Gosh, who talks like that now? Romney does
Mittspeak • The GOP candidate’s language is polite, formal and at times anachronistic.
Published: October 20, 2012 12:50PM
Updated: October 20, 2012 04:26PM
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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Goffstown, N.H. • At a campaign stop in Rockford, Ill., not long ago, Mitt Romney sought to convey his feelings for his wife, Ann. “Smitten,” he said.

Not merely in love.

“Yeah, smitten,” he said. “Mitt was smitten.”

It was a classic Mittism, as friends and advisers call the verbal quirks of the Republican presidential candidate. In Romneyspeak, passengers do not get off airplanes, they “disembark.” People do not laugh, they “guffaw.” Criminals do not go to jail, they land in the “big house.” Insults are not hurled, “brickbats” are.

As he seeks the office of commander in chief, Romney can sometimes seem like an editor-in-chief, employing a language all his own. It is polite, formal and at times anachronistic, linguistically setting apart a man who frequently struggles to sell himself to the U.S. electorate.

It is most pronounced when he is on the stump and off the cuff, not on the stuffy and rehearsed debate stage. But Romney offered voters a dose of it during his face-off with President Barack Obama last week, when he coined the infelicitous phrase “binders full of women.”

Romney’s unique style of speaking has distinguished him throughout his career, influencing the word choices of those who work with and especially for him. Should he reach the White House, friends and advisers concede, the trait could be a defining feature of his public image, as memorable as Lyndon B. Johnson’s foul-mouthed utterances or the first President George Bush’s tortured syntax.

Romney, 65, has spent four decades inside the corridors of high finance and state politics, where indecorous diction and vulgarisms abound. But he has emerged as if in a rhetorical time capsule from a well-mannered era of soda fountains and AMC Ramblers, someone whose idea of swearing is to let loose with the phrase “H-E-double hockey sticks.”

“He actually said that,” recalled Thomas Finneran, the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives when Romney was governor. “As in, go to ‘H-E-double hockey sticks.’ I would think to myself, ‘Who talks like that?’”

Romney, quite proudly. In fact, he seems puzzled by the fascination with something as instinctive (and immutable) as how he talks, as if somebody were asking how he breathes.

“It’s like someone who speaks with an accent,” he said in an interview. “You don’t hear the accent.”

His Mormon faith frowns on salty language, and so does he. A man of relentless self-discipline, he made clear to lawmakers in Boston and colleagues in business that even in matters of vocabulary, he “held himself to a high standard of behavior,” said Geoffrey Rehnert, a former executive at Bain Capital, the firm Romney started in the 1980s. Romney’s father, George, whom he idolized, shared the same style of refined and restrained speech.

Those around him are so accustomed to his verbal tics that they describe them in shorthand. “Old-timey,” said one aide. “His 1950s language,” explained another. “The Gomer Pyle routine,” said a third.

Asked about his boss’ word preferences, Eric Fehrnstrom, a veteran Romney adviser, responded knowingly: “You mean like ‘gosh, golly, darn’?”

For Democratic strategists, Romney’s throwback vocabulary feeds into their portrayal of a man ill-equipped for the mores and challenges of the modern age. David Axelrod, a top adviser for an Obama campaign that has adopted “Forward” as its slogan, once quipped that Romney “must watch ‘Mad Men,’” the hit television show set in Manhattan in the 1960s, “and think it’s the evening news.”

His exclamations can sound jarring to the contemporary ear — or charming, depending on whom you ask. Midway into a critique of Obama’s economic policies a few months ago in Charlotte, N.C., Romney declared: “They’ve scared the dickens out of banks,” he said. “They’ve scared the dickens out of insurance companies.”

He declared, “To heck with it!” while urging reporters to use their fingers to dig into a box of pastries he was passing around on a plane. “Darn good question,” he replied to a voter in Kalamazoo, Mich., who asked how he would work with Congress if elected. (His wife also got the “darn” treatment in Michigan, when he enthused, “Gosh, darn, she is amazing!”) “Thank heavens” is another favorite.

For people used to peppering their speech with four-letter words, time with Romney can prove an exercise in self-control. A half-dozen people recalled the precise moment when they swore — almost always accidentally — in his presence.

When Robert Travaglini, then the Democratic president of the Massachusetts state Senate, would curse in front of Romney, the governor would frown and interject, “Well, I wouldn’t choose that diction,” Travaglini recalled.

Rehnert, the former Bain executive, was mortified when a potential client he took into Romney’s office promptly dropped a string of profanities.

“Mitt wanted to know what cats and dogs I was dragging in here,” Rehnert said.

His cussing colleagues said Romney took pains not to judge them publicly. “He did not impose his language preferences on us,” Finneran said. “But I wonder if we became a little bit more restrained because we knew this about him.”

Travaglini recalled lawmakers’ discussing how Romney “should be more in tune with the vernacular of the day and express himself more passionately.”

“But,” he added, “that’s not who he is.”

Romney does have his own distinctly G-rated arsenal of angry expressions — “Good grief,” “flippin’,” “good heavens” and even the occasional “crap.”

Perhaps the most intriguing of these is “grunt.” Most people just grunt. Romney, however, talks about grunting. “Grunt” he says, onomatopoetically, when annoyed with a last-minute change in his campaign schedule.

Many of Romney’s verbal habits can sound like those of a hyper-literate graduate student who never left school. (In college, he majored in English.) He favors the gentlemanly qualifier “if you will,” which he invoked three times during a recent speech in New Hampshire.

On how to reduce the debt: “You have to start accumulating, if you will, reserves.”

On speaking to a group of soldiers: “The cadets were all lined up and sitting at attention, if you will.”

On his business background: “I’ve had the experience of working in the real world, if you will.”

In interviews, voters expressed an equal measure of admiration for and curiosity about his quaint dialect, which many described as a conspicuous break from the normally harsh tone of politicians.

“It’s a wonderful change,” said Irene Sperling, a retiree from Allentown, Pa. “He’s a gentleman.”

Wendy Tonn, 63, a Romney supporter who splits her time between Michigan and Florida, said she found comfort in his vocabulary, comparing it to the simple innocence of “Leave It to Beaver.” “We are of that era, and we’d like to be returned to that kind of era,” she said.

A few of Romney’s acquaintances, however, have tried to drag him linguistically into the 21st century. Finneran, an admitted serial curser, said that after years of working closely with Romney, he began to fantasize about provoking him to utter a particularly crude word.

“It got to the point where I started to think that my greatest achievement of all time would be if I somehow or other got him to say the word,” he said.

Once, Romney seemed on the cusp of fulfilling that wish during a heated discussion in the state Capitol. But he caught himself just in time.

“And I thought, ‘Oh, God, my closest moment ever,’” Finneran said. “But it’s not going to happen.”