If Mitt Romney Is Dolores Umbridge, Who Is Barack Obama?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 23 2012 1:42 PM

Mitt Romney Is Dolores Umbridge

My Harry Potter-obsessed 9-year-old watches the presidential campaign.

Mitt Romney at the third presidential debate on Monday, and Imelda Stuanton as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Mitt Romney at the third presidential debate on Monday, and Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Photographs by Marc Serota/Getty Images; Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Sometimes one gets a little tired of the echo-chamber of election anxiety, the fretful watching of the debates, the scrolling through tweets and Facebook postings to see what everyone else is thinking watching the debates, the brilliant little analyses by friends, the bits of cleverness, the instant polls. So it was sort of relaxing and informative to watch the foreign policy debate with my 9-year-old Violet, who is at that phase of life when she views the world entirely through the lens of Harry Potter.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

It started in the last debate when she said of Mitt Romney, after hearing him talk for a few minutes: “He’s Umbridge!” And of course I saw exactly what she meant, the brittle, lacquered, self-satisfied smile of the ambitious Dark Arts professor and passionate ministry bureaucrat, Dolores Umbridge. The saccharine, almost-girlish chuckle. The proclamations she issues at Hogwarts, the self-important talk about “the ministry this” and “the ministry that.” The classes doomed to read out loud instead of learning the spells they desperately need. The moment where she makes Harry write lines into his own skin with a pen that draws real blood, all the while smiling that fake and brittle smile. Then of course there is her interest in Muggle Registration, and protecting “pureblood” wizards from the dilution and compromise of human blood.

Last night at the end of the debate, when Ann Romney came up onstage in her green-patterned, 1950s-style skirt, with her anxious expression and pained smile, Violet saw Petunia Dursley, that manic perversion of ’50s housewifery, meanly maternal, protective of the wrong people.*

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Of last night’s moderator, the sweet-seeming and dignified Bob Schieffer, she said, “Professor Slughorn,” which I thought was a little unfair. Schieffer seemed so civilized, so mannerly, so decent. Professor Slughorn is all those things, but also a little pompous, a little networky, a little hail-fellow-well-met. I did see how Schieffer was a bit bemused, like Slughorn, as if the modern world had taken a few confusing and unfortunate turns. And his attempts to control the debate, to keep the two candidates on the ostensible topic of foreign policy, were reminiscent of Slughorn’s efforts to keep the future Voldemort’s explorations into dark magic totally theoretical.

What about Obama? Harry Potter, one might imagine, in the 9-year-old’s phantasmagoria? The damaged hero. The chosen one. The boy who saves the world. No, she said, impatiently. Like why can’t I see it? Why am I not receiving the message the universe is so clearly sending? Dumbledore! Wise, old, snowy-haired Albus Dumbledore. He has moral authority and gravitas, even when life at Hogwarts moves out of his control. He is also a master of wryness, of sharp comments delivered dryly. You can easily imagine Dumbledore saying, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” When the evil forces of the ministry come to take him to jail, a magnificent orange bird swoops down, and together they vanish in flame. One of the ministry members, Kingsley Shacklebolt, says, “You may not like him, Minister, but you can't deny: Dumbledore's got style.”

There were other Harry Potter characters lingering in the margins of the debate: Michelle Obama was Hermione Granger: smart, serious, studied. George Stephanopoulos in post-debate wrap up was Severus Snape: slippery, ambiguous, morose. Christiane Amanpour was Madame Maxime.* Diane Sawyer was Nymphadora Tonks, a Metamorphmagus, who can do anything she wants with her face.

But what does all of this tell us about the election? Dumbledore dies, of course, in the fight against the Dark Lord. Umbridge fails miserably in her bid for power.

Victories are limited in Harry Potter, circumscribed by bloodshed, compromised by exhaustion and loss; ideals are tainted, complicated, twisted, and battered into something else. In Harry Potter, you don’t entirely win when you win.

As Sirius Black tells Harry when he is experiencing what Mitt Romney would call “tumult”: “The world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We've all got both light and dark inside us.”

But anyway. Go, Dumbledore.

Corrections, Oct. 24, 2012: The piece originally misspelled the first names of Ann Romney and Christiane Amanpour, and the last name of George Stephanopoulos.

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