Not only is Mitt Romney an arrogant rich guy hopelessly out of touch with middle- class Americans, his upper-class neighbors in seaside La Jolla, Calif. don’t like his politics, either.
That’s the clear and obviously intended message of a hatchet-job story on the presumptive Republican presidential candidate in Thursday’s New York Times, titled “The Candidate Next Door.”
The 1,800-word piece is based upon “several days of interviews with about a dozen residents” of the exclusive Romney neighborhood, according to Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who wrote the article. It appeared on the front page of the Thursday Home and Garden section of The Times, reserved for mostly lighter lifestyle pieces for readers getting into a weekend mood. But while the feature might have been masked as another spread on the homes of the rich and famous which The Times customarily highlights there, this one was transparently political in its intent.
Its message: While some of Mitt Romney’s neighbors are aggravated by the noise and upset he and his Secret Service detail have brought to the toney neighborhood, and plans he has to expand his house, many admit that they don’t like his political views, as well. And it is on the political differences that the article dwells.
For example, noting that Romney has “likened President Obama’s policies to socialism, called for cutting back funding to PBS and wants to outlaw same-sex marriage,’’ Barbaro wrote that there are six gay households within a three block radius of the candidate’s house. The writer doesn’t know this for a fact. He has taken the word of neighbors.
However, the writer does go on to cite two gay couples, by names, which live on Romney’s street. One gay neighbor, Randy Clark, an accountant who lives four doors up the street from Romney, said he is trying to organize a fundraiser for President Obama at his home. Barbaro wrote that Clark “hopes to bump into Romney on the street so he can explain ‘in a neighborly way’ why he thinks his relationship…deserves the same rights and status as the marriage between Mr. Romney and his wife Ann.”
Barbaro also found a grumbling Democrat, Mark Quint, who lives three houses away from Romney. Quint said he’s tired of watching neighboring homeowners bulldoze beach houses to make way for what he calls “McMansions.” He used the interview to take a snide and somewhat cheap personal shot at Romney.
“The only thing he wants small is government and taxes,” Mr. Quint said. “He likes big, houses, big families and big religion.”
Another problem with the article is the reporter’s uses of anonymity. He allows one neighbor who criticized the Romneys to go unnamed because he or she was “worried about antagonizing the Romneys and their friends.”
As a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years, I never allowed people to take shots at their political opponents without attaching their name to it. Why should you let them hide behind you while you do their dirty work? I teach this principle to my students now that I am a college professor: You grant anonymity only when the information you are receiving can not be obtained any other way, AND that information is so vital for the public to know that this special dispensation is necessary.
Barbaro goes on to grant a second anonymity – this one to “a young man in town who recalled that Mr. Romney confronted him as he smoked marijuana and drank on the beach, demanding that he stop.” That might or might not be true, but when I see that the “young man” did not give the reporter his name, I immediately question the veracity of his statement.
A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign declined to answer questions about the complaints of neighbors, and only said in a statement, “Gov. and Mrs. Romney have been made to feel very welcome in La Jolla and they enjoy spending time there with their family.”
The rich, insensitive, out-of-touch-Romneys narrative of the political media is getting to be a tiresome cliché. It is not as if we haven’t had very wealthy presidential candidates or presidents before: Roosevelts, Johnson, Bushes and the last time I looked, Obama. John Kerry, the Democrat who ran for president in 2004 was quite wealthy. His wife was the heir to the Heinz fortune. He never got the treatment Romney is getting.
And when a neighborhood resident becomes a presidential candidate, or president, there is bound to be some upset and inconvenience. There certainly was a lot of it in Chicago a week ago when Obama returned to his Hyde Park neighborhood to spend a night at his home for the first time in nearly a year.
The Chicago Tribune set the scene: “Before the president's arrival, residents of the South Side streets around his house watched security descend. Authorities blocked off streets and sidewalks with metal and concrete barriers, diverted cars and buses, and snooped around buildings and alleys with bomb-sniffing dogs. By 3:30 p.m., no one could enter Woodlawn Avenue between Hyde Park Boulevard and Ellis Avenue without a picture ID proving they belonged in the area.”
The Tribune article featured some complaints about neighbors having to park 10 blocks away, but most took the inconvenience good naturedly. "I get very excited," said Darlene Dennard, who lives a block and a half from Obama's house. "He doesn't come that often, so when he does, it's like having a big celebrity in the neighborhood and everyone wants to get a peek."
There is little that can be construed as good natured in The Times piece on Romney. The one positive quote about the Romneys, if you can call it that, came from Susan Coll, who lives three houses away. “Personally, I’m glad its people who have a bit of money and taste living there,” she said
But the real giveaway to the partisan slant of the article came in a quote from Karen Webber, who complained about the heightened security measures in the neighborhood.
“If this were Obama,” she said, standing near bight orange carriers restricting access to Dunsmere, “I’d probably be fine with it.”
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.