Stephanie Grace: Reducing candidates to cartoon characters

I’m trying to understand how the instantly infamous riff over Mitt Romney’s family photo on MSNBC host and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s show spiraled so far out of control, why the host and her panelists took one look at the former GOP presidential nominee’s newly adopted African-American grandson, perched on his smiling grandpa’s lap, and couldn’t help but mock the image.

The best answer I can come up with was this: To the people involved, Romney was basically a cartoon character. So when they saw the family picture, what resonated wasn’t the former candidate’s love of family or obvious acceptance of the child he held. What they saw was his politics, and his party’s.

That has to be why, after the image of the large Romney clan flashed across the screen, actress Pia Glenn launched into a rendition of, “One of these things is not like the other.” Harris-Perry herself gleefully and jokingly predicted a future wedding of Kieran Romney and North West, daughter of the rapper Kanye West and reality television star Kim Kardashian.

To be sure, their image of Romney didn’t come out of nowhere.

As a candidate, Romney often did behave more like stereotypical, entitled oligarch than a real human being — never more than when he issued his chillingly insensitive broadside against the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes (although they do pay payroll and other taxes), essentially declaring nearly half of all Americans deadbeats who were content to live on the government dole. In wholeheartedly renouncing many of the moderate positions he’d embraced as governor of Massachusetts, he oozed inauthenticity and opportunism. According to an oft-repeated anecdote, he even once strapped the family dog’s crate to the roof of a car and drove to Canada.

As a party, the GOP has consistently failed to connect with minority voters, and its efforts often come off as tone-deaf — particularly when, just to grab a recent example from the headlines, a certain Republican governor with national ambitions sees no reason not to leap to the defense of a reality TV star who announces that the Jim Crow era didn’t seem too bad to him.

All that was, and remains, fair game.

This, though, was political commentary run amok, something that seems to be happening more and more in this era in which politics turns candidates into caricatures and media outlets — on both the left and the right — often turn into echo chambers. When these two trends come together, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that even the most ridiculous political figures have good qualities and that their families are not just props in the never-ending show.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that most of those involved now seem to understand that. Unlike the aforementioned “Duck Dynasty” scandal, which saw politicians such as Gov. Bobby Jindal loudly proclaiming reality TV star Phil Robertson’s right to make homophobic and racially insensitive remarks, no major political figures are defending these comments.

After a barrage of criticism from Republicans, Harris-Perry herself not only quickly and unconditionally apologized, but promised to learn from the incident.

“On this program, we are dedicated to advocating for a wide diversity of families,” she said, a bit tearfully, on her weekend program. “My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits and for that I am sorry. Also, allow me to apologize to other families formed through transracial adoption because I am deeply sorry that we suggested that interracial families are in any way funny or deserving of ridicule.

“We’re genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers,” she added. Glenn too apologized on Twitter for causing offense.

And to his credit, Romney stubbornly resisted Fox News’ Chris Wallace’s effort to bait him into venting his outrage. Instead, the former candidate graciously accepted the apology, which he said he found “heartfelt.”

“I recognize that people make mistakes,” he said, “and the folks at MSNBC made a big mistake. They’ve apologized for it. That’s all you can ask for. I am going to move on from that.”

It was a classy end to a what started out as yet another sorry interlude in American politics. An even happier result would be if those who fill all those hours of airtime decide to do a little soul-searching before they speak, not afterward.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.