< The Story That Continues to Dog Romney

Transcript

Friday, January 13, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

Mitt Romney has another problem, a four-legged one. Back in 1983, Romney took his family on a 12-hour road trip from Boston to Canada, with one member of the family, an Irish Setter named Seamus riding the roof of the car. 

Boston Globe magazine writer Neil Swidey dug up the Seamus story five years ago and featured it prominently in a series profiling Romney. Poor Seamus is long departed [DOG SOUNDS] but the media refuse to let the anecdote die. New York Times columnist Gail Collins has referenced Seamus 30 times. And here’s FOX News’ Chris Wallace.  Is that a lump in his throat?

[CLIP]:

CHRIS WALLACE:

I heavy yellow Lab named Winston. I would no sooner put him in a kennel on the roof of my car than I would one of my children. Question:  What were you thinking?

[END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

Swidey revisited the Seamus anecdote and his role in its dissemination in an article this week in The Boston Globe Magazine. Neil, welcome to On the Media.

NEIL SWIDEY:

Great to be here, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Let’s just clarify this, to get started. The dog wasn’t just like lashed to the roof of the station wagon. He was [LAUGHS] in an elaborate station wagon roof dog carrier, complete with wind screen, right?

NEIL SWIDEY:

Exactly, and that’s been one of the most preposterous [LAUGHS] and hilarious spinoffs of the anecdote, is people have this image of the dog lashed with an old clothes line to the roof [LAUGHS] of the car.

BOB GARFIELD:

However much dogs like to luxuriate in the wind, Seamus had some problems on this trip.

NEIL SWIDEY:

He did. About midway through it there was some – gastric distress, I guess.  And Mitt’s oldest son Tag, who was in the back of the station wagon, first noticed there was brown liquid coming down the back windshield of the station wagon and screamed, “Gross, Dad!”

BOB GARFIELD:

The reason we’re discussing this [LAUGHS] though is that the story of Seamus continues to find its way into the narrative, and that’s all thanks to you. First of all, congratulations,

NEIL SWIDEY:

[LAUGHS] Thanks.

BOB GARFIELD:

Why does this 30-year-old anecdote continue to resonate?

NEIL SWIDEY:

There are really two answers. The first is for people who have to confront and grapple with the technicalities of health care reform and tax policy and jobs bills, it's a lot easier to form an opinion, an impassioned opinion, about a dog on the roof of the car. And you can immediately sort of see where you fall on that continuum of whether you think it's outrageous or whether you kind of understand it.

The second thing, and probably more interesting, is that here Romney is, making his second run for the presidency, a very  well known national figure, and yet, he remains this enigma. And that has to do with, I think, the fact that he emerges out of these really mysterious subcultures, the Mormon Church and private equity finance,  which people don't really know a lot about, and here was an authentic real moment from his life that I think is a sort of a shortcut to getting a sense of how the guy operates.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, on the subject of shortcuts, what did you think at the time that it meant?

NEIL SWIDEY:

I think it's an insight into Mitt Romney's operating system. Here was an unscripted moment, and how does he respond to it? He responds to it [LAUGHS] by coolly pulling off the highway into a gas station, borrowing a hose, washing down Seamus and the car, and then ushering Seamus right up back into the carrier and getting back behind the wheel and moving on. And the way he does it is with logic and with an utter absence of emotion. A lot of critics have focused on the first half of it, and I've always thought the second half is actually more interesting, what happens after Seamus’ problems rear themselves and how Mitt handles it.

BOB GARFIELD:

So back in 2007, you surely knew that this story would not be taken only at face value,  that it would mutate and that it would be used as ammunition by those who would portray Mitt Romney as the Michael Vick of presidential candidates. It still wound up as your lead. Do you feel any compunction about that, at this stage?

NEIL SWIDEY:

The only compunction I feel is maybe I have a heightened awareness now of the extent to which [LAUGHS] people would focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, including all nuance in it. I mean, in this piece I wrote just this past week, I mentioned some of the mythology and factual errors that have been reported and then re-reported by the media.

The first time I heard the story from a family friend, he thought he remembered hearing that Romney had actually driven through a car wash. There have been partisans, anti-Romney people who have perpetuated this notion that that's actually what really happened. So there are all kinds of Twitter chatter about the car wash.

BOB GARFIELD:

I guess what I want to find out from you is in this world where partisans are free to cut and paste as they wish, no matter how how irresponsibly and cynically, do reporters have to take responsibility and fashion their stories in a way to be least useful for the forces of naked partisanship?

NEIL SWIDEY:

It’s a fascinating question, but I would flip that back to you and ask, what’s that natural extension of that. To make them impenetrable from abuse, you also make them impenetrable [LAUGHS] to, to readers and to viewers and listeners. You know, stories need to breathe and they need to be human, and I think people, in general, identify with other people in their moments of imperfection. And I think that's one of Romney's problems, is that he does present this sort of airbrushed  quality.

And not to say you need to know [LAUGHS] about pet anecdotes from 30 years ago, necessarily, but you need insight. And to the extent that we can try to do that, I think we have to, and hope that there are enough people out there willing to look for and be  interested in the real truth.

BOB GARFIELD:

Neil, thanks so much.

NEIL SWIDEY:

Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Neil Swidey is a writer for The Boston Globe Magazine.