Tin Man looks set to tackle Spock in battle of Harvard grads

Mon, Jan 16, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Obama and Romney share matching traits that can make them seem alien and exotic

WHAT A choice we’ll have in the autumn: one man on a pedestal, another behind a wall.

Democrats and independents may have fallen out of love with President Barack Obama, but Republicans and independents can’t fall in love with Mitt Romney. The two Harvard Law School grads are heading into a match with oddly matching flaws: both became famous while staying enigmatic and inaccessible.

If Obama is Spock, Romney is the Tin Man. If Obama failed to rein in Wall Street vultures, Romney reigned among Wall Street vultures.

The Republican frontrunner is fighting back in South Carolina against charges from rivals that he was a heartless plunderer at Bain. The jobless statistics, he said at a rally in Aiken, South Carolina, represent “real people and real suffering”. Ignoring his own tax plan, which would help the wealthy and hurt the poor, Romney adopted a heartfelt tone: “I’m concerned about the poor in this country. We have to make sure the safety net is strong and able to help those who can’t help themselves. I’m not terribly worried about the very wealthiest in our society. They’re doing just fine.”

Neither the president nor his likely challenger is a backslapping bon vivant type. Both like to see themselves as pragmatists and saviours; both have backgrounds that make them seem alien and exotic to some voters.

As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman recount in The Real Romney, when Alex Castellanos was a media adviser for Romney’s presidential run in 2007, he prepared a PowerPoint presentation war-gaming lines of Democratic attack. He predicted that Willard Mitt Romney could be depicted as “phony”, “slick – not human (hair?)” and “you do not know where WMR comes from”. Romney’s religion pulls a curtain over parts of his life story because some important moments for Mormons are restricted to Mormons.

After Mitt and Ann were married in Michigan in 1969, they flew to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City for a ceremony where Mitt wore white robes and they were “sealed” for eternity. But Ann’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed inside to see it.

Romney recoiled from 1960s counterculture and was “proudly square” as he went from seeing The Sound of Musicwith Ann to avoiding the Grateful Dead at college, Kranish and Helman report. While Stanford classmates like David Harris organised protests against the Vietnam War, Mitt got a deferment to go to Paris as a Mormon missionary.

His position on the war mirrored his dad’s. When George Romney was for it, Mitt was for it; when George turned against it, so did Mitt, agreeing that Americans had been “brainwashed”.

At Harvard, Romney was in a non-drinking, non-smoking, suburban, uxorious bubble with Ann, revolving around Mormon rituals, Mormon couples and the Mormon credo of strong, heterosexual, traditional families.

“The parental roles were clear,” the authors of The Real Romneywrite. “Mitt would have the career, and Ann would run the house.” Mitt was tolerant with friends and did not proselytise, but his world, then as now, centres on his faith, his family, and, most of all, Ann.

Once while he was at Stanford, he missed Ann so much he auctioned off his camel’s hair coat to pay for a trip home to see her. (His father had cut back his allowance to make him study.) At campaign stops 47 years later, he still calls her “my sweetheart” and “my girlfriend.” Some former Romney advisers say that bringing Mormonism into the mainstream is part of why he wants to be president.

But he tries to soothe skittish evangelicals here by promising not to be “pastor in chief”. The Boston Globereported in 2006 that Romney’s political team privately talked with church leaders about building a nationwide network of Mormon supporters called “Mutual Values and Priorities”, using alumni chapters of Brigham Young University’s business school. Jeffrey Holland, one of the 12 apostles of the church, was involved in the plan.

The Real Romneyoffers details about his days as a bishop of his church in Boston, including the time he sought out a single mother named Peggie Hayes and advised her to give up her soon- to-be-born son for adoption. She claims he threatened her with excommunication; he denies that.

The book also features a colourful history of the candidate’s polygamous Mormon ancestors living in Illinois, Utah and Mexico – running from the law at times – that evokes the HBO series Big Love. Mitt’s great-grandfather Miles was happily married to a young woman of Scottish descent named Hannah, with two daughters, when Brigham Young ordered him to take another wife.

At 80, in a memoir written for her family, Hannah was still able to recall the jealousy and tantrums of the second wife and the depth of her own distress: “I felt that was more than I could endure, to have him divide his time and affections. I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow . . . If anything will make a woman’s heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife.”