The other day I was sitting in a tent in Tampa, about six feet from Rick Santorum, watching some dreadful movie he’d made (imagine your junior high American history class mashed up with every speech Rick Santorum has ever given). From where I sat I could see Rick and his wife Karen, and as the movie started he reached over and laced his fingers through hers, idly, without taking his eyes off the screen. It’s the kind of gesture you make when you are with someone you love, and you have been together long enough to know where she places her hand when you’re sitting next to each other at a movie. It is the kind of thing you do without thinking about it, the kind of thing you don’t even remember until that person is gone, and then you remember in the most minute detail: the texture of skin, the shape of a thumbnail.
Here is a shocking true confession. I am not what you might call a romantic or a sentimentalist. Never have been, never will be. There is no point in strewing rose petals on anything. I only cry at movies when I laugh too hard. I appreciate your wedding photos, but they provoke no feeling, unless you forced your bridesmaids to wear something particularly horrible, in which case sympathy kicks in. But there’s an exception. I am a total, helpless sap when it comes to political figures expressing affection for their significant others. It’s a bipartisan affliction that is not altered by endings that prove less happy than their beginnings: I have, on occasion, stayed up way past my bedtime watching old clips of John and Elizabeth Edwards. I once had to leave my desk and go for a walk because the Romney campaign sent me one of those calculated videos in which Ann pays tribute to her high school sweetheart—and the thing is, I know it’s calculated. I know these heartfelt moments are leveraged for crass political purpose. These days there’s not much difference, stagecraft-wise, between a spontaneous kiss near a camera and a two-minute preproduced web video.
Yet it gets me. It gets me every time. I worry, because having Feelings means losing Edge and right now my job involves being Smart about politics, and that requires some Edge. I also worry because I don’t know why I have these reactions. I can’t explain them. They defy logic and everything I know to be true about myself. I try to tease it out, and then I see a photograph of Paul Ryan with his arm around his wife, or a clip of the president hugging the First Lady, and critical thinking evaporates.
Maybe the answer is embarrassingly simple. It might be an involuntary compensation for all the bad news and mudslinging that’s out there, or a bizarro escape valve for whatever sentiment I do harbor. It might be because I concussed myself playing basketball in grade school. I don’t know, but now you know about it and can judge accordingly.