Romney’s statement too clever by half

Published 11:55 am Friday, September 21, 2012

You’d think, after nearly a lifetime in politics, which began as a little girl starting petitions, I would have figured out how to respond to a tragedy. You’d think I’d at least have an intellectual handle on senseless deaths and unprovoked attacks.

But I don’t. I guess I keep seeing the humanity in people, so while my heart reaches out, my mind has to take a step back. That’s how I felt for the 24 hours after I first learned of the deaths at our consulate in Libya. That’s how I feel now as I write this.

The known facts are easy to recount:

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On Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of 9/11, probably not by coincidence, two U.S. diplomatic outposts were attacked — the first in Egypt, then hours later the one in Libya. In Egypt, a mob, apparently stirred by a rather vile film insulting to Muslims, gathered to attack the U.S. Embassy. American diplomats tried to calm the tension with an on-the-spot release essentially reaffirming the basis for the First Amendment. After all, one can’t have freedom of religion without freedom — and respect — for religion.

The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was not a riot, but a deliberately planned attack. Sometime in the evening on Tuesday, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a man who had worked tirelessly to help the Libyan people transition to democracy, was killed. Three members of his staff were also killed, including Sean Smith, a foreign service information management officer. He had a “virtual life” as a respected and hugely influential figure in the world of online gaming.

It took Libyan and American forces until almost 2 a.m. Wednesday to regain control of the compound. Stevens’ body was not identified until near dawn.

Word came Thursday that four men had been arrested for helping to instigate the attack on the consulate that claimed Stevens’ life. Hopefully, this will help shed light on those behind the assault.

About 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Secretary of State Clinton issued a statement acknowledging the death of a U.S. diplomatic worker in Libya. There were still a lot of unknowns, still fighting at the consulate. And even though things had calmed down in Egypt, the painstaking, time-consuming work of data gathering and fact checking was still underway.

And this is where, frankly, I wish I could say I just don’t get it. But I do.

Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal said, “When something violent is happening to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go.”

She was responding to a question about Mitt Romney’s statement Tuesday night. While the fight in the compound was still going on, and information was sketchy, Romney emailed to reporters a statement that contained this sentence: “The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” At 10:30 p.m., Romney’s campaign lifted the “no politics on 9/11” restriction and released the statement publicly.

The statement was condemned by almost everyone in the media — conservative and liberal alike (with the predictable exceptions of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh). Many Republicans not only distanced themselves from the statement, but also publicly rebuked Romney.

He got his timing wrong, he got his sentiments wrong and he got his facts wrong.

On Wednesday morning, Romney defended his before-the-facts-were-known statement: “I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions.”

He got that wrong, too.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton, about an hour after Romney spoke, paid tribute to the slain Americans and to the members of the diplomatic corps. In conclusion, Obama said, “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

Yes, the tribute was a bit “platitudinous,” and Obama seemed to “eschew the larger meaning of the events,” according to Noonan. That’s as it should be. At a time of mourning, there is no big picture, only pain. And resolve. And the closer we come to silence, the more eloquent we are.

Libya’s new prime minister gets it: “These actions run counter to the very foundations of free Libya, of democracy, and of Islam,” he said. “They are reprehensible.”

Those Libyans gathering in the streets of Benghazi and holding signs in Arabic and English that read, “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam” and “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans” and “This does not represent us” — they get it.

Others have used the adjectives to describe Romney’s attempt at political exploitation, his diplomatic ineptness and the dissonance in his sympathy. I won’t go there, in part because Romney saddens me.

Romney didn’t answer his “3 a.m. phone call.” But he did answer a fundamental moral question:

“If I am for myself alone, what am I?”