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The cliché: in February 2011, Mitt Romney appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to read the nightly Top Ten list. At number eight, Romney read out, "I'm the guy in the photo that comes in your picture frame." It's one of those lines that's funny because it's instantly recognizable as true. Last week, nearly a year later, Maureen Dowd dug it up, writing in her New York Times column, "Last year, Romney went on Letterman's show to read 'Things You Don’t Know About Mitt Romney,' including: 'I'm the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame.'" Her choice seems to endorse it as the best line on the list, and it also seems to have revived it's presence in everyone else's mind. That same week on his own late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel said, "Former governor of Utah Jon Huntsman has dropped out of the race for president to return to his former job as the guy in the picture that comes with the frame." (Note to Kimmel's writers: Just because it's a different picturesque Mormon Republican candidate doesn't make it a new joke.) That same night, Letterman recycled his own show's line, musing aloud, "[Romney] looks like the guy that comes with the picture frame, doesn't he?" without referencing the joke's origin. Finally, in this Thursday's Los Angeles Times, columnist Meghan Daum writes that Romney is the guy "whose family photos look like the ones that come in picture frames when you buy them at the store."
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Where it's from: Everyone who has ever visited a home goods store sees the models pretending to take candid family photos, thin sheets that the buyer will inevitably replace with actually candid photos of their almost assuredly less coiffed family and friends. Letterman's original joke worked because Romney himself and his large, sturdy looking flock of endless children and grandchildren really do look like picture frame models. Just look at their Christmas card:
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And it was all the more funny coming from Romney's mouth. But what started out as a particularly specific and clever way to rehash the often-noted Romney family looks is, with repetition, fast on its way to becoming itself a tired observation.
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Why it's catching on: It seems likely that after months of dormancy, Dowd's widely-read column planted the line in everyone's mind once again. Maybe she and others revisited it because Romney himself returned to Lettermen to read another Top Ten in December. How easy it would be to click on the "related videos" and watch an old Romney Letterman appearance.
Why else? It's worth noting the context in which Dowd brought up the "picture frame" line. Her column explored the tempermental similarities between George H.W. Bush and Romney. Bush "is an Episcopalian East Coast patrician, and Mitt is a Mormon Midwest patrician," she writes. Beginning with attacks on his record at Bain Capital and the wealth he accrued there, and continuing on as we look into his tax returns, focus on Romney as an "other" has definitely picked up. Beauty, like having a millionaire governor father, is one of those things you're born with. As Steve Kornacki wrote in Salon yesterday, "Just about everything about Romney — his upbringing, his education, his career, his lifestyle, his bearing — exudes top 1 percent-ness." and it's proving a problem for him. Regular people have to put their own photos in the picture frame, they might say, but Romney -- his just arrive pre-loaded.