Column: Man of the horse people
WASHINGTON -- The animal kingdom has been inhospitable to Mitt Romney in this election cycle.
First there was the damaging story of Seamus, the Irish setter the Romneys strapped to the roof of their car on a family trip.
And now it seems that, when it comes to Romney's political aspirations, Seamus may not be the most dangerous animal in the family menagerie. This past week belonged to Rafalca, the dancing horse.
Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare owned in part by the Romneys, qualified as a member of the U.S. Olympic team and will be competing in London in the dressage competition -- a form of ballet for horses and their riders in which the animals do pirouettes, serpentines and Piaffes, which, according to the International Equestrian Federation, is a "highly collected, cadenced, elevated diagonal movement" in which "the haunches with active hocks are well engaged." Rafalca, after qualifying, flew across the Atlantic on a FedEx jet (no, they didn't strap her to the roof) and reportedly dined on an in-flight meal of watermelon.
Understandably, Romney was wary about discussing dressage when NBC's Brian Williams asked him in London Wednesday about his equine Olympian. "You actually have a horse in the race. What's that gonna be like?"
"Well," Romney replied. "It's -- a big -- exciting experience for my wife and -- and for the person that she's worked with, the trainer of the horse who's riding the horse. And -- obviously, it's fun to be part of the Olympics in any way you can be part of them."
Williams followed up: "When is the event, and for those of us who don't follow the sport, what happens? Are there rounds that -- of competition? Is there just one chance? What happens?"
Romney pleaded ignorance. "I have to tell you. This is Ann's sport. I'm not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it, I will not -- be -- watching -- the event. I hope -- her horse does well."
It was arguably Romney's worst interview since Chris Wallace asked him about Seamus. The flustered candidate went on to disparage the British preparation for the event, setting off an international incident.
It's understandable that Romney would be reluctant to discuss dressage. Seamus may have made him look odd, or insensitive. Rafalca makes him look like a superrich playboy.
John Kerry was made to look effete in 2004 by Republican mockery of his windsurfing, his Turnbull & Asser shirts and his French fluency. Now Democrats have a chance to do something similar to Romney, with his Swiss bank account, his Grand Cayman and Bermuda tax havens, his multiple homes, his $10,000 bet, his friends who own NASCAR teams, and now the six-figure horses his wife imports from Europe. Nothing says "man of the people" quite like horse ballet.
Ann Romney takes umbrage at the criticism, saying that dressage has helped with her multiple sclerosis. That was enough to get the Democratic National Committee to back away from a video campaign showing Rafalca spliced with Mitt Romney "dancing around" questions about his tax returns.
While it's heartening that Ann Romney has been helped by the horses, most MS sufferers don't have the luxury of importing $100,000 horses from Europe. And the candidate's disavowal of dressage as "Ann's sport" isn't quite right.
In an interview with the website Chronicle of the Horse, Rafalca's trainer, Jan Ebeling, said Mitt Romney selected the music for the horse's routine at an international competition; Ebeling, in another interview, said the former Massachusetts governor, inspired by his wife, "really enjoys the horses." Romney joined his wife at an Olympic qualifying dressage event in April 2008, and the couple declared a $77,731 loss on their 2010 tax returns for their share of Rafalca's care.
That's a lot of hay (and another possible reason for the candidate's disinclination to release more tax returns), but consider what the Romneys get for their money: A horse that can do not only a Reinback, a Shoulder-in and a Travers, but a Flying Change of Leg, a Renvers and a Half-Pass.
"The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse into a happy Athlete through harmonious education," the equestrian federation explains. "As a result, it makes the Horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen."
Sounds as if this is worth seeing. For the record, the dressage events begin Aug. 2 at Greenwich Park. You can bet Mitt Romney won't be there.
Dana Milbank's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.