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Romney's sleight of mouth

AS MITT Romney travels the nation testing the presidential waters, here's a word to the wise: Listen carefully to what our talented governor says.

Very carefully.

When he switches into campaign mode, the Mittster is a nonpareil practitioner of political prestidigitation, a master of linguistic illusion.

Thus an unwary observer making seemingly logical inferences can sometimes find himself wandering down an errant path. To use a couple of vintage 2002 examples, from Romney's initial pronouncements, one might have come to think that he wouldn't pick a running mate. Or that, even while living in Utah rescuing the Winter Olympics, he had filed his taxes as a Massachusetts resident.

Neither turned out to be exactly true.

So what occasions this cautionary note? Romney's new stump speech.

Speaking to Republican groups, Romney stresses the role that values and culture play in America's success story. To underscore the point, he cites ''The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," the erudite bestseller by David S. Landes, professor emeritus at Harvard University.

Though the governor doesn't explicitly say it, a listener wandering unguarded and unguided into the realm of Romnian rhetoric might just assume that Landes feels that gay marriage somehow threatens the country.

Take Romney's recent speech in Spartanburg, S.C.

Warning that the United States faced ''a battle over the ideals and ethics that define our nation's culture," Romney noted that ''there are some people who don't think that values and culture matter very much, that people should just live and let live and it doesn't have much influence or effect."

Not Mitt, mind you. ''I recently read a book by a professor named David Landes of Harvard. It turned out to be quite factual and scholarly, and it ended about 500 pages of analysis with this conclusion: 'If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.' "

Listing the cultural underpinnings of America as hard work, self-reliance, an independent mindset, a charitable impulse, and religiousness, Romney continued: ''The fundamental building block of American society is the family. Through the family, we prepare the next generation. America cannot continue to lead the family of nations around the world if we suffer the collapse of the family here at home."

Then, after a brief digression to praise Nancy Reagan and introduce his wife, Ann, Romney continued: ''Last year the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck a blow against the family, as I'm sure you know. The court forgot that marriage is first and foremost about nurturing and developing children. Its ruling meant that our society is supposed to be indifferent about whether children have a mother and a father."

Now, Romney didn't directly assert that Landes considers gay marriage a threat to the family or the culture that has made the United States an economic success. Still, he did use Landes's book to undergird his arguments, moving in short order from Landes's conclusions about culture influencing economics to discussing a possible collapse of the family to decrying gay marriage.

It came as a surprise to Landes to find his work discussed in that context.

''The book doesn't deal with that at all," Landes said in an interview Monday. ''It does not argue against any particular institution like gay marriage."

The author declined to outline his own feeling about gay marriage.

''I generally keep it to myself because I don't feel that I possess the authority and the wisdom to make up the minds of the larger population on this kind of issue," he said.

What he was really comfortable talking about, Landes said, was the way certain values -- a sense that time is precious, that learning matters, and that productivity is important, for example -- have influenced economic performance.

''Holy smoke, this is the kind of thing I am prepared to talk about," he said.

Landes was clear about one more thing: His book shouldn't be used or interpreted to lend credence to an anti-gay- arriage argument.

''I don't think he should appropriate it in such a way as to imply that it takes a position on an issue that it doesn't even touch," Landes said. ''I would certainly not want to be used as backup for his political judgment in this matter."

Not that Romney explicitly did that, of course. Still, it's instructive to hear from Landes -- just in the unlikely instance that an unwary listener might have thought that's what Mitt meant.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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