Mitt Romney went on the offensive this week, and it produced the desired effect Tuesday in Florida. He saved his most offensive comment for his victory speech:
"In another era of American history, Tom Paine is reported to have said, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.' Well, Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, now it's time to get out of the way."
The quote is misused, since "following" is, per the quote, a fine option. You can't find out its context to see what Paine actually meant, because he well may not have said it (which is surely why Romney's careful team inserted the word "reportedly"); it's popular, but uncitable from any of Paine's copious writings, and came back into currency when Patton paraphrased it into "Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way."
Those are the minor offenses. What really bugs me is Romney going out of his way to quote the most radical of the American revolutionary pamphleteers. Isn't distorting Jesus enough for him? Is he going after Marx next?
You tell me just what of Paine's thought Romney wishes to hold up to the American people:
"When shall it be said in any country of the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggers; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because i am friend of its happiness; when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and government."
Paine railed against aristocrats, and warned about the danger of the unhealthy power of corporations. Paine was a poor man, who openly eschewed property. The only home he ever owned was bought with the (controversial) $3000 honorarium eventually bestowed upon him by the American Congress for his procurement of $3.5 million in loans and gifts from the French king, half a million of which he personally brought back in silver bars. (This extravagance contributed significantly to the fiscal crisis of the French monarchy that led to the French Revolution, during which Paine repaid Louis XVI by moving to Paris to lend his support—to the Revolution.)
"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
Paine was an avowed enemy of organized religion. His professed religion was deism, the only religion spelled with a lower-case first letter. It was an intellectual movement from Europe that held that the only expression of God on earth was through nature. (Unitarianism is its direct descendant.) Its proponents (notably Paine's close friend Franklin, as well as Madison and Jefferson) were considered atheists by the religious establishment, and its thought is responsible for the constitutional separation of church and state. Paine himself was ostracized from the church and refused a religious burial; only six people dared to show up at his funeral.
He also was something of an anarchist, and his "The government that governs best is the one that governs least" is a Republican/Libertarian favorite (though rarely attributed). If this tortured speech insertion is any sign, the Romney team has more Paine appropriation in its sights. (Already the Republicans have had to go dubiously back more than a century to Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln to find any Republican presidents beside Reagan they're proud of.) Keep an eye out during the remaining (I fear not much longer) primary, and then post-primary campaign: Paine, the father of the American Revolution, the father of the Mitt Romney Republican Party.
Dave Blake, book designer and community activist, is an elected member of Berkeley's Rent Board. He grew up in Hollywood, where he first got in trouble putting out an underground newspaper at the same time he was an editor on the Fairfax Colonial Gazette.