NEW YORK TIME REVIEW
Romney vs. Romney
‘The Real Romney,’ by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman
By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE
Published: April 13, 2012
It’s unlikely that Mitt Romney saw the film “The Graduate” when it appeared in 1967. He was a 20-year-old Mormon missionary in France at the time, isolated from the cultural influences that shaped most Americans of the baby-boom generation, and his taste in movies ran to more wholesome fare like “The Sound of Music.” If he had seen it, though, one doubts that he would have scoffed along with his contemporaries during the scene in which a smarmy businessman declares that the key to the future is “plastics.” He might have considered it useful career advice.
Critics have noted Romney’s plastic qualities ever since he entered politics: the elasticity of his views, the android awkwardness of his interactions with voters, his slick evasions and platitudes, his sculptured features and molded hair, and his apparent lack of appetites and passions. But plastic is also durable and indispensable, and although a majority of Republican voters in the primaries so far have preferred Anyone but Romney, he appears poised to win the party’s presidential nomination. Despite the growing possibility that Romney may soon occupy the nation’s highest office, he remains an enigma to most Americans, and his campaign seems predicated on the hope that voters will see in his smooth surfaces whatever they want to see.
The great service of this new biography by the Boston Globe journalists Michael Kranish and Scott Helman is that it humanizes Romney. The authors sniff over their subject with bloodhound thoroughness, dredging up old report cards, housing deeds, and family records and videos. They interview seemingly everyone who had contact with Romney in every phase of his life. They conclude that he is in many ways an admirable man, deeply devoted to his religion and family and possessing stellar qualities that made him a success in business and public service, including his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics and his governorship of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
But “The Real Romney” leaves an unsettling impression. Romney’s peculiar misfortune is that the things that defined him have become liabilities in his presidential pursuit, leading him to minimize or repudiate his own beliefs, legacy and accomplishments. Even as he shifts into the front-runner’s role, he is running on who he is not — namely, Barack Obama — rather than on who he is, and cannot stand openly for the things that matter most to him. If Obama is our first post-racial president, Romney, with his strategy of absences and denials, bids to become our first postmodern president.
Romney’s political problems begin, in a basic sense, with his family history. The authors trace the intertwined histories of Romney’s ancestors and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beginning with his great-great-grandfather Miles Archibald Romney, who became an early convert to Mormonism in 1837. Mitt’s great-grandfather had undertaken the pioneer journey to the Utah Territory as a boy, and when he refused to abandon what Mormons considered the divinely ordained practice of “plural marriage” — he had three wives at that point — he fled federal agents to establish a colony in Mexico; the family remained there after the Mormon Church agreed to ban polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s gaining statehood. Mitt’s grandfather was not polygamous and returned destitute to the United States after Mexican rebels confiscated the colony’s property. Mitt’s father, George Romney, was elected governor of Michigan in 1962, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968, and became a member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development.
It’s an exotic but unquestionably American success story, even though the first generations of Mormon Romneys spent their lives in bitter conflict with the United States. Mitt Romney takes evident “pride in his standing” as a member of “one of Mormonism’s first families,” according to Kranish and Helman. He has given the church millions of dollars and has occupied high positions in its hierarchy. He abides by his faith’s prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and profanity. The authors portray him as an adoring husband, a devoted father and a doer of many unpublicized good deeds.
Mormonism’s emphasis on family, patriotism, community and hard work explains much of Romney’s worldview. The church’s generous support of Mormons in need, financed by the 10 percent tithe on members like Romney, may give him the idea that the poor are well taken care of in America. And his criticism of “the bitter politics of envy” echoes his father’s complaint that his family was forced from his childhood home “because the Mexicans were envious of the fact that my people . . . became prosperous.” Romney’s plastic image to some extent stems from his difficulty in relating to people outside Mormon circles, though within those circles he is seen as warm, funny and charming.
His upstanding life fails to win Romney the political credit that would normally extend to such a paragon, because many people do not understand or approve of the religion that inspires him. Over the last several years, about a quarter of Americans have told poll takers they would not vote for a Mormon. Liberals are skeptical of a religion that until 1978 refused to grant full membership to anybody with even one drop of African blood and still bars women from the priesthood. Mormon leaders have supported extreme right-wing organizations like the John Birch Society, denounced the theory of evolution, condemned much of American popular culture, and led the fights against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the gay marriage movement over the past decade. Christian conservatives might be expected to support Mormonism’s political agenda, but many believe that the religion is not Christian but a heretical and even satanic cult. Because of this opposition from both left and right, Romney is forced to play down his distinctive heritage, resorting instead to generalized expressions of faith and patriotism.
A similar bipartisan mistrust extends to Romney’s accomplishments in business and politics. Kranish and Helman illuminate Romney’s work for Bain & Company and its private equity offshoot, Bain Capital. Prudence, aptitude for data-driven analysis and providence enabled Romney and his team to report what the authors call “the highest returns in the business in the 1990s” and gave Romney a fortune that they estimate as “at least $250 million, and maybe much more.” But many Americans have reservations about leveraged-buyout firms like Bain that acquired struggling companies using borrowed money, saddled them with enormous debt, and often walked away with incredible profits no matter whether the companies prospered or went bust. Even many Tea Party conservatives resent the “creative destruction” that the financial industry brought to bear on companies and communities, and see the loopholes that allowed investors like Romney to pay taxes at lower rates than many working-class Americans as further evidence that the economic system is rigged in favor of the 1 percent.
In 1994, when he was trying to displace the liberal icon Ted Kennedy from the Senate, Romney cast himself as what Kranish and Helman characterize as “a passionate supporter of abortion rights,” as well as a “socially innovative” advocate of gay rights (although not gay marriage), progressive taxation and gun control. He retained these positions as the Republican governor of a Democratic state. His signature political accomplishment was the bipartisan passage of breakthrough health care reform, which the authors deem an overall success, particularly in achieving near-universal insurance coverage for Massachusetts residents.
Romney’s quest to become the presidential nominee of the conservative-dominated Republican Party, though, has required him to jettison his past positions as well as distance himself from his health care program, which was the model for President Obama’s. The authors manfully resist the urge to call Romney a hypocrite for these reversals. They suggest that he has been “applying a business model to politics,” and that in business, “changing positions in an evolving market can be the secret of survival.” Unfortunately, he has not so far succeeded in showing that “his shifts were not expedient but reasoned and heartfelt.” As a result, Romney hasn’t convinced conservatives he has seen the light, while moderates and liberals hope he doesn’t really believe in the increasingly extreme positions he has espoused.
The argument that Romney is not a moderate at heart emerges most clearly in the book’s comparisons between him and his father, who was a leader of the moderate wing of the Republican Party in the 1960s and ’70s. This is ironic, since Mitt has said he “grew up idolizing” his father, and the authors imply that his motivation for wanting to be president is “avenging his father’s loss” in 1968. But Romney appears to have little in common politically with his father, and his candidacy in no way aims to uphold the moderate legacy his father embodied.
George Romney was born into exile and raised in poverty, and he worked his way to prosperity in the automobile industry. As chairman of the American Motors Corporation, he was wealthy but nowhere near as rich as his son became and, unlike his son, was known for refusing bonuses that would have made his income too many multiples of the average worker’s salary. Civil rights for African-Americans was George Romney’s lifelong, passionate cause, undertaken in defiance of his church as well as the conservative wing of his party; Mitt has shown scant inclination to follow his father’s example. Where George saw the dissent and protest of the 1960s as legitimate responses to real social and political problems, Mitt saw only inexplicable disorder and lack of proper deference toward authority.
George Romney governed at a time when Republican moderation meant something. He stood not only for pro-business fiscal conservatism but for civil rights and civil liberties, Republican outreach to minorities and labor, an internationalist but noninterventionist foreign policy, wise public investments in infrastructure and education, and government programs to promote equal opportunities for all Americans. If his son has the courage to champion such positions in the face of conservative opposition within his party, he has given little indication of it in his campaign so far.
On the evidence in this biography, Mitt Romney is not so much a plastic politician as a personally upstanding and generally conservative man who will do whatever it takes to be elected president. His idiosyncratic background and deliberate efforts to obscure his beliefs and accomplishments mean that his election would not represent a victory for the conservative movement, but most likely would significantly advantage the right nonetheless. The blurred outlines of “the real Romney” may come into focus only if and when he occupies the White House.
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s latest book is “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”