Miss Loneyhearts

No one likes advice – they resent being told to just cheer up and look on the sunny side of things, when their world is falling apart. Just try telling someone how to fix their golf swing. And psychiatrists know better than to tell their clinically depressed patients to cut the crap and stop feeling sorry for themselves and just snap out it, damn it – psychotropic drugs work far better, and talk therapy is not advice at all, just questions. And it’s pretty useless to tell your quiet introverted friend, who just lost the woman of his dreams, or man of her dreams as the case may be, to go out and join clubs and do volunteer work and meet exciting new people. That’s not them and never was. That’s telling them to be someone they never were and never will be – the “normal” person that they never were and never will be. That may be good advice, in a coldly logical way, but it will drive them even deeper into their shell. If you want them to feel truly deep existential despair tell them those things, otherwise shut up.

Still, people do seek advice, and really do try to take it to heart, and then realize things are hopeless, and that they’re hopeless. You could write a darkly comic novel about that. In fact, someone did – Miss Loneyhearts – Nathanael West’s 1933 tale of the fellow who takes a job as a newspaper’s “agony” columnist as a bit of a joke. He is supposed to give advice to the deeply troubled and it nearly destroys him – it’s the middle of America’s deep depression and all advice, even the personal stuff, is pretty much useless. The story is one sad absurdity after another, and it’s a rather brilliant novel if you like that sort of thing. It landed Nathanael West a job later that year as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures and he moved out here to Hollywood, to a small apartment over on Ivar Avenue. He wasn’t terribly successful, but RKO Radio Pictures picked him up in 1939, the year he completed his very dark and best-known work, The Day of the Locust – his novel where all dreams fail and all of Los Angeles burns to the ground. West was not a cheery man. The tragically unaware protagonist of that apocalyptic tale was named Homer Simpson. Matt Groening knows his twentieth-century American literature.

The next year, 1940, West and his wife Eileen McKenney – as in My Sister Eileen – were returning from a hunting trip in Mexico. West was upset as he had just heard of the death his good buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald – who had been living here on North Laurel Avenue. West wasn’t paying attention and ran a stop sign in El Centro. The collision killed them both, and you do know the advice. Don’t drive when you’re upset. That’s good advice – but all advice is useless. West knew that all along.

All that happened long ago – probably no one now has ever heard of these people (cultural references have a short half-life) – but advice is still useless and people still give it, lots of it. Now it’s Mitt Romney’s turn, and the advice-giver is Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, the rather moony and distracted Peggy Noonan, who offers this:

I suspect some conservative used the Romney campaign’s listless response as a stand-in for what they’d really like to say to Mr. Romney himself, which is, “Wake up, get mad, be human, we’re fighting for our country here!”

Romney is not over-managed by others – he isn’t surrounded by what George H.W. Bush called “gurus” – but he over-manages himself. He second guesses, doubts his own instincts. Up to a certain point that’s good: Self-possession is a necessary quality in a political leader. But people don’t choose a leader based solely on his ability to moderate himself. They’re more interested in his confidence in his own judgment, or an ease that signals the candidate has an earned respect for his own instincts.

She thinks that’s good advice – be yourself, and don’t self-moderate what you say, which seems to be your natural inclination – which is to say don’t be yourself, be REALLY yourself, or something.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points out that this is pretty useless advice:

She is correct that conservatives love it when Republican politicians get mad and combative. But the idea that the right is eager for Romney to confidently follow his instincts is the opposite of reality. The right doesn’t trust Mitt Romney’s instincts on any subject save business-friendliness and taxes.

Friedersdorf surveys the landscape:

Neoconservatives worry that Romney’s instincts are more George H.W. Bush than John Bolton. Social conservatives worry that Romney’s instinct is to dispassionately take the politically advantageous stance on abortion. Small government conservatives know his instinct was to enact Romneycare. Libertarian-leaning conservatives worry that his instinct is to be a corporatist. Populists worry that he’s an Ivy League educated financier at heart. Aside from Romney’s affection for Mormonism and big business, both of which seem genuine, is there any position the man wouldn’t abandon or embrace if it would win him the White House? The regularity with which he’s changed positions and his rhetorical zealousness both before and after his “conversions” give the impression he’s severely malleable. That’s what a lot of Republicans thought during the primaries.

Conservatives want to beat Obama so badly that they’re forcing themselves to push hard for a man many of them neither like nor trust, all the while trying to box him into a right-wing agenda he’ll never implement. Hence the insistence that he embrace Paul Ryan’s budget and even put the Wisconsin Republican on the ticket. Hence the reminders from neoconservatives about what they will and won’t tolerate. Hence the nervous outrage of talk radio types as the Romney campaign suggests that maybe his health care record from Massachusetts is an asset, not a liability.

So there’s no point in Romney being himself, or in being what Noonan imagines his true self to be. No one knows what that is, really. He’s just the apparent nominee, and even that means nothing much:

He was only able to win the GOP primary because he second-guessed every instinct he had that proved unacceptable to conservatives. Keeping the base happy while winning independents is going to prove difficult, because neither group is inclined to give the benefit of any doubt to the former Massachusetts governor, so his has little ability to fudge. And there’s no reason to think that if Romney confidently said what he really believes he’d be better positioned.

The truth is that, if elected, Romney is extremely unlikely to sign the Ryan budget, or to completely repeal Obamacare, or to act in accordance with his tough rhetoric on immigration, or to significantly reduce the deficit. Conservatives have persuaded themselves out of desperation that a man they know to be unreliable won’t have any choice but to advance their agenda in the White House, which makes about as much sense as assuming that a Ryan vice-presidency would influence Romney in a conservative direction rather than co-opting Ryan.

No advice is possible here. He isn’t what his party wants and his true self disappeared long ago – so he could get as far as he has managed to get. Someone must have advised him long ago that really believing in anything would end all his political ambitions, and that was probably good advice at the time. Now it isn’t.

Noonan does have more specific advice, on how Romney should respond to that nasty Reverse Robin Hood that Obama made about Romney’s tax plan:

Calling Mr. Romney’s economic plans Romney Hood was dim because everyone likes Robin Hood, so “Romney Hood” sounds kind of like a compliment. Now and then the foes of a candidate accidentally do him a good turn. The Soviets thought they were disparaging Margaret Thatcher when they called her the Iron Lady. She was cold, wouldn’t bend, she couldn’t compromise. The British heard the epithet and thought: Exactly! And exactly what we need!

An admiring nickname meant as an insult was born. Mr. Romney should go with it, lay out how he’ll save taxpayers from the predators of the liberal left and call that Romney Hood.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is amused:

But, um, no – regarding this insult, Mitt Romney absolutely cannot “go with it.” He can’t call himself “Romney Hood.”

Yes, people like Robin Hood. Why? Because Robin Hood is a guy attacking the powerful on behalf of the powerless! I don’t think there’s a single nationally known politician in America less capable of wearing that mantle persuasively than Mitt Romney.

I’ll acknowledge that other Republicans from Reagan and Nixon through some of the teabaggers have postured as populists sticking it to The All-Powerful Liberal Man. But they’re not Romney. The first thing most voters learn about Romney is that he’s stinking rich. The second thing they learn is that he regards anyone who’s not stinking rich as a member of an alien species.

But really, Mitt, if you’d like to give Noonan’s recommendation a try, I’d sure be eager to see the results.

Ah, advice – the story here is one sad absurdity after another, like the Loneyhearts novel. But Noonan may be a special case, now one of the once-stunning but now faded well-coifed Upper East Side “ladies who lunch” at the French places in the East Nineties – pleasant but oddly detached from what the rest of us know as real life. John Podhoretz isn’t detached like that and in Commentary he also offers Mitt Romney some advice:

The line from Romney headquarters last month was “every day we’re not talking about the economy is a day we lose.”… Well, Romney HQ isn’t talking about the economy these days. It’s talking about the ad that all but accused Romney of murdering a woman with cancer. It’s talking about its vice-presidential pick. It’s talking about whether its ad accusing the president of gutting welfare-to-work laws is accurate….

Romney has just learned over the past few weeks that he cannot limit the discussion to the topics he wishes to talk about, especially when his rival is spending $100 million trying to destroy him in the swing states and when the media are largely serving his purposes….

So here’s why he should be talking about other things, releasing plans, giving speeches on big topics – because it’s the only way he can control the discussion. If he says the same thing about the economy every single day, he bores. He provides nothing new for anyone to fix on. He has to feed the beast….

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog reacts to that too:

You know what? Mitt Romney actually could regain control of the discussion just by talking about the economy – if he’d say something about the economy that gave average Americans the slightest bit of hope. Yes, for a while he was talking about the economy as much as possible, but what he was saying was essentially this: Obama sucks, so vote for me – I’m a stinking-rich CEO, and even though I’m too secretive to give you the slightest hint of what I’d do as president besides repealing Obamacare, what more do you need to know than the fact that I’m a stinking-rich CEO? I’d do stinking-rich CEO stuff. That’s all you need to know. And that would be excellent. Trust me.

The problem, of course, is that – apart from the usual talk of tax cuts and cuts to “wasteful government spending,” which every Republican for the past thirty years has talked about –Romney can’t really say anything that will offer ordinary Americans hope. He can’t honestly tell them that programs they rely on will be curtailed, tax deductions they count on will be eliminated, or that regulatory mechanisms they hope are protecting them will be gutted. But you’d think he could at least come up with a few promises, even dishonest ones that would give voters hope – tangible and specific promises that would make voters say, yeah, that would make my life better.

He doesn’t seem to think that’s necessary – he’s a CEO, dammit! He’s just going to crunch the numbers and put this baby into the black! Don’t ask how! Don’t worry your peon head about the possible consequences in your pathetic life!

That’s a bit over the top, but that may be what Romney is saying. That’s the “self” he has revealed so far. But to tell him to fully reveal that self would be bad advice of course. Steve M says he’s offering “change without hope” and that why he’s losing. But what advice would you give him?

Someone is giving him odd advice, as noted at Talking Points Memo:

Mitt Romney, battered by Democratic attacks over his Bain Capital record and taxes, is calling on President Obama to agree to a truce over his business career.

“Our campaign would be – helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon – business or family or taxes or things of that nature,” Romney said, according to excerpts of an upcoming interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd released Friday.

Romney said he would prefer the campaigns “only talk about issues,” and claimed that “our ads haven’t gone after the president personally. … We haven’t dredged up the old stuff that people talked about last time around. We haven’t gone after the personal things.”

It seems he wants new ground rules, rules establishing that both sides only talk about issues which have Obama at the center of them, not about Romney’s taxes, or anything he did or didn’t do in the business world:

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul offered up a broader take on whether Romney was really suggesting that his career at Bain Capital – the crux of his argument that he is better equipped to handle the economy – should be considered off-limits.

“The governor was expressing his view that he hopes we can have a campaign focused on the issues rather than one of desperation and lies as we’ve seen from the Obama campaign,” Saul said in an e-mail.

In short, what Romney did or didn’t do in the business world is beside the point. The ads about all the outsourcing and the layoffs and whose wife died when some worker lost his job and pension and healthcare plan – all that stuff is too nasty and had to stop. Can we make it stop? Romney might have received some bad advice here:

While Romney has bristled at attacks on his time at Bain, especially a recent Democratic super PAC ad implying he bears responsibility for a woman’s death, he’s also made his business record a critical component of his campaign, arguably the critical component. From his campaign’s earliest days, Romney argued repeatedly that voters should elect him because of his private-sector experience, crediting his investments in Bain with creating 100,000 jobs (a claim that fact-checkers have heavily disputed).

“Look, I would not be in this race had I spent my life in politics alone,” Romney said at an October primary debate. “Nothing wrong with that, of course, but right now, with the American people in the kind of financial crisis they are in, they need someone who knows how to create jobs, and I do.”

That message was reinforced in ads. Most recently, this biographical spot last month that opens with Romney’s business experience…

He cannot be saying everyone should ignore all that now – but he is, as Steve Benen sees it:

Romney, very quickly, has gone from “Vote for me because of my business background” to “My business background is just a diversion.”

What was once presented as Romney’s central qualification for the presidency is now an issue he wants off the table, free from all scrutiny. This is clearly evidence of a campaign unfolding in a direction the challenger isn’t happy with – confident candidates in a position of strength don’t make “please stop hitting me” pleas through the media.

And what would Peggy Noonan say? Someone else advised him to beg for mercy. Or you could think of it this way – you’re losing the game, badly, so you demand the rules be changed, because it’s just not fair if you’re losing, because you’re supposed to win, like you always do – so let’s just agree that everything I’ve done in my life up to this point is off the table or something. The advice was to claim a sense of entitlement. People like that.

Of course that’s bad advice. And James Wolcott frames the problem nicely:

One of the reasons Mitt Romney seems like such a time-warped, B-actor leading man of a candidate – a cross between John Gavin and Tom Tryon, with high-gloss Hollywood black hair for that new Cadillac shine and a smile that always has money on its mind – is that surface is all he seems to sport. Below the lacquer, there’s no underlife; no doubts, no sawing contradictions, no gnawing resentments. As a human being, he still doesn’t seem fully thawed, and you get the sense that his sweat would be cold, like refrigerator condensation.

What’s strange isn’t that Romney seems capable of expressing empathy, since empathy is clearly not something he considers of corporate value, but that in all his years of public life he hasn’t learned to fake it, to at least pretend he cares about those less fortunate or vulnerable, something even Rick Perry was able to do with his “have a heart” comment regarding immigrants. For this brief outburst of humanity, Perry suffered major backlash from the rightwing ghoul squad, but at least it showed a bit of blood circulation on his part.

Romney’s rusty mechanics on the campaign trail, the forced banter and the creak of premeditation at even the most casual moments, has evoked comparisons with Richard Nixon, but Nixon was genuinely an introspective loner; Romney is a joiner and belonger without any moon shadow of introspection. He doesn’t seem to have given anything any deep thought, which is another reason he’s no Nixon; Nixon was a law-school grind and a user-upper of yellow legal pads to work out the pros and cons and details of domestic and foreign policy issues, while Romney’s policy brain operates on frictionless cruise control. He’s a conservative corporate capitalist at home and abroad his thinking is so old, encrusted, and stuck in the frozen tundra that, as Daniel Larison has pointed out, he doesn’t even qualify as a neoconservative – he’s an unreconstructed Cold Warrior from the 50s or 60s. Another reason he seems like a throwback to the cardboard leading men of lesser Hitchcock and Preminger films.

How do you advise someone like that? Wolcott doesn’t really see Romney as the bully as some do, given that high school incident where Romney gathered a posse to cut off some kid’s hair, or for strapping his dog to a car roof or for saying how he likes to fire people. No, it’s something else:

He’s a coward. He’s never gone against the grain, stood up for an underdog or advanced an unpopular cause before it became popular, risked a single gleaming hair off his head, shone any backbone apart from the determination to win, tapped into anything larger than himself, risen to the moment. His selfishness is such that you think conservatives would appreciate him more, since that’s their driving ethos.

But even they have a problem with him, and it’s now almost as if the best advice to give him is that advice that no one dares give, but should – things are as bad as they seem and there’s no silver lining here, and nothing you can do, and no one is going to change the rules for you now just because others are being mean to you and you’re losing – so give up – do something else with your life, something useful. That’s the opposite of a pep talk full of vaguely useful advice, but sometimes that’s the best advice.

But no one ever says that – we’re a cheery and hopeful nation. Nathanael West pointed out that’s going to kill us all, and showed why and how. It’s too bad he’s been forgotten. He’d make a hell of a political advisor.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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