By Richard Rayner
Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 17, 2012
Let's face it, Mitt Romney seems more than a little opaque. On the one hand he's über-rich, incredibly smart and nakedly ambitious; on the other he seems somehow robotic, shut-down and so happy to embrace the pragmatic option that the core of his character remains elusive. There's a sense of a man who will eagerly deny even his own best achievements if doing so will help him seize the brass ring. Is he inauthentic or merely trying to find that area known as the common ground?
"The Real Romney" by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman of the Boston Globe lays out Romney's story in full and clear detail, including fascinating in-depth stuff about his family's history, a tale that, going back in time, involves the bloody foundations of Mormonism, as well as plural marriage and a flight to Mexico to avoid prosecution for bigamy.
"Mitt Romney, in his autobiography 'Turnaround,' cited the story of his great-grandfather's dramatic journey but left out most of the details, with no mention of Miles's multiple wives or his perilous assignment to create a sanctuary for polygamy across the border," the authors write. Romney's devotion as a family man and his repugnance of polygamy is duly noted; so is his absolute and continuing commitment to the Mormon faith and his tendency not just to airbrush history away, but to conceal the center of his own self.
Romney has usually done his best to have discussions of his religion taken off of the political agenda. Meanwhile his handsome square-jawed sons hit the campaign trail to persuade a doubtful electorate that their father really is more than just an enigma wrapped in blind trusts and a stupendous Wall Street portfolio.
Willard Mitt Romney was born on March 12, 1947, in Detroit, the son of George Romney, who later became the CEO of American Motors and three-time governor of Michigan. The spoons in Mitt Romney's mouth were not American silver but American gold, in other words, and Kranish and Helman detail an education that began as a slow-burn at the elite prep school of Cranbrook and gained momentum through Stanford, Brigham Young and finally at the business and law schools of Harvard, where he never drank or smoked, made few friends and graduated cum laude.
"Everyone I talked to were all internally driven human beings. They had fire in the belly," explains Janice Stewart, a member of Romney's business school class. "It was expressed in any number of ways, but it was always there, always present. And Mitt's got it big."
Romney's drive took him straight to Wall Street, or the Boston version thereof. In 1984 he co-founded Bain Capital, a private equity spinoff that bought stakes in a multitude of companies. He began to amass a personal fortune now worth as much as $250 million before he launched his political career by taking on an icon, Ted Kennedy, and losing in a 1994 Senate race.
Was Romney a venture capitalist or "vulture" capitalist? Yes, he backed a former supermarket executive, Thomas Stemberg, who saw the huge market potential in office supplies, and thus Staples was born. Then again, there were many other companies in which assets were ruthlessly stripped, jobs slashed.
In 2008, writing in the New York Times, Romney proclaimed that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler should be denied a bailout and allowed to go bankrupt "otherwise you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." History has already proved that advice, which was ignored, to be wrong. But Romney nonetheless still sees capitalism as a form of "creative destruction" with new fiscal life arising from the fiscal blood that's shed.
It's a Darwinian view. Having lived nearly all of his 64 years within the patrician bubble, or the bubble of high finance, Romney's idea of the common touch is to debate with his aides whether the pair of jeans he's about to don should be Levis or Gap 1969s. That's pretty funny.
"It's a big challenge for him, connecting to folks," one former aide tells Kranish and Helman.
Stories of Romney's warmth and generosity come mostly from his family, or from those who know him through his Mormon faith. The writers show Romney taking chicken soup to sick children, rescuing the belongings of a fellow church member from a fire, always ready with financial aid for his church and its followers.
Uglier stories also emerge. Kranish and Helman relate how, in 1983, when Romney was a Mormon bishop in Boston, he threatened a pregnant woman with excommunication unless she gave up her baby for adoption. He allegedly told her, "This is not like, 'You don't get to take Communion.' This is like, 'You will not be saved. You will not see the face of God.'" Romney later denied the woman's claims.
His Mormonism may be the most interesting thing about Romney and it may, oddly, turn out to be the most valuable too. Kranish and Helman report that he once told a church friend that the Romneys were "built to swim upstream." His strategy when playing tennis, another friend notes, is "to hit the ball back one more time than you do." Even Rafael Nadal would buy into that plan.
For somebody who tries to deny that he's a politician Romney has fought and lost an awful lot of campaigns. But he's kept crunching the data and bouncing back. He's durable.
Right now, with his high-wattage smile and carefully plotted appearances minus the power tie, Romney is busy trying to persuade us not only that he's the guy who really knows how business works (and can therefore fix the economy), but also that's he's an outsider who has forged an independent and archetypically American career beyond Washington's backrooms of powers.
The idea is absurd on the face of it. Yet a recent half-hour documentary, titled "When Mitt Romney Came to Town," attacking the predatory leveraged buyout practices of Bain Capital, turns out to have been financed not by Democrats, not by the Occupy Wall Street movement, but by supporters of Newt Gingrich. Such are the messy intricacies of the race for the presidency in 2012.
This book shows us a Mitt Romney for whom family and faith remain unshakable pillars and who knows that his "power-ally is money." "Could the multimillionaire persuade the everyman that he knows what it means to struggle?" Kranish and Helman ask, reporting on a Romney fundraiser late last year. "Romney and his campaign hoped that the moment — one of great economic anxiety — perfectly matched his turnaround message. If Romney couldn't sell that, he couldn't sell anything."
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."
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