Tuned In

You Got Served: A Waiter’s-Eye View of Mitt Romney

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There are plenty of people out there–too many, maybe–analyzing what Mitt Romney said in the secretly taped fundraiser video posted in full at the Mother Jones website: what his comments about “the 47%” say about his campaign, about his character, about his attitude toward the working class, about his base of voters and Barack Obama’s. Let the pundits and the policy analysts parse his words, whether they add up, whether they’ll work.

Me, I couldn’t stop looking at the waiters.

We often talk about how campaign controversies, gaffes and images are “framed.” But the most fascinating thing about the Romney video is how it’s literally framed. We’re watching Romney from what looks like the polished surface of the bar, the hidden camera surrounded by goblets, a decanter of wine and a glowing candle, tucked away behind the objects of service. We can hear him loud and clear, but we can see his head only as a tiny blur, and the backs of the heads of his $50,000-a-plate guests.

We see and hear everything, in other words, from the furtive vantage point of the help. As Romney talks tax policy and dependency, servers walk by in the foreground and rustle up ice cubes. As guests ask about the future of the stock market and why Romney doesn’t more aggressively assert pride in his money and success, white-gloved waiters quietly refill drinks. As donors loudly applaud a secondhand Marco Rubio story about aspiring to wealth through hard work, a waitress quietly asks for clean martini glasses.

All modern candidates, Republican and Democrat, spend time in banquet rooms indulging wealthy donors (at one point, Romney listens politely as a guest rails against the penny). We just don’t see it. So this may not be a fair picture to paint–but it’s a powerful one. Campaign embarrassments are often unfair, in the sense the same image or line will hurt one candidate more if it reinforces an existing narrative. Your geopolitical fumbles matter more if you were already cast as the inexperienced governor of Alaska. Your haircut matters more if you look like John Edwards than if you look like Bill Richardson.

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week, Sept. 7-14)

And if you are Mitt Romney, with Mitt Romney’s biography, resume and bankroll, there are certain things you don’t want to be filmed saying in a dining room full of toffs in a Boca Raton sex mansion.* The visual and class ironies couldn’t have been better laid out by the set designer for The Remains of the Day. As guests and candidates talk about their burden of resentment and the intractability of the dependent classes, cutlery clinks, stemware tinkles, a cork pops. You half expect someone to hoist a champagne flute in the air and declare, “A toast, gentlemen! To Industry!”

*Update: the “sex” reference in the original post referred to reports of a “sex party” thrown by the event’s host at a mansion in the Hamptons, not at this mansion in Florida.

I have no idea what the catering staff thinks of Romney or the election. I’m sure there are plenty of conservative-minded waiters out there. (I will note that whoever hid the camera must have been able to inconspicuously access the bar. I’m just putting that out there.) Maybe Romney’s message of striving and individual enterprise resonates with one of them who wants to own that mansion and sit at that table someday.

But in the most-replayed segment of the video, when Romney talks about the “entitled” 47% who don’t pay income tax, whom he says he could never convince to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” I’m thinking: So does a cater-waiter in south Florida, maybe with a couple kids, earn enough to owe federal income taxes after deductions? When a guest, setting up Romney’s answer, asks, “How are you going to do it, two months before the elections, convince everybody, ‘You’ve got to take care of yourself?'” I’m looking at the server grabbing barware and thinking: you think she’s got a health-insurance package? Does it not feel the least bit awkward up there? Because it sure does back here with the wine glasses.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Now, that’s just me; the way I see this video is inevitably colored by my own background and politics.* Other people watch the footage and see Romney standing up for hard work and responsibility, and I don’t trust anyone who claims to know how, if at all, this video will affect the campaign. But if it has an effect at all, it will be the images that do it as much as the words. Whoever stashed that camera behind the serving crystal, and for whatever reason they did it, for one night the people who fund the multimillion-dollar election machine well and truly got served.

*Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.