When someone as staid as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels turns out to have a sense of humor about himself, it may be time to take him seriously.
One of what seems like 1,000 prospective Republican presidential candidates, Daniels spoke at Saturday’s Gridiron Club dinner, among the chummy rites of spring in which the public’s suspicion about mutual bootlicking inside the Beltway is proven true.
Rather than afflict the comfortable, the press joins official Washington in an orgy of self-celebration, devouring rare meats, baby vegetables, petit fours and, supposedly, each other. Club members made up of the journalistic elite put on skits poking fun at the powers that be, then applaud the retorts of the powers that be.
The event does serve the purpose of putting a rising star through his or her paces outside the comfort zone of photo-ops and canned remarks. The pressure to be funny or die can rattle anyone.
You can wing it and fail (former presidential hopeful and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel in 2005), try hard and fail (presidential still-hopeful Mitt Romney in 2007) or try hard and succeed (then-Sen. Barack Obama, singing an a capella parody of Sen. John McCain in 2006).
“I bring greetings from my beloved Indiana,” Daniels began on Saturday. “South Bend is in the north, North Vernon’s in the south, and French Lick is not what you hoped it was.”
Daniels concentrated on fiscal issues before it was cool, balancing his state’s budget, lowering unemployment and reforming property taxes and health care. He garnered presidential mention for winning a second term in 2008 in a landslide, even as Obama carried Indiana.
So Daniels could well afford to go negative on himself, cataloguing the adjectives his name attracts: “small, stiff, short, pale, unimposing, unassuming, uninspiring, understated, uncharismatic, accountant-like, non-telegenic, boring, balding, blunt, nerdy, wooden, wonky, puny and pint-sized.”
Daniels had one arm in a sling and turned that into a prop to poke fun at one of the president’s more infamous public statements. “Until this thing comes off,” he told Obama, sitting a few seats away, “I can cling to my gun, or my Bible, but not both.”
Wowing the Gridiron Club may be one more thing among many working against a Daniels presidency. In a time of anti-establishment, anti-intellectual and anti-Washington sentiment, consorting with the enemy is dangerous. Most of his fellow would-be candidates had pressing business elsewhere.
The question about Daniels isn’t whether he’s qualified; the former adviser to Ronald Reagan, executive at Eli Lilly and Co. and budget director under George W. Bush is about the most qualified on the long list of potential candidates. The question is whether he’s too pragmatic, insufficiently ideological, to do what has to be done to become president, which begins with doing what has to be done to become the Republican nominee.
First he’d have to end his call for a truce on social issues. The new majority in the House has introduced a series of anti-abortion bills to show it’s in sync with conservative legislatures around the country, including Nebraska’s, where one recent proposal could make murdering an abortion doctor a form of justifiable homicide.
He’d have to abandon his former boss, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a moderate at the top of the Tea Party’s to-be-defeated list. He’d need to drop his pledge to help “those on life’s first rung.”
He’d have to turn into Superman, to withstand all the pressure to sign a “no new taxes” pledge, and Houdini, to explain to those who would have liked a Wisconsin-like confrontation with unions why passing a so-called right-to-work law wasn’t a priority.
To those who have watched MitchTV, his Gridiron Club performance was no surprise. He’s paid multiple visits to each of Indiana’s 92 counties with a video camera running. He travels in an RV and carries his own black bag into the homes of strangers who put him up. There’s always time for a detour to a diner where, puny or not, he eats anything deep-fried that doesn’t eat him first.
His personal life is the opposite of Newt Gingrich’s. He and his wife, Cheri, divorced in 1994, and she moved away and married someone else. Daniels soldiered on, raising his four daughters, who at the time ranged in age from 8 to 14. One day a few years later, his wife came back. He was waiting for her. They remarried in 1997 and have lived happily ever since.
That’s the sort of interlude that will be dissected should Daniels run. Did he show he was steadfast and true, or a chump? When the Indianapolis Star asked about the episode, he replied, “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.”
Short, pale and balding, yes, but not so wooden, after all.
Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.