WASHINGTON — Most Americans would agree that the most memorable moment from Wednesday night's debate was when Rick um, um, um, whateverhisnameis couldn't remember the third leg of his own policy for streamlining the federal government.
With great conviction, Perry asserted that when he becomes president, he'll eliminate three agencies: "It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone — Commerce, Education and, the, uh, what's the third one there, let's see. ... "
The 53-second eternity has been replayed sufficiently now that we needn't belabor the cringe-inducing amnesia of the 47th Texas governor. It was so bad that even disciples of schadenfreude ducked under their blankies and prayed for deliverance.
"Oops" was all that was left to Perry when he couldn't recall the third agency he would stomp beneath the heel of his Texas boot. "I can't," he said when pressed by moderator John Harwood. "Oops."
Oops, I can't remember? Oops, "I stepped in it" (as he said after the debate to reporters gathering for Perry's wake)? Or, oops, I don't really know what I think (as many undoubtedly concluded)? It's right there on my very own website — RickPerry.org — the candidate told several morning show hosts in a desperate media binge to salvage his campaign.
As Perry was free-falling into the abyss of lost thoughts Wednesday night, he turned to his fellow contestants as if to say, "Please, someone, can't you tell me what I think?"
Unhelpfully, Ron Paul suggested there were really five agencies he should cut. And then someone did try to help him, and this to me was the most memorable moment of the evening. From somewhere on the panel, a voice reached out to the struggling Texan, a suggestion that might help Perry gather himself and emerge from this utter humiliation.
The voice belonged to Mitt Romney. As Perry's brain was hardening into arctic pack ice, Romney suggested that maybe the third agency he wanted to eliminate was the EPA. Yeah, that's it! But no, it wasn't. Pressed by Harwood, Perry said it wasn't the EPA, but blast if he could remember what it was. (Later he said it was Energy.)
Romney's suggestion when most of the others were squirmingly silent was an act of pure kindness and self-sacrificing generosity. It was not especially noticeable. But if you were Rick Perry in that moment, you were well aware that Romney was the one who tried to save you. When Perry finally said, "Oops," it was Romney toward whom he looked.
Small, but not insignificant, this gesture of active empathy tells much about the man who extended it. He's a nice guy in a season of nastiness, a trait that may also be his greatest political failing.
Michael Medved, trying to figure out why Republicans don't love Romney, pointed to his lack of anger. These are angry times and people want their leader to be ticked off, surmised Medved. He may be right, both in theory and in his conclusion: This passion for anger is not good for the country.
Others insist that Romney can't earn people's confidence because he's too squeaky clean. Few can identify with a man who never touches coffee or alcohol, whose hair is as precise as the crease in his pants. Or, put another way, the figures in his business ledgers?
He seems preternaturally unflappable, which to some is too robotic, not-quite-human. We like some fallibility in our leaders and flaws in our protagonists. Perhaps Romney would benefit from a slight imperfection or some other handicap over which he has struggled.
Or might kindness and humility be handicaps in a mean, self-infatuated world?
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Humility is a tough trait to communicate in a presidential campaign that requires confident self-promotion, though it is often apparent in Romney's debate face. He looks at others respectfully when they are speaking and his expression betrays patience and even a hopefulness that they will do well. Romney isn't shy in reminding voters of his own accomplishments, but there are stories out there that tell another side to his character. Here's one related to me recently by someone close to the campaign:
Romney was shooting an ad on a hot day in a staffer's yard. While the photo shoot was being set up, Romney was asked to bide time in the cooler shade of the staffer's garage. When the staffer retrieved Romney 30 minutes later, he discovered that the candidate had swept and organized his garage.
A small thing. Or perhaps not.
Kathleen Parker's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.