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Romney says state government should be more like al Queda

FRIDAY, JANUARY 3, 2003 -- There is a double standard between how comments that disparage, belittle, or misuse the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are treated. When the commentator is on the left – as was former ABC talk show host Bill Maher who stupidly called the 9/11 terrorists brave – he or she is scorned, ridiculed, even threatened. (Following Maher’s comment, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned Americans to "watch what they say, watch what they do." Maher eventually, roughly a year later, lost his show Politically Incorrect.") When the speaker is on the right, however, it is a different story.

Case in point: Governor Mitt Romney. During his inaugural speech yesterday, Romney generally shied away from oratorical flourishes -- except for one. He came up with a rhetorical construct of discussing so-called "inflection points" that "mark a change in more than one dimension of human history." For exhibit A, Romney selected the September 11 attacks and said the following: "Massive battle groups and warheads capable of destroying the entire planet were frustrated by a handful of murderous fanatics with box cutters. The large, slow, impregnable force gave way to the nimble, stealthy, and inventive." Then Romney went on to discuss how big unwieldy corporations were giving way to smaller more "nimble" competitors and how the same lesson applied in the public sector. "Slow, bureaucratic and disconnected are becoming untenable."

Read for yourself exactly what he said: "Surely, historians will look back to September 11, 2001 as a pivotal inflection point. Like us, they will be moved by the human tragedy of that day and by the redefinition of heroism. They may also see September 11th as a symbol marking the emergence of a fundamental change in human endeavors. Perhaps the most obvious of these changes is the reassessment of military strategy. Massive battle groups and warheads capable of destroying the entire planet were frustrated by a handful of murderous fanatics with box cutters. The large, slow, impregnable force gave way to the nimble, stealthy and inventive.

"This realignment toward the nimble and inventive is also being experienced in other dimensions of our lives. In commerce, the seemingly impregnable corporate behemoths are increasingly outmaneuvered by nimble, fast moving upstarts. As United Airlines files for bankruptcy, Southwest and Jet Blue thrive. One sees the same dynamics in industries like software, pharmaceuticals, publishing, broadcasting, retailing, steel and textiles. To survive, the largest corporations adopt the qualities that characterize their most nimble and inventive attackers. It’s not terminal to be large. It is only terminal to be slow, unresponsive, arrogant, isolated, bureaucratic, or unwilling to change.

"These same dynamics also confront what we do in the public sector. Slow, bureaucratic, and disconnected are becoming untenable."

Understand what is happening here. While Romney wisely and rightly labeled the terrorists "murderous fanatics," the whole tone of what he was saying was completely off. It seemed as if the new governor was saying state government needed to be more like the Al Qaeda – "nimble, stealthy and inventive."

As a public speaker, Romney is a neophyte. While he is confident and an effective communicator, he doesn’t seem to have a good ear. So perhaps it was just clumsy rhetoric. Maybe Romney should have said this: "Just as the United States needs to rely on the stealthy and nimble Special Forces -- capable of blending in with Afghan tribesman and fighting on horseback -- state government needs to be more agile." But the point is he didn’t. None of his advisors flagged it. And if Romney did want a specific 9/11 example to make his point, he had one. He could have talked about the bloated Massport bureaucracy which failed to prevent two planes from being hijacked at Logan Airport and crashed into the World Trade Center. But again he didn’t. Romney started off his term with a major blunder.

Keep in mind also that this is not the first time Romney has misappropriated September 11. When Romney appeared with President George Bush last October, he invoked the last known words of Todd Beamer, one of the leaders on United Flight 93, who is believed to have taken part in the passenger uprising against the hijackers: "Let’s roll!" to call for lower taxes. Specifically, what he said was: "Let’s roll! We have to make sure we have that battle cry today as well because there are some people who would get the bus going back to Taxachusetts." Back then no one else saw anything objectionable in Romney’s words. But now, politicians attending Romney’s inauguration in the State House were simply queasy about criticizing him. Senator John Kerry, who criticized Mississippi Senator Trent Lott for comments praising Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential run in 1948, said he didn’t see anything wrong with Romney’s remarks. He called the speech "a common sense, low key response to a practical problem." Congressman Michael Capuano of Somerville called Romney’s 9/11 analogy "a little strained" but added that the speech overall was a "new beginning."

Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom called any suggestion that Romney was invoking the September 11 terrorists to show that state government needed to be more nimble "ridiculous." Interestingly, The Boston Globe failed to include the analogy in its online excerpts of Romney’s speech. Brian Mooney did call it "strained" in his news analysis. Thank goodness for op-ed columnist Scot Lehigh who wrote : "Egad! Isn't Sept. 11 better used as a metaphor for the new realities of a dangerous world and for the perils we face from fanaticism?"

But generally there has been silence. Some of that, as Capuano suggested, is because even awkward comments have to be put into the context of Romney’s overall message of addressing the state’s budget crisis. Romney found more solid ground here – although he still didn’t come clean about the full cuts he’s going to have to make. Perhaps he hopes that House Speaker Tom Finneran can fill the role as public bad guy. There’s probably also less sensitivity to the language around September 11 now because the attacks took place 16 months ago. There’s no question that there was more emotion around the attacks in the immediate aftermath than now.

The main reason for the double-standard, why Maher gets smacked and Romney is ignored, is that the people most likely to voice anger about such comments are on the right. Conservatives were the first to denounce those commentators who made lame comments in apologizing for the September 11 attacks. And when similar comments come from their own camp, they’re not as quick to speak out. That’s a fact of life. It’s worth imagining what would have happened had O’Brien made similar comments during the campaign. We already know how he reacted when she called big, slow corporations "dinosaurs" -- (which is what he just did during his inaugural address) -- he criticized her for it and his campaign sent an operative dressed up as a dinosaur to all of her campaign events.

In the weeks ahead, Romney’s strength will be how he governs -- not what he says. But it’s a shame that our new governor doesn’t display a better understanding of the meaning of September 11.

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Issue Date: January 3, 2003
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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