By Mike Dorf
Any regular reader of the NY Times Op-Ed page has known for some time that in nearly every column Gail Collins writes, she recounts that Mitt Romney once drove to Canada with his Irish Setter Seamus strapped to the roof of his car. (She did it again over the weekend.) Not long ago, NPR asked why Collins is so obsessed with the story. To my mind, calling this an obsession is too kind to Collins. It is a juvenile stunt that ultimately shows that she does not understand the privilege that has been bestowed upon her.
Let's begin with the facts. In 2007, the story surfaced that when Romney's children were young, he couldn't fit all of them, their luggage, and Seamus into the car, so to bring the dog along for a family vacation, they strapped his travel crate to the roof. Collins virtually never mentions the fact that Seamus was in a crate, conjuring up the image of a dog spread-eagled or prone on the roof, which is a bit unfair to Romney, I suppose.
As the story has been told, Seamus was so stressed by the very long trip on the roof that he had diarrhea which ran down the sides of the car; Romney hosed down the car and dog but apparently did not think to take Seamus down for a walk or otherwise try to calm him.
Why does Collins mention the Seamus-on-the-roof anecdote in nearly every column? Does Collins think that Romney's behavior was so atrocious that she wants readers to recall it whenever they're tempted to think of Romney as merely an ambitious pragmatist? If so, I could understand and sympathize with what she is doing. Even by the standards of a society that shows consistent callousness towards the suffering of non-human animals, Romney's behavior towards a family pet was remarkably callous. If Collins simply wanted to remind readers of what kind of creep she thinks Romney is, that would be fair. It would be like reminding readers that some candidate who now seems mainstream was once a Klansman or did time for child molestation. But her columns give no indication whatsoever that Collins thinks that Romney's behavior with respect to his dog was especially shameful.
Perhaps Collins thinks that the dog-on-car-roof story provides some special insight into Romney's character, as she told NPR. But this is a transparent post hoc rationalization. In column after column, Collins finds the slightest pretext to mention the dog-on-roof story, with no context and no lessons about character. She typically then goes right back to the largely unrelated arc of her narrative, with no effort to glean any lessons from the story. It is crystal clear to any attentive reader that for Collins, the dog-on-car-roof story is simply a running joke.
To someone who thinks that the way Romney acted towards the dog was really disturbing, the fact that Collins thinks it is a fit topic for a running joke is itself a kind of insensitivity bordering on callousness. But even putting that aside, the very fact that Collins thinks it appropriate to use her column for a running joke is highly problematic.
Although journalism is slowly dying, over a million of people still read the New York Times each day, and many of them hold positions of power. To have the forum that the Times affords its columnists two or three times per week is an enormous privilege. That doesn't mean that columnists can't be funny. On the contrary, humor has long been a staple of fine political commentary. For example, in his day, Russell Baker's light touch was often more trenchant than the somber analyses of his fellow Times columnists.
But a running joke--unless it is a damn funny one--is not a humorous way of making a point, unless the point is that the writer has contempt for her audience. And the fact that Mitt Romney behaved in a callous manner to his dog twenty years ago just isn't that funny.
Many years ago--probably around the same time that Romney drove with Seamus on the roof--I was a college senior with an extra class slot to fill. I took a course pass/fail and because I knew that if I completed my work with minimum competence I would get a passing grade, I decided to have some fun with one of my papers. So I asked a friend to challenge me to work three preposterously inapposite terms into a paper on Shakespeare's King Lear. He did and I obliged, but later, when the T.A. circled each of the three terms in red and put question marks in the margin, I felt bad about what I had done. I had treated the course disrespectfully. I wasn't so much telling a joke as treating the course as a joke.
Gail Collins is doing more or less the same thing, but she's not a kid and she's doing it repeatedly for an audience of millions. She should grow up.