Published for www.washingtonpost.com, May 14, 2012
Mitt Romney did not rise on the power of his rhetoric. At the Detroit Economic Club in February, his speech was swallowed by its stadium venue, overshadowed by a gaffe (his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs”) and weighed down by leaden language. Early in the primaries, Romney’s attempts to wax poetic on the virtues of America — often by quoting patriotic hymns — were waxen.
The decision to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Va., school founded by the late Jerry Falwell, did not promise much better. It is the type of venue chosen by a chain-smoking Republican campaign operative who once met an evangelical in 1984 and has felt no need to renew the acquaintance. “We need to get those born-againers,” one imagines the pitch. “Don’t they all like Falwell?” Never mind that there are dozens of respected evangelical academic settings in battleground states with less culture-war baggage.
But a good speech can make use of any setting. And Romney’s Liberty University address on Saturday was more than good. It gave evidence of creative, lively intelligence somewhere near the center of the Romney campaign machine.
The speech performed a number of moves that carry a high degree of difficulty. Its language was fresh and graceful. The students heard that their faith “demands and creates heroic souls” — a phrase that deserves remembering. Romney strategically conceded the theological tensions between Mormons and evangelicals — “people of different faiths, like yours and mine” — but described a broad overlap on matters of service and morality. His depiction of this shared moral ideal was ethically rich: “justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born.”
Romney managed to praise Rick Santorum while demonstrating an appealing alternative to Santorum’s tone. Romney emphasized that “men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life” — this last phrase an homage to the title of pastor Rick Warren’s best-seller. There were deft references to evangelical heroes — William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Charles Colson — throughout the speech.