The Simple Life: Cyborgs have all the luck. For the wife of a soulless android, Ann Romney seems remarkably down-to-earth. In the captivating new campaign video, "Ann Romney, Christmas 2006," she comes across as funny, honest, and refreshingly normal. So normal, in fact, you almost forget that she's narrating one of the strangest bits of campaign theater ever produced—a 13-minute behind-the-scenes look at Mitt Romney consulting his family about whether to run for president.
The pretext for the video is absurd. Watching the Gore family debate the pros and cons of a presidential run might make for genuine drama. But the only Oscar that Romney could win is for Best Animation. He looks like he made up his mind 40 years ago, then built a family to consult about the decision.
The consultation itself is also creepy. The Romneys talk about how to protect the family's privacy, in a conversation filmed to post on the Internet. In the closing scene, Mitt Romney sits on the couch with a legal pad, dutifully taking notes as he asks his multitude of sons and daughters-in-law "to go around the room and list the reasons to do it and not to do it," and later, "How do you minimize the downsides?"
Son Matt tells his father, "I know you're not just taking notes because there's a camera here." It's a strange, self-conscious admission: Clearly, Romney is just taking notes because a camera is present, and his family is helping. They seem to think The Truman Show was about a president.
Reality shows don't lie, and Mitt Romney quickly emerges as the least interesting member of his own family. Ann marvels at his energy and hard work. He shovels snow! He washes dishes! He takes notes!
His speaking role is awkward and mercifully short. He soldiers through grace, commemorating the birth of Jesus and managing to avoid the looming evangelical-Mormon split over His return by not adding, "See you in Missouri!"
With its ridiculous premise, creepy intimacy, and hollow candidate, the Romney video ought to be unbearable to watch. But the opposite is true. When the camera's not on Romney, the video is irresistible. It's like watching a reality show set in the 1950s—in color. It's as if Jerry Mathers discovered a lost episode of Leave It to Beaver in which Ward Cleaver asks June, Wally, and the Beave whether he should challenge Vice President Nixon for the Republican nomination.
Individually, the Romney boys are as dull and wrinkle-free as their father. But put all five of them in one living room with their five wives and 10 children, and the Five Brothers' very sameness is hypnotic. The odds against having five boys in a row are 31 to 1. Five boys even more frighteningly wholesome—and shallow—than their father must be the result of extraterrestrial intervention or human cloning.
The Romney campaign released the video to coincide with Father's Day. (Over to you, Rudy and Andrew Giuliani!) But the real star of the Guy Smiley Family Hour is Ann Romney. She's something those other 1950s shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver lacked: a compelling female character. She has a winning laugh, and unlike her husband, seems to believe what she's saying.
Ann brings the trademark Romney can-do spirit to bear on ordinary subjects, like the chore assignment wheel she uses for family gatherings (but often has to do all by herself). While others worry about their carbon footprint, she makes clear that without paper plates she could never survive the holidays. She points to a hopelessly cluttered kitchen counter she cleaned not five minutes earlier, but doesn't mind tidying again. When she admits with a giggle that for Christmas dinner she cooked the sweet potatoes in Boston and brought them with her in Tupperware on the airplane, it becomes clear that Ann Romney would have run circles around her husband in business school.
She utters a few canned lines about her husband as "a problem solver." But she also volunteers that back in high school, he was once a troublemaker. She and Mitt were arrested and "got put in the paddy wagons" for sliding down the hill on ice blocks. This, too, appears to be a hereditary trait on Planet Romney: The video shows Romney grandchildren on a mattress, repeatedly sliding down the family staircase.