Every political candidate commits a gaffe from time to time. It becomes a major cause for concern when a pattern sets in that creates a negative image with voters. That's what is happening with Mitt Romney right now in the wake of his hapless remarks at a fundraising event characterizing 47 percent of the American public as "dependent on government" and self-styled "victims."
This disquisition on nearly half of our citizenry dovetails conspicuously with Mr. Romney's cartoon image as a rich businessman who has little idea of how that other half manages to survive. From his offer during a primary debate to make a friendly wager of $10,000 with a Republican rival to his casual reference to his wife's two Cadillacs, Mr. Romney has cemented his image with Main Street America as an out-of-touch politician with a tin ear.
Bizarrely, it's all like a flashback to the failed 1968 presidential campaign of his late father, the likeable but uncertain Gov. George Romney of Michigan, whose undoing was his inability to decide where he stood on the war in Vietnam. Struggling to arrive at a clear position, he went to the war zone and returned with a statement that only capsulated his confusion.
In a hapless observation on a Detroit television show, asked about that inconsistency, the senior Romney replied: "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job."
He went on, digging himself a deeper hole: "And since returning from Vietnam, I've gone into the history of Vietnam, all the way back into World War II and before. And as a result I have changed my mind. ... I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression."
In those few words, George Romney, up to then leading in the polls, seemed to sum up the public impression that he was a too much a fuzzy thinker to be president. We in his traveling press corps mischievously wrote a parody of a Frank Sinatra hit of the time, "Somethin' Stupid," that began:
I know I stood ahead of all until I went and dropped the ball
By talking too much.
I tried so hard to satisfy the press' request to clarify
Vietnam and such.
And then I went out into the cold to try to get a little vote or two.
I had to go and spoil it all by saying somethin' stupid
Like "I'm brainwashed."
The ridicule from the opposing Democrats was merciless, capped off by rival 1968 presidential hopeful Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who, riffing on "brainwashing," acidly and demeaningly observed, "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it!" Mr. Romney nose-dived in the polls and dropped out of the GOP nomination race against Richard Nixon on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
This pattern of self-immolation knows no partisanship. Democrat Robert Kennedy in the same election cycle was tarred with being "ruthless" for his tenacious enforcement of discipline in his brother John's winning campaign in 1960 and never really overcame it. Later, the 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was nailed as technocratic cold fish, epitomized in his response to a debate question on whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and killed. His answer in the affirmative only seemed to confirm that public perception, as he soon went down to defeat.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Mitt Romney seems entangled in his own pattern of periodically compounding the view of many voters that he's just another rich son of a rich father who, as in the old Democratic jibe against George H.W. Bush, was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple.
With barely more than six weeks to go to Election Day, the Republican challenger is struggling anew to shake that image, now compounded with a dose of heartlessness. Putting his candidacy back on track as the answer to the stalled economy is now the critical task ahead of him.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.