Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

POLITICS: The Real RomneyBy Michael Kranish and Scott Helman HarperCollins, 401pp. £17.99

WHEN MITT ROMNEY was growing up in Michigan he wanted to be like the popular, athletic boys. He signed up for a two and a half mile race but finished last. “Mitt kept falling and getting up, falling and getting up, and eventually he just crawled across the line,” one of his schoolfriends told the authors of this book, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, both journalists at the Boston Globe.

Romney had forgotten to pace himself, ran too fast at the beginning, and cramped up. But the crowd was so impressed by his determination that it rose to its feet, giving him a standing ovation.

Some 50 years later, Romney is pursuing the Republican presidential nomination with similar doggedness. Probably the richest man ever to stand for the presidency of the United States, Romney is a glutton for punishment. He has lost more elections than he has won, suffering humiliating defeats at the hands of the late Teddy Kennedy in 1994 (for the Senate) and John McCain in 2008 (for the Republican nomination), and squandering tens of millions of dollars in his quest for office.

Romney showed his masochistic streak when he dropped out of Stanford University to become a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s. “As you can imagine, it’s quite an experience to go to Bordeaux and say: ‘Give up your wine! I’ve got a great religion for you!’ ” Romney said later. “It was good training for how life works. I mean, rejection of one kind or another is going to be an important part of everyone’s life.”

In the San Francisco Bay area, and again in France, Romney was a horrified witness to the anti-war protests and cultural revolutions that transformed the latter part of the 20th century. At 19, he was photographed at Stanford University, wearing a sports jacket and white shirt – still his standard attire – and holding a placard denouncing a campus sit-in. All his life, Romney has sided with authority and order. It is ironic that such a conformist has long been considered an outsider, by virtue of his religion.

Romney was terrified of losing his girlfriend, Ann Davies, to whom he had proposed marriage when she was 16. A wall in the Paris apartment that Romney shared with other Mormon missionaries was papered with “Dear John” break-up letters from impatient girlfriends back home. Ann was much sought after by the young men at Brigham Young University. She eventually sent Romney a letter saying she “had feelings for” a basketball player. Romney persuaded her to wait, and renewed his proposal the day he returned home. They married when she was 19 and he was 22, and will celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary next month.

The Romneys are aristocrats within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney’s full name is Willard Mitt Romney; the Willard is for J Willard Marriott, a family friend and the founder of the hotel chain.

Romney’s ancestor Miles A Romney was an English carpenter and a poor distant cousin of the 18th-century portrait painter George Romney. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were converted by Mormon missionaries to Britain in 1837 and took the boat to the United States, where Miles became a builder of Mormon temples.

The story of Miles A and his son Miles P – Mitt’s great-grandfather – is a cracking tale of covered wagons crossing the prairies, of losing everything, time and again, and starting over. Miles P’s first wife, Hannah, wept when he was ordered to take “plural wives”, and eventually committed her sorrows to a memoir. When the federal government banned polygamy, at the end of the 19th century, Miles and four of his five wives established a colony in Mexico, where Mitt’s father and grandfather were born. Most of the family returned to the US at the time of the 1912 Mexican revolution.

The Romney family history is a quintessentially American story, down to the Mormons’ belief that Christ will return to the state of Missouri. But Romney so fears ridicule that he never alludes to Miles P’s mission to save polygamy. The saga is reduced to one sentence in Romney’s autobiography, Turnaround: “Eventually Miles was called upon to settle in northern Mexico.”

In a similar way, Romney evades discussion of his greatest political achievement, which was to enact healthcare reform as governor of Massachusetts in 2006. Thanks to him, more inhabitants of Massachusetts have healthcare coverage than those of any other state. But the law requires that those who are able to must purchase medical insurance. This system served as a template for “Obamacare”. Conservative Republicans will never forgive Romney for it.

The Mormon church is staffed by lay clergy, and Romney served as a bishop and stake president (the equivalent of an archbishop) while he was amassing his fortune in high finance. He gave moral and financial support to a family whose sons were crippled in an accident, rescued belongings from a burning house, even destroyed a hornet’s nest for a parishioner. But when Mormons strayed from church doctrine, Romney was severe. He tried to persuade an unwilling single mother to give up her infant for adoption, hectored a pregnant woman whose life was threatened by a uterine blood clot notto have an abortion and told a feminist that she was “not kind of Mormon”.

Romney’s business record is equally ambiguous. He delivered spectacular results at Bain Capital, giving clients an average 88 per cent annual return for 15 years. Romney is a proponent of “creative destruction”, Joseph Schumpeter’s 1940s theory that companies – and jobs – have to be sacrificed for capitalism to thrive. For example, when Bain sold a medical testing firm in 1993, it tripled its investment, reaping $500,000 for Romney alone. The following day, 115 people were fired.

Descriptions of Romney’s 1994, 2004 and 2008 campaigns give one a sense of deja-vu: the millions of dollars in television advertising, the ability to shift positions effortlessly on major issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, when it’s politically expedient. Then, and now, voters ask: who is the real Mitt Romney?

He started life as the adored baby of four children and was exceptionally close to his father, George, whose handsome looks he inherited. At 16, he interned in Dad’s office, when George was governor of Michigan. Romney tried to replicate everything George did: his business acumen (George had been chairman of American Motors), his political career (as presidential hopeful and governor of a large state), even his marriage. George gave up university to follow Romney’s mother, Lenore, a budding starlet, to Hollywood, talked her out of a $50,000 film contract and persuaded her to become “sealed” for eternity with him in the Mormon tabernacle.

George and Lenore Romney fought so much that their grandchildren called them “the Bickersons”. Yet George gave Lenore a single rose every day of their marriage. By contrast, Mitt and Ann Romney claim they have never quarrelled.

Romney snr fought for equal rights for African-Americans when the cause was unpopular with Republicans. He lost the 1968 Republican presidential nomination to Richard Nixon largely because of his honesty about the Vietnam War. George Romney told a television interviewer that he’d been “brainwashed” by US diplomats on a journey to southeast Asia. He had since studied the country’s history and changed his mind. “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop communist aggression,” he said. “It was tragic that we became involved in the conflict.”

One cannot imagine Mitt Romney saying anything so courageous. Indeed, his sister Jane told Kranish and Helman that the episode affected the young Romney. “He’s not going to put himself out on a limb,” she said. “He’s more cautious, more scripted.” Before he ran for office, George Romney hesitated whether to declare as a Democrat or a Republican. Lenore Romney ran a failed campaign for the US senate on a vaguely pro-abortion platform.

Moderate Republicanism is in Mitt Romney’s genes, but, as Christopher Orr writes in the New Republic, he makes a “desperate, if never terribly persuasive, impersonation of a conservative Republican. That persona – angry, simple-minded, xenophobic, jingoistic – is exactly what Romney (who is himself cultured, content, and cosmopolitan) imagines the average GOP voter to be.”

Mitt Romney has an impressive résumé, but after 18 years in politics, the aura of authenticity still eludes him. If he doesn’t find it fast, the Republican nomination may slip from his grasp. Or he may win the nomination, and lose to Barack Obama.

Lara Marlowe is Washington Correspondent