Sun-Times—demonstrating that if you have to die, do your best to die a mentor and friend of Michael Ferro, chairman of the company that owns the Sun-Times. More to the point, I had read Steinberg’s Monday column back in the op-ed pages.
Steinberg wrote to tout and quote at length from an essay by Garry Wills that the New York Review of Books posted on its website. I had already read the post, “What Romney Lost,” and my reaction was different from Steinberg’s. He called Wills’s effort “the most devastating coup de grace I’ve ever seen delivered to a politician.” Wills had asked, “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,” Wills continued. “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?”
Steinberg was clearly delighted that Wills brought Romney’s defeat to this sharp point. My friend was delighted. I felt a little queasy.
It’s not that I disagree with Wills’s analysis up to this point. It’s that soul is a serious word (certainly to Wills, a former seminarian), and it’s presumptuous and prideful to pronounce on the state of any soul but your own. I distrust writing that is too clever by half—the epigram so crystalline it rings of more truth than is actually in it. Wills’s eloquent post is ominously gratifying; it’s an assault launched when it’s safe to do so, when the results are in and Romney can be swept into history’s dustbin and difficult questions his candidacy raised can be brushed aside— such as why 60 million Americans gave their 47.6 percent of the total vote to the candidate who sold his soul.
The Sunday New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece by a professor of history in North Carolina arguing that Romney’s voter base was primarily rural and white and Barack Obama’s was urban and ethnic, and the big difference between blue states and red states isn’t ideological but demographic. The south and the plains have a less diverse population and smaller cities. In other words, it was a close election and Romney happened to lose it.
But why did those millions of white, rural voters dumbly cast their ballots for the candidate who’d sold his soul? Were they blind or indifferent to a reality that is plain as day to us urban progressives —at least now that Garry Wills has phrased it so satisfactorily?
I finished his essay feeling more indulged than edified.