Politics in America: Sweat and Tell
On the afternoon of October 18, 2012, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to speak at the 67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. ¶ Before the meal, Governor Romney and his aides visited the hotel’s luxurious Guerlain Spa, whereupon the candidate entered a private sauna room. The following is a transcript of what occurred next.
[sound of door opening]
Romney Oh, for Pete’s sake. Guys!
Obama Governor, come back.
Romney There’s some kind of mix-up!
Obama It’s no mix-up. Please, come in. Look: no cameras, no witnesses. It’s a chance for the two of us to just talk . . . honestly.
Romney . . . Why?
Obama It’s tradition. Bush–Dukakis, Carter–Ford, Reagan–Carter, they all did it: The Al Smith Sauna Summit.
Romney Reagan sat here?
Obama Kennedy and Nixon sat here. Picture it: America’s great cold warriors, sweating it out on these very benches.
Romney . . . They had towels.
Obama I assume they had towels . . . Kind of a draft coming in here . . .
Romney Oh, sorry.
[sound of door closing]
Obama They didn’t warn me either, first time. I walk in, there’s McCain stretched out in a full sweat. Scars and all.
Romney Pretty banged up is he?
Obama Unreal. I mean, you’ve heard the stories about what happened to him over there . . .
Romney Right. But until you actually see . . .
Obama Exactly . . . That’s quite a little scar of your own there. The car crash?
Romney Yeah. Not quite as heroic as getting shot down and tortured, but uh, I guess we all have our narratives.
Romney Hey, didn’t Churchill speak at this event?
Obama By phone, yeah. And Eisenhower. Three different times . . . Probably had his own locker.
Romney Everybody loves a war hero.
Obama Men who risked it all to change the world.
Romney Right . . . And now us.
Obama Yeah . . .
Romney Michelle . . . doing well?
Obama She is, yeah. Tired, you know.
Romney Well, sure.
Obama Ann seems to be . . . hangin’ right in there.
Romney Amazes me.
Obama Remarkable woman.
Romney We’re lucky men, Barack . . . Geez, that sounds funny, doesn’t it?
Obama It does . . . Mitt.
Obama You mind a little steam?
Romney No, go ahead.
[sizzle of water on stove]
Romney Normally I’m more of a Jacuzzi guy.
Obama Me too. High heat kinda goes to my head.
Romney Yeah, what is that?
Obama No idea.
Romney Breathing it in, maybe?
Obama May be. Or maybe we’re just lightweights!
Romney Right! . . . Hey, what the heck? Give her another shot!
Obama Why not?
Romney So. One of us, huh?
Obama Keys to the kingdom.
Romney Someone tries to pull the old “You’re not the boss of me,” you get to say. “No, I am.”
Obama Well, it’s a little more—
Romney They say, “You can’t make me!” You go, “Actually? I can.”
Obama That’s not exactly —
Romney Nah, I’m pulling your leg . . . Though you gotta admit, looking down that menu of al-Qaeda operatives every morning, choosing one for a little drone visitation, that must kinda brighten your day.
Obama . . . No comment.
Romney You know what I wonder about you, though?
Romney Do y’ever look at Bill Clinton, crisscrossing the globe, rescuing exotic populations, connecting with audiences off the cuff, and you just think to yourself, “Ex-president. Now that would be a great job.”
Obama Every day.
Obama You sound surprised.
Romney No, it’s just—
Obama You’re thinking, “Whoa, Obama’s starting to think about defeat.” Well guess what? I am . . . In fact, I’ve pictured it: Four days from now in Boca Raton, final debate, foreign policy, we’re in the final round, and I’m starting to say something about multilateral relations with Iran or something, when suddenly, I go blank; it’s like this cloud passes between my ears, and you just rear back and pounce: teeth, claws, flesh is flying, absolutely no mercy
. . . By the time you finish, I’m either in tears, or on my knees praising Allah. I’ve seen it different ways: In one version, I start apologizing to the bin Laden family, but whatever I do, it’s clear to every human being on the planet that Obama is finished. No, We Can’t! No, We Can’t!
Obama You’re probably wondering why I would tell you that.
Romney No, it makes sense, tactically.
Obama Wait, what do you . . .
Romney I mean if we’re trying to psych each other out for the debate, it’s a decent strategy. Transparent, but . . .
Romney “Oh look, it’s just like Obama said. My chance to lunge and risk it all! In a national debate!”
Obama Okay, I can see why you think that but . . . you’re wrong.
Romney I’m wrong?
Romney Enlighten me then.
Obama Well, it goes back to my time in here with McCain.
Obama Towards the end, he got all quiet, just lying there. In fact I was getting a little worried—man that age. I was just about to give him a little shake, when there’s a knock on the door. They give you a two-minute warning at the end; so this knock comes, and like a shot, McCain sits up, pulls his knees up to his chest like this, and says: “I am a black criminal, and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate. I almost died, and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors.”
Obama Yeah. Verbatim from his taped “confession.” And for a second there, he looked disoriented, you know? And sort of embarrassed. But then it was like his face relaxed and this calm came over him. “There,” he said, “now you know what haunts me.” I don’t know if you saw the speech he gave that night.
Romney Oh, he killed.
Obama I’ve never seen him so comfortable with himself.
Romney Fearless. If he’d kept that up ‘til election day . . .
Obama He’d be sitting here right now.
Romney With Hillary!
Obama President McCain . . .
Romney . . . All right, where’s that water bottle?
Obama Here ya go.
Romney One thing that really spooks me?
Obama Go ahead.
Romney Is that I get elected and then I spend my entire presidency trying to rein in Ryan.
Obama For me, it’s the Blue Dogs.
Romney Plus, I’ve got Grover Norquist. The Chamber of Commerce. NRA.
Obama Hey, I’ve got two NEAs to deal with!
Romney Wall Street Journal. Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh . . . And that’s before I even get to the opposition.
Obama Good to know we’re in there somewhere.
Romney Oh, oh, oh. Almost forgot. The absolute scariest guy of all.
Romney Sheldon Adelson.
Obama You’re afraid of the man who gave you guys 71 million dollars?
Romney Closer to 100, and yes, it’s like the whole Nightmare on Elm Street series playing out in my head: all these scenarios where I’m carrying Sheldon’s golf bag, I’m grooming his cats. This one scene, I walk into the Oval Office, my very first day on the job and there’s Sheldon, sitting in my chair, signing pardons with my pen. And I have to kneel next to him—this is the part I really don’t get—because he has this box of mothballs, Enoz Old Fashioned Moth Balls, right? And whenever he picks one up, I have to open my mouth so he can pop it in. So after a while—
[a knock at the door]
Romney Darn it.
Obama We’ll be right out!
Romney I have so much more to unload.
Obama I didn’t get to say half of mine.
Romney . . . Okay, prioritize.
Romney What is your absolute worst fear of all?
Obama That we broke it . . . We had this amazing country and I worry that we just . . .
Romney Yeah, that’s mine too. Somewhere around the Gulf of Tonkin something cracked . . .
Obama I keep thinking, we don’t get along, it’s like we don’t even want to get along: why don’t we just . . .
Romney Call it quits. That’s what you’re thinking, right? Go ahead, say it.
Obama . . . Amicably.
Romney Good luck!
Obama Like two grown-ups.
Romney You are such an optimist.
Obama We could at least try!
Romney Like last time?
Romney No, we are stuck in this particular union, my friend. Till death do us part.
Obama Yeah . . . Makes you wonder, though . . .
[sound of door opening]
Obama What if every four years, we could just have an adult conversation and then vote?
Romney There you go again.
[sound of door closing]