A Tale of Three Profiles

In the last few days, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have done long articles profiling Mitt Romney. What do they teach us? Well, let me give you what ink-stained wretches call the "nut graf" from each piece. Here's the Times:

This time, he has shed much of the operational and psychological baggage that weighed down, and ultimately doomed, his maiden campaign. Gone are the extensive debate rehearsals, the bickering consultants, the corporate dress code and the urge to explain everything. That may explain why, for all his ups and downs, Mr. Romney’s public presentation and debate appearances have been far more consistent this time.

And here's the Post:

Ever since he stepped onto the national stage, Romney has been criticized as being unable to connect with voters — partly because of past positions out of step with many in his party and partly because of what some say is a wooden, detached personality. Although he has sharpened his campaign operation and mostly aced a series of debates this year, Romney’s trip to Iowa on Thursday and recent swings through New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida reveal a candidate still struggling to make that connection.

So Mitt Romney has loosened up and is performing better, and Mitt Romney still has trouble connecting with the carbon-based life forms he encounters on the campaign trail. Both are true, but if you've been paying any attention to the campaign, you're unlikely to learn much of anything important about Romney from either article. Longtime readers may be tired of me pointing this out, but one of the most critical factors determining the shape of campaign coverage is reporters' early judgments about who each candidate is. Once those judgments are made -- Romney is a wooden flip-flopper, Perry is a provincial yahoo with a mean streak, Bachmann is an ignorant extremist -- they influence subsequent decisions, many unconscious and unspoken, about what is important and what will be emphasized. Sometimes those judgments are misplaced, but even if they're fundamentally accurate, they can still distort coverage and oversimplify both the race and the individuals involved in it. Now let's look at a different piece, in New York magazine. This profile, by the terrific Benjamin Wallace-Wells, is about how Romney was shaped by his time in business, and what kinds of implications that might have for the sort of president he'd be. Here's the nut graf:

The political genuflection to businessmen is so gauzy and generic that praise for a candidate’s private-sector acumen can often sound phony. But Mitt Romney is the real thing. He was, by any measure, an astonishingly successful businessman, one who spent his career explaining how business might operate better, and who leveraged his own mind into a personal fortune worth as much as $250 million. But much more significantly, Romney was also a business revolutionary. Our economy went through a remarkable shift during the eighties as Wall Street reclaimed control of American business and sought to remake it in its own image. Romney developed one of the tools that made this possible, pioneering the use of takeovers to change the way a business functioned, remaking it in the name of efficiency. “Whatever you think of his politics, you have to give him credit,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago. “He came up with a model that was very successful and very innovative and that now everybody uses.”

Wallace-Wells' article is the best thing I've read about Romney during this election season. It takes something everyone knows -- Romney is a business guy -- and digs deeper into it to offer some important insights about the candidate's history, personality, and formative experiences. It won't necessarily make you like or dislike Romney more than you already did, but unlike almost anything else you'll read about him, it will make you understand him better. Wallace-Wells was given the time to do the necessary reporting and the space to explain what he found, which newspaper reporters seldom have. But it isn't impossible for the journalists following the campaign around to produce reporting that offers actual insight. It may not be easy, but it's not impossible.