This weekend I saw something amazing -- a speech by Mitt Romney in which he was relaxed and natural, making jokes that weren't painfully awkward. After the speech, he took questions for 20 minutes, and answered them all thoughtfully and thoroughly.
Who was this man, I wondered. Certainly not the same Mitt Romney I've seen in the last two years or so. Had I entered a different dimension? Actually, I had: the fourth dimension -- because the speech was recorded in 2000. Romney was addressing the National Press Club about the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that he had recently become the head of.
Yes, such was my Olympic fever over the weekend that I was watching 12-year-old speeches about the preparations for the 2002 games. Or maybe it was boredom. But I have to say, I found the difference between the Romney of 2000 and the Romney of 2012 astounding.
He talked about how the Olympics aren't about just branding and money, but character. He talked about how he loves the Olympics because they're an antidote to the world his kids see:
"In virtually every medium they touch, whether it's an Internet game, or it's TV, they see that luck is celebrated above preparation, they see that ease rises above hard work, that gratification excels over sacrifice, that violence is more interesting than charity, that winning comes above the rules, or respect, or sportsmanship and of course that money comes above everything."
So what happened to that guy? How did he come to be replaced with the tightly wound, dissembling, robo-candidate with a fake smile plastered on his face that we see today?
It made me wonder: Why is running for president so often diminishing? What is it about the process that turns thoughtfulness and confidence into desperation, insincerity and cynicism? Why is it assumed that the only route to the highest office is the lowest road possible?
We have 25 million people unemployed or underemployed. We're on the edge of falling back into recession and none of the problems that led to this seemingly endless financial crisis have been solved -- or even really addressed. And yet our presidential campaign has devolved into a never-ending contest to see which side can catch other side in the worst "gaffe."
Yes, highlighting the opposing side's gaffes has always been a part of political campaigns, but now it seems to be all it's about. The election has become little more than spokespeople or surrogates making charges and countercharges, and then the other side demanding apologies, followed by more charges and countercharges and ads and response ads. It's like the stalemated front-line trenches of World War I. Each campaign is dug in, the lines aren't moving, and each day the two sides just lob gaffe grenades back and forth at each other.
Of course, sometimes the meaningless gaffes don't happen often enough. That's when the campaigns just make them up. Back in January, according to the media, the biggest story in the world was that Romney had said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." Except it was obvious that what he meant was that he wants companies -- like the insurance companies he was talking about -- to have to compete for his business by providing good service.
The Romney campaign is no slouch at this ersatz gaffe generation, either. In June, they seized on the fact that Obama -- can you believe it! -- thinks the economy is "doing fine." Except it was obvious that what he meant was that the private sector was doing better relative to the public sector and that public sector cuts have dragged the entire economy down.
Which brings us to last weekend, when Romney caused the near-severing of all U.S./U.K. ties when he wondered out loud if London was ready for the Olympics. Sure, it could have been worded more artfully, but, really, did anybody watching the interview as it aired have their jaw hit the floor when Romney said that? It's one of those gaffes, as most are these days, in which you don't know it's a gaffe until you're told it's a Major Gaffe by the media or the attacks ads that dress it up as one.
What might actually move the needle is for one of the campaigns to try reconnecting the disconnected electorate to the race. What if one of the candidates tried appealing to our better angels instead of our worst instincts? Since the idea is to connect with human beings, what if the candidates just decided to take the risk of talking like human beings? Yes, there might be some instances in which an out-of-context statement would be cut into an ad, but, as we've seen, those kinds of things don't seem to work very much.
There's plenty to be outraged about when it comes to the real problems we're facing. The race for the most meaningful office shouldn't have to be so demeaning -- for the candidates or for us.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2012 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.