Being a dour man with a taste for hyperbole, H.L. Mencken exaggerated for bleak effect when he wrote that "the saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success disgraceful." There are sadder lives. And not every candidate must suffer ignominy or disgrace.
But then there's Mitt Romney. Mencken's famous dictum applies with such eerie precision to the man it's almost as if Mencken wrote it to be chiselled on Romney's tombstone.
Set aside present politics for the moment and try to imagine you had read a profile of Romney years before he began his long march to the Republican candidacy. Do you respect and admire him?
Almost certainly. I don't think anyone can seriously doubt that Mitt Romney is intelligent and diligent. Yes, he was born into wealth and privilege, but it is also true that he worked ferociously hard, and took considerable risks, to become as rich as he is.
Nor can anyone belittle his managerial competence. He really did turn the Salt Lake Olympics around. And in Massachusetts, Romney was a pragmatic, careful, astute governor who got results while maintaining ethical standards.
In his personal life, Romney is such a Ned Flanders that revelations of hypocrisy - a nasty coffee habit, say, or the occasional flirtatious wink at a secretary - would be, even in this jaded age, genuinely shocking. And his uprightness ex-tends beyond self-denial.
As the novelist Walter Kirn described in a moving essay in the New Republic - "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon" - Romney's Mormon church is much more than the expositor of dubious metaphysical beliefs. It is a deeply supportive community, imbued with a culture of cheerful communalism in which helping out is just something folks do. In his personal life, that's how Romney has lived. The man is the perfect neighbour. I'd be thrilled if he moved in next door. Anyone would be.
Yes, one can object, quite reasonably, that some of Romney's work with Bain Capital, and his clever handling of assets to minimize tax liabilities, was ethically dubious, if not downright sleazy. But Romney was only working within a paradigm he learned at Harvard's business school, and the highest circles of American capitalism, and with-in that framework his business behaviour was as straight and honest as his personal behaviour. Others made the rules. Romney followed them. He always does.
But now let's get back to politics. In that field, Mitt Romney, straight arrow, pillar of rectitude, has been as slippery and flexible as an eel. He has campaigned as a moderate, a pragmatist, even a liberal. He has campaigned as conservative one long shot of Ted Nu-gent's bow to the right of Ronald Reagan. He has been pro-choice, pro-life, pro-whatever the hell the polls say he needs to be to win. His greatest accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts was the implementation of a policy that ensured health care for everyone in the state yet he is now campaigning to win the White House by fiercely attacking ObamaCare, which is essentially the same policy implemented by Barack Obama at the federal level.
And that may be the least dishonest aspect of the Romney campaign.
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," Barack Obama said in a campaign speech a while back. "You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods on roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." So far, so indisputably true.
But then Obama added that any successful person had help along the line. "There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Some-body helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Some-body invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business - you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
It is painfully obvious that the "that" Obama was referring to was "roads and bridges." It is equally obvious that Obama said absolutely nothing that Mitt Romney doesn't agree with. Not only did journalists dig up old video of Romney making much the same point, but what Obama said is almost a summary of the Mormon communal ethic. One of the church's oldest symbols is a beehive. The idea of the completely independent, strictly self-made man is utterly alien to Romney's faith.
But still, this was an opportunity. After carefully editing out the con-text that reveals Obama's real meaning, the Romney campaign turned Obama saying "if you've got a business - you didn't build that" into the centrepiece of the war to make Mitt Romney president. It was even the theme of the Republican convention, with speaker after speaker using it to charge up the audience. Even Ann Romney did it. "He did build that!" she said about her husband's success. The crowd roared.
It's a lie. It's a blatant lie. And it's inconceivable that Romney doesn't know it.
And that's typical of his whole campaign. There have been sever-al, astonishingly mendacious attacks like the "you didn't build that" line. Each time, independent observers hammered the campaign. And each time, Romney officials shrugged. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," said a Romney pollster. Wednesday night, when Romney's running-mate Paul Ryan delivered his convention speech, observers didn't know whether to be more impressed by Ryan's smooth style or the possibly unprecedented number of indisputable falsehoods Ryan uttered.
The Romney campaign has entered a post-modern world where there is no "truth," only powers contesting to have their claims accepted as true by the gullible who still believe two plus two always and only equals four.
The nadir - or what one hopes was the nadir - was reached at a campaign stop in Michigan. "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," Romney declared, standing beside his wife. "They know that this is the place that we were born and raised." Romney later claimed that this despicable nod to "birthers" - the frighteningly large number of crackpots who still insist, despite abundant evidence, that Obama wasn't born in the United States - was simply a little joke that wasn't intended to suggest anything at all. But it was clearly a scripted line. And no one who knows anything about American politics could have failed to spot the subtext.
Of course worse sins have been committed in electoral politics. And no politician wins office with perfectly clean hands, as Mencken noted.
No, what's truly remarkable about Mitt Romney's scurrilous campaign, and his political career, is how unlike Mitt Romney they are. Has there ever been such a good man who behaved so badly to win office?
But this decent, diligent, intelligent man must believe he is only doing what is required to succeed in politics. He didn't create the rules. He is only following them, as he does in every aspect of his life.
He may be right. In any event, on Nov. 6, ignominy or disgrace await.