Part 4—Our very own ditto-heads: First question:
In the summer of 83, did Mitt Romney’s dog lose control of his bowels because he was uncomfortable—perhaps extremely uncomfortable—up on the roof of Mitt Romney’s car?
It’s certainly possible! Neil Swidey’s writing helps show this.
Back in 2007, Swidey played the story that way when he “broke” the tale of the dog on the roof of the car. Swidey presented the tale as a very short prelude to a very long biographical profile in the Boston Globe—a profile which focused on Romney’s reverence for his wife, Ann Romney.
Having some fun, Swidey suggested that Seamus pooped because of the winds he'd endured:
SWIDEY (6/27/07): Before beginning the drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family's hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon's roof rack. He'd built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.According to Swidey’s novelization, the poop was “payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding...in the wind for hours.” Seamus had turned the waterworks loose as payback against his cruel master!
Then Romney put his boys on notice: He would be making predetermined stops for gas, and that was it.
The ride was largely what you'd expect with five brothers, ages 13 and under, packed into a wagon they called the "white whale.”
As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. "Dad!" he yelled. "Gross!" A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.
Three paragraphs earlier, Swidey had said there was some sort of windshield in place. By now, he’d forgotten all that.
So it goes when major journalists set about handing us novels.
Second question: is it possible that Mitt Romney’s dog enjoyed his ride on the roof of the car? Is it possible that he would have gotten sick if he’d been inside the car?
It’s certainly possible! Neil Swidey’s writing helps us see this too.
In January of this year, Swidey wrote an essay in the Globe in which he looked back at this now-famous story. On this occasion, Swidey seemed to imagine a different novelized tale:
SWIDEY (1/8/12): Some commentators have complained that I failed to show sufficient animal-rights indignation when I ushered in the Seamus story. Although I wrote that the diarrhea was “payback from an Irish setter who’d been riding on the roof in the wind for hours,” I had deliberately tried to play the anecdote straight so readers could draw their own conclusions...In this rendition, Swidey says he’ll “take the Romneys at their word that Seamus loved his alfresco rides.” Most amusingly, he tells us he was “playing it straight” back in 2007, when he said that Seamus’ gastric distress was “payback” for his ride “in the wind.”
To me, Romney’s critics have focused on the wrong part of the anecdote. It’s not that Romney put his dog on the roof...I’ll take the Romneys at their word that Seamus loved his alfresco rides. Hell, my dog loves doing all kinds of things I don’t, chief among them luxuriating in the stink of other dogs’ duffs. What is beyond debate, though, is that this far into this particular trip, Seamus had ceased enjoying his ride. Faced with such irrefutable evidence, most people, I suspect, would have relented and let the ailing dog cram into the back of the wagon, even if logic dictated that cleaning up a repeat episode of his gastric distress would be a whole lot messier than if he were returned to the roof.
Was Seamus uncomfortable up in his kennel? In the famous words of Lyndon Johnson, Swidey can teach it flat or he can teach it round. So can you, if you want to be human.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that Seamus loved his rides on the roof, as Mitt and Ann Romney have both said. It’s also possible that Seamus was locked in a canine hellhole.
Sane people will grasp a basic fact—there’s no real way to judge this matter. In response to this conundrum, Swidey has judged it both ways!
But sanity rarely rules in our partisan public debates. Partisan passions make fools of us all; we quickly forget what little we knew about the limits of our own knowledge. We rush to believe the worst about Them. In part, that’s because we’re convinced of the wit and the brilliance of Us.
This is especially true if folk like Gail Collins are slithering all around.
Collins has cited this unknowable matter in roughly forty columns at the New York Times. Last Thursday, she devoted her entire column to the poop on the back of the car. And to make this unknowable tale tilt her way, she treated her readers like fools—like the fools they were eager to be.
She told them a rumor; they took it as fact. She feigned confusion about a remark; reams of readers left dim-witted comments in which they voiced real confusion.
She withheld several basic facts. She even seemed to invent a claim about Romney’s rude conduct toward his wife—a claim which seems to be contradicted by everything Swidey wrote in his original, ground-breaking report. And sure enough! Showing the ugly instincts which lurk in the hearts of us partisan fools, many readers screeched and yelled, explaining what this story means about Romney—and about Romney’s vile wife.
Like the ditto-heads who praise Rush Limbaugh, Collins’ readers didn’t seem to suspect that they were being played by their leader. That they were being toyed with—misled. Treated like low-grade fools.
A certain number of readers complained about the absurdity of Collins’ conduct; we’ll look at some of their comments tomorrow. But most of her commenters cheered Collins on, as they accepted the disinformation she had spread.
For years, we liberals have rolled our eyes at the gullibility of Limbaugh’s “ditto-heads.” Now, at long last, thabnks to comment threads, we liberals get to examine the work of our own highly gullible mates.
How dumb are Lady Collins’ readers? Let us count the ways! As she neared the end of her column, Collins passed on “a rumor.” Just like that, it was taken as fact. This was just her third commenter:
COMMENTER: Dogs and cats often run away from families where they feel unloved or neglected, or where there is an excessive amount of tensions. It is not surprising to me that Mitt's dog sought this option when it could.Just like that, rumor had turned into fact! But then, as everyone knows, this is why journalists aren’t supposed to pimp rumors around in the first place.
Collins and her editors know about that. But they no longer care.
How gullible are Collins’ readers? Even in her full-length column, Collins forgot to mention the “windshield” Romney built “for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.” Instead, she pretended to be confused by Romney’s subsequent remark that the container was “airtight.”
“Wait a minute...how did Seamus breathe?” Collins brilliantly wondered. Readers quickly took the bait, asking endless questions about this deeply puzzling topic. Deprived of reference to that windshield, others described the very high winds poor Seamus was forced to endure. Two examples, of many:
COMMENTER: I actually was willing to consider that the dog might have been OK with it—after all, some thrill-seeking humans jump off of cliffs in wingsuits—until I read the part about being hosed down. Now we've got a soaking wet dog in a 55-mile an hour wind (let's just assume the car stuck to the speed limit).Unbearably, one commenter after another noted a gap in Romney’s remark which had escaped even Collins: If the doggy container was “airtight,” how did the doggy poop drip down the car? Some sleuths took the reasoning further. With unfailing logic, they noted the fact that a dog would suffocate in such a hold:
COMMENTER: There is a huge difference between being in a car with the option of sticking your face out of the window, and being on top of the car with your entire body exposed to 65 mph wind with no break, hour after hour.
COMMENTER: If, as Romney told Chris Wallace, "This is a completely air-tight kennel, mounted on the top of our car. He climbed up there regularly, enjoyed himself” was indeed factual, then how did Romney find out the condition of the dog's distress? It could not have been airtight if Romney had to hose the car down. And a good thing, otherwise the dog would have suffocated from the lack of oxygen and the noxious fumes of his own poop. And it appears that his statement to Wallace had another fallacy; could Seamus really climb up onto the top of the station wagon and, "regularly" at that, open the "air tight" kennel and enjoy himself?Just for the record, Romney didn’t tell Wallace that Seamus could open the airtight kennel. But when we get whipped into partisan fury, our imaginations may allow us to open many new doors.
Just for the record: Was Seamus bothered by wind at all in the course of his ride? It’s possible, as Swidey’s first novel showed. But there’s really no way to know such a thing, unless you’re eager to get played by a rumor-monger like Collins.
In her most intriguing piece of novelization, Collins seemed to invent the idea that Romney wouldn’t let his wife and kids out of the car while he hosed Seamus. It’s always possible that this is true—but it strikes us as highly unlikely, based on Swidey’s original work, which made no mention of any such conduct and plainly implied just the opposite. But readers hungrily fell on this claim, seeing the darkness of Mitt Romney’s soul.
As often happens in these instances, the psychiatrists were IN. Two examples, of many:
COMMENTER: I am sincerely appreciative that I now know that in a twelve hour car drive, he pre-planned restroom breaks for five children. This particular fact is more revealing than the dog fact. He made those five kids and the wife stay in the car when he made an unscheduled stop to hose off the dog poop?! Can anyone spell obsessive compulsive? Or narcissist? Or, maybe, entitled male? This sounds like a guy capable of saying "I am not concerned about the very poor.”The forcing of his family (which almost surely didn't occur) allowed this doctor to reach his or her diagnosis.
COMMENTER: The description of the incident with Mittens' planning of the stops and then forcing his family to remain in the car while he rinses Seamus' loose excretion down over them, underscores for me the guy's internal concrete makeup. He has no ability to observe himself, much less empathize with others...I wonder to what extent this comes from his religious background where no one is allowed to question the men of authority even when their reasoning is weak or non-sensible.
Other readers were troubled by the fact that Romney had, in Collins’ words, “designated all the acceptable rest stops before beginning the trip.” Collins forgot to tell readers what Swidey reported—that Romney would quickly pull off the highway if his wife wanted to widdle. Denied that knowledge, readers unloaded on Romney’s behavior. Some of them added their own bogus facts, thereby improving the tale:
COMMENTER: As Mr. Romney points out, this was not a one-time thing; Seamus rode on top, and bathroom stops were made on a strict schedule. When this story originally appeared in the Boston Globe, there were statements by the sons regarding the bathroom stops, indicating that there were no unscheduled stops, even for their mother, who was pregnant at the time. Mr. Romney makes my skin crawl.For the record, Ann Romney wasn’t pregnant at the time of this mystery ride. Meanwhile, had Romney “told his wife he wouldn't stop for her to change their toddler's diaper?” This was very bad behavior—and it sprang full-blown from this reader’s head.
COMMENTER: I completely agree that the way we treat our animals says a great deal about the essence of a person. Animals put up with a lot from us and give us unconditional love. How would Mitt like to travel across the Canadian border in an airtight crate? And poor Ann couldn't even pee. I had to pee every 5 minutes when I was pregnant. The man's heart is 4 sizes too small (if I remember the Dr. Seuss book correctly).
COMMENTER: What astonishes me about the Romney journey is the fixed schedule of bathroom breaks with 5 boys ages 2 to 13. Fine (maybe) to tell the 12 and 13 year olds they had to "hold it”—but to tell his wife he wouldn't stop for her to change their toddler's diaper? I can't believe that when Romney stopped to hose off Seamus and the car and kennel (and throw away anything absorbent he'd put in that kennel), Ann and the boys didn't just get out of the car and use the gas station's bathrooms or at least stretch their legs. As the owner of long-haired dogs, I can assure you it took more than a couple of minutes to get everything cleaned up.
Regarding Ann Romney herself, hate-spewing readers could quickly see right through her saintly conduct:
COMMENTER: And where was Ann while Emperor Mittster was packing the family pet on the luggage rack, and her boys were about to blow a bladder in the very crowded backseat? Sitting mutely, gazing adoringly, going along, because good wives never question their husbands’ decisions...Personally, I am not up for Ann's role of mute admirer any more than Seamus' penthouse views or the bulging bladders of the back seat.The haters and the psychiatrists are found all through these comments, along with the inventers of facts. The busy-bodies were out in force too. They imagined all the different ways the trip could have been performed.
COMMENTER: It must have been traumatic to have been one of Mitt's human passengers in the car, knowing the poor dog was up on the roof. Mitt was lacking compassion for Seamus, to be sure. But that episode would have really troubled me as a young boy. Amazing that Mrs. Romney allowed it with a car full of her own kids.
COMMENTER: And Ann Romney is innocent in all this, why? She could have spoken up.
REPLY TO COMMENT: I would guess that Ann Romney could not have spoken up because she was the kind of woman who would marry such a martinet as Mitt, and such wimpy types never speak up.
REPLY TO COMMENT: Ann Romney kept her mouth shut. That's how she got the pair of Cadillacs.
No one is quite as good at raising kids as Lady Collins’ readers:
COMMENTER: It is amazing to me that Romney would make five kids take a 12-hour car trip. They could easily have broken the trip up and stayed overnight once (surely they could afford it). When our kids were young we took some pretty long car trips, but never subjected them to 12 hours in the car. We sometimes stopped en route in parks or natural areas so they could run around for a while. We usually stopped for the night in the late afternoon; they thought it was great fun to swim in the motel pool, play with the ice machine, shop in local stores and see local sights in the small towns where we usually stayed. We did not have anywhere near the money that Romney has, but we did know how to have fun.One busy-body took the cake. She wanted Collins to stick her long nose right into Mitt Romney’s last supper!
I have to wonder about the logistics of hosing off the poor dog and his crate—just with water, no soap? Was the water flying around everywhere, as it usually does with a hose (carrying many germs along with it)? Did he put the dog back into a wet crate, with the dog himself wet as well? No wonder Seamus ran away.
COMMENTER: If Mitt's been rich his whole life, and we all know he has, why did he drive seven folks and one dog in a station wagon? He had the money to drive anything, and I would think one of those big vans that seats like ten would have been a much better transporter of his whole family. He didn't care about his dog and he seems like he was too cheap to make the right choice in what to drive in terms of what would fit his family best.
REPLY TO COMMENT: This is I wonder about, too. For that matter, they could have flown!
Inquiring minds demands knowledge:
COMMENT: By the way— Although it's off-topic, I'm wondering about Mitt's home-cooked Chicken Marsala dinner last night. Mormons don't drink alcohol. Can it be that wine, particularly Marsala wine, is allowed? No, the alcohol doesn't cook out completely. Are you on the case, Gail?We’re assuming that comment wasn’t tongue in cheek, although some of Collins’ frustrated (and angry) readers seemed to adopt that pose.
Readers posted 691 comments to Collins’ column. Routinely, these comments displayed a familiar old instinct for tribal hatred, aimed at Candidate Romney and his she-bitch wife. A wide range of psychiatric maladies were diagnosed—and readers could spot the obvious failure of Romney’s general family life:
COMMENTER: Also telling, I think, is the fact that no one in the car, including 12 and 13 year old sons and wife Ann, protested about plans for the dog's accommodations, or, if they did, they were overruled by dad. Somehow I can't see that happening in my or most families with a less autocratic patriarch.At our best, we humans are dumb. These humans come from our tribe, though they're not unlike Rush's ditto-heads.
COMMENTER: What I want to know is why all the rest of the family was ineffective is stopping Mitt from doing this in the first place. Was it that Mitt is not to be questioned with punishment stiff enough to remove him from question? Is is that Mitt's family knows where its bread is buttered and each decide on their own to go along to get along? For instance is it visions of trust funds floating in their heads that got them to get in the car? Or did they just agree with Mitt, just as uncomprehending of what they were doing? Is it that life with Mitt replicates an equally severe lack of judgment and empathic ability?
COMMENT: While the Seamus role is the one that gets the attention, how weird and joyless is it to set out on a trip with your beloved family with all the bathroom breaks planned in advance? Not much space for exploration or spontaneity in the Romney family life.
More than anything, these comments display the gullibility of Collins’ readers. But their comments also reflect the bad character of Collins herself, who played them for fools as he picked-and-chose the facts they could hear about this incident.
What should we say about Collins’ character? She threw the rubes a rumor, knowing they would repeat it. She didn’t mention the windshield Romney fashioned—and she pretended to be confused by Romney’s “airtight” comment. She seemed to invent an unflattering fact: Romney wouldn’t let his family out of the car while he attended to Seamus!
We rubes reacted as planned, just as we have always done down through the annals of time. In Ryan’s Daughter, the haters came round. So too after Collins’ column.
As we learned a few years later, Walter Cronkite was a liberal. David Brinkley seemed to be a bit of a conservative. But neither man was a fool or a nut. They almost surely would have agreed on the way to handle this topic.
Back in the day, before Imus and Limbaugh, you wouldn’t have heard a single word about this 29-year-old car trip. No one would have urged you to puzzle it out. You would have been forced to hear about Romney’s proposals, about his verifiable public conduct.
If you wanted to assess his character, you would have been forced to work from that—not from highly novelized tales about a ride in a car.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Collins’ explanations for her obsession with this topic. We’ll also tell you why Walter and David wouldn’t have played you this way.
Tomorrow: It’s something Collins enjoys