Willard M. Romney

I was driving east on Route 2 last night, somewhere in the Land of the Yellow Traffic Barriers, fiddling with the CNN app on my iPhone so I could listen to the latest Republican presidential debate.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer was joking about his first name, which prompted Mitt Romney to say this: “I’m Mitt Romney and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.”

I nearly drove off the road.

As many of us know, Mitt is not Romney’s first name. It’s Willard. I wouldn’t quite call what Romney said a lie, because to qualify there has to be some intent to deceive. And Romney’s full name is not exactly a secret.

For some reason, I thought immediately of Richard Nixon, who beat Romney’s father, George, for the Republican nomination in 1968. A generation earlier, in 1952, Nixon was on the ropes. Shortly after having been named Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, the Trickster was caught in some minor money-grubbing scandal, and delivered a nationally televised speech (a true rarity in those days) in an attempt to save his career. It was dubbed the “Checkers speech,” after the Nixons’ dog, which Nixon shamelessly invoked in a bid for sympathy.

Anyway, at one point Nixon said this, bringing his poor wife into the fray:

And now, finally, I know that you wonder whether or not I am going to stay on the Republican ticket or resign. Let me say this: I don’t believe that I ought to quit, because I am not a quitter. And, incidentally, Pat is not a quitter. After all, her name is Patricia Ryan and she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and you know the Irish never quit.

In fact, Pat Nixon’s name was not Patricia. She was born Thelma Catherine Ryan. Her birthday was March 16, which, the last time I checked, was the day before St. Patrick’s Day. As with Romney last night, I don’t think it’s quite fair to call what Nixon said a lie. She reportedly used Patricia on occasion, and March 16 qualifies as close enough.

Still, Romney’s statement showed that even after running for president full-time for seven years now, he is still weirdly clueless about what people will pick up on. There’s a lot of buzz about it this morning, and it’s detracting from Romney’s more important message: That he’s so desperate to become president he’s willing to put out a television ad that flat-out lies about what Barack Obama said regarding the economy during the 2008 campaign.

Now that’s leadership.