Paul Greenberg
Americans keep saying we want our politicians to level with us, tell us what they truly think, not just go down the familiar list of talking points, giving us the usual collection of platitudes and hoping to be all things to all people. But when a presidential candidate does come right out with it, and tell it with the bark off, we are shocked, shocked.

The chattering class calls such statements gaffes and never tires of repeating them for their shock value -- rather than ask whether there might be some truth, even disturbing truth, behind the comments. It's so much easier to dismiss all such statements as gaffes. Or just use them as fodder for partisan outrage.

As any observer of politics has been told, and may even have said, the more truth in such statements, the bigger the gaffe. Which brings us to this week's gaffe celebre -- a rambling, off-the-cuff talk that Mitt Romney made to some big givers months ago, and that now has become a video hit. To quote what he said verbatim:

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

"I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49 -- he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. He'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

As his remarks drew flak from all directions, Mitt Romney quickly acknowledged that his views were "not elegantly stated." Clumsily stated might have been a more accurate description. And at least on one point just plain wrong: Of course his job as president, even as a presidential candidate, is to convince all Americans, whether dependent on government or not, to take personal responsibility for our lives. The presidency of the United States is a bully pulpit, and a president ought to use it. A president is a preacher and a teacher, too, and a teacher needs to reach everyone in the classroom.

Like most political claims based on just one statistic drawn out of a world of them, that figure of 47 percent of Americans not paying income tax raises more questions than it addresses:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.