Mitt Romney foreign trip silence irks reporters

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

media caption'This is a holy site for the Polish people'

The Republican presidential candidate solemnly laid a wreath at the tomb of Poland's unknown soldier, looking every inch the potential president as he reviewed the Polish troops.

He gave a solemn speech that talked of standing by allies like Poland, even name-checking Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and even Rosa Parks.

But the network news reporters were telling the TV audience back home how Mitt Romney's press person had lost his cool and, as reporters shouted questions at his boss, told them to kiss a portion of his anatomy not usually mentioned on American breakfast TV.

It was the low point of Mitt Romney's overseas trip, and not how Mr Romney wanted this tour to be remembered.

The press "bubble" had revolted, and for a reason.

Life inside the bubble, on tour with a major politician, has a weird effect on those held captive within it.

The orders come thick and fast: get off the plane, get on the bus, hurry up and wait.

"Has any one got wireless? What's the key?"

And the answers from the press too: "No, we can't go yet: I am still filing my TV piece/radio report/blog post."

"Oh well, ok."

Back on the bus. Back on the plane. Days start early and end late, adrenaline-soaked repetition allows a pleasurable numbness to set in - and one of the effects is distorting time itself.

Tight-lipped team

I can hardly believe that it was only a few days ago when I wrote that one danger for politicians on the foreign tour was that the trip becomes about The Trip - the one stumble that kills off all other coverage.

Make that Trips. Mr Romney's perceived mis-steps have gone forth and multiplied.

There have been so many that any other message has been drowned out by the thump-thump-thump of him tumbling down the stairs.

The Romney campaign has a reputation for being so tightly controlled that it will not allow Mr Romney near the press who travel with him.

Perhaps this tour shows the reason why, although the candidate himself hardly seems the type to be an undisciplined spouter who says the first thing that comes into his head.

Some think the caution is Mr Romney's own reaction to a gaffe that did in his dad's presidential hopes, when he said he had been "brainwashed" by US generals over Vietnam.

But whatever the psychological or tactical roots of Mr Romney's decision to stick to a script, it is not great for those covering him, hour by hour.

Some of them have been at it for a year. There are no news conferences and even getting press officers to respond to queries is a major trial.

Barrage of bad news

There is no attempt to whip up the Stockholm syndrome.

Most major politicians are a dab hand at charming at least some of those who trail round behind them, sending their sharp news values into a purring stupor.

media captionRomney: US will stand with Israel

Mr Romney does not bother to chat with the girls and boys on the bus, so they remain uncharmed and untamed.

Even getting any response to the alleged gaffes was an ordeal that lasted for days.

It was literally only in the last few minutes of the tour that a chief strategist eventually said the obvious, briefed that the American people liked those who said what they felt and absolutely none of this had any relevance to voters' real lives.

But we were off the bus. Not too late to file, but too late to wash away the cumulative impression.

The trouble is that, taken together, the barrage of bad news has drowned out the main purpose of the trip: to present Mr Romney as an international statesman-in-waiting.

The trip suggests that in office Mr Romney might be an undiplomatic handful when not bound and gagged by his staff. Will that damage his chances in the November election?

The strategist is right - some Americans relish blunt. Some conservatives have rallied .

After all, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush had their moments that the East Coast perceived as indiscretions, but the Midwest saw as hilarious or righteous. They got elected. Then they got elected again.

Air of nostalgia

But Mr Romney lacks their rumbunctiousness and charisma. It is pretty clear he did not mean to offend and did not think he would.

It is hard to see the casual, undecided, viewer being wowed by Mr Romney's foreign adventure.

But it also points to a larger problem with this tour. How would Mr Reagan and Mr Bush - or rather their foreign policies - do today?

The message behind this trip was to point out what Mr Romney says is President Barack Obama's scorn for good, solid allies like Britain, Israel and Poland.

I hardly think many in Britain are truly offended by the removal of Winston Churchill's bust from the Oval Office four years ago. But many in Poland and Israel are pretty upset by Mr Obama's policy towards them. So it is fair enough.

All in all, there is an air of nostalgia about this trip. There were visits to old allies, where not much different is happening, but no visits to countries that are newly putting into practice the principles of democracy and free enterprise that Mr Romney talks about.

Then there is that threat of war. Americans like toughness, but they do not relish a new conflict.

So there are plenty of questions left to ask about Mr Romney's foreign policy.

But the press secretary need not reach for his bumper book of insults, and the ears of breakfast viewers will not be assaulted again. For Mr Romney is heading home and there the only subject will be the economy.