There's a persuasive case to be made that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, widely touted as a potential vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, isn't as boring as everyone says, but he's never going to shake the label and he probably shouldn't want to, either. Tuesday, NBC's Andrew Rafferty highlighted a story about a "haunted" hotel Portman and his siblings own. The Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, Ohio, is the state's oldest continuously operated business. Twelve presidents have stayed there, as have Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Rafferty's report is worth reading if only for the comically formal note that, "Portman neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a haunting spirit in his hotel," but his main point is that owners of maybe-haunted hotels are not boring:
Owning a self-proclaimed haunted hotel can be added to the list of quirky facts that have trickled out about the Ohio senator since he became a key surrogate for the GOP nominee. A knock against him during this season of VP speculation has been that he is boring. But friends and close aides are quick to push back against that narrative.
This is a follow up to Buzzfeed's excellent post last month "15 Genuinely Interesting Things About Rob Portman," which also makes the case that he's exciting. (Sample item: "He wrote a chapter in the book First Descents: In Search of Wild Rivers about his experience smuggling a kayak into China in the 1980s to kayak the Yangtze River." Cool.) Elsewhere, Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson repeated some of these facts, calling Portman "The Best of the Boring White Guys."
So it's well established that Rob Portman actually has some interesting stuff going on. But even today, reacting to news that Marco Rubio might not be on Romney's VP shortlist, Daily Intel titled their post, "Boring White Guy's VP Hopes Just Soared." That's in reference to Portman. So it's worth asking, if Portman's not actually boring, why does the adjective persist and what do we actually mean by it? Herein a brief glossary of synonyms for "boring" in the Rob Portman sense:
- Boring = Unknown: The Atlantic's Molly Ball reported from a regional Conservative Political Action Conference last week, during which attendees took a straw poll on VP options, that Portman "got just 2 percent of the straw poll vote, ranking 11th of the 23 choices offered. Of the dozen activists I spoke to, just one mentioned him." Portman's been in politics for awhile, so he's had a chance to create a huge media profile like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio. But he hasn't. He's not well known and therefore, he must be boring.
- Boring = White Male: One origin of the "boring" VP pick meme is a May Politico article by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei that cited "Republican official familiar with the campaign's thinking" who said, "the prized pick" is an "incredibly boring white guy." Portman could have walked on the surface of the Yangtze River Jesus-style instead of kayaking it, but that wouldn't change the fact that he's a white male, and thus he fits this description just by nature of his profile.
- Boring = Not Sarah Palin: From that same Politico article, Vandehei and Allen write that the VP process "will be designed to produce a pick who is safe and, by design, unexciting — a deliberate anti-Palin." So a synonym here is "safe" which isn't exactly a pejorative form of "boring."
So then, more broadly, calling Portman "boring" is actually sort of like calling him "the kind of guy Romney's looking for." Owning interesting hotels and having interesting hobbies does not make him less white, less male, better known, or more Palinesque. We can find fun facts about him all day to point out that he's exciting, but maybe the "friends and close aides" NBC's Rafferty notes are pushing back against the term shouldn't be quite so worried, at least, not if they want their guy to get the nod.