Mitt Romney’s complex relationship with religion, family explored in new book
On the stump, GOP White House hopeful and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney “loves dichotomies,” write Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in a forthcoming book. “Strong versus weak, stagnation versus prosperity, leadership versus drift.”
Those familiar with Romney’s biography are well aware of that theme of contrast, which defines many aspects of his life — including his relationship with his father, former Michigan governor and onetime presidential hopeful George Romney; his evolution on policy issues; and his ties to his Mormon faith, which has its roots in his great-great-grandfather’s conversion and subsequent immigration to the United States from an English village nearly two centuries ago.
In “The Real Romney,” set for release Tuesday by HarperCollins, the veteran Boston Globe reporters make the theme central to their portrait of a complicated man. Enamored of his father’s idealism and brashness, the Romney they show is also deeply pragmatic and often struggles to connect with those outside his inner circle. He is tolerant of differences but possessed of strong religious convictions that at times have led him to clash with others in the Mormon church.
The Post obtained an advance copy of the book.
The contrasts that define Romney’s story stretch back generations, to his great-grandfather, Miles P. Romney, who had five wives and more than 30 children. In the 1880s, he was ordered by church officials to flee the United States, where anti-polygamy laws were tightening, and founded a Mormon colony in Mexico where plural marriage could thrive.
Twenty-seven years later, after the Mormon church had reversed its stand on polygamy, the Romneys again found themselves in exile: Miles P. Romney’s son Gaskell and Gaskell’s wife, Anna, were forced to flee revolutionaries in Mexico and seek refuge back in the United States. Making the journey with them was their son, 5-year-old George Romney, the future governor of Michigan and father of Mitt.
Whereas Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather, Miles A. Romney, and his wife were destitute when they left their English village in 1841 to migrate to America, future generations of Romneys went on to achieve great wealth — up to and including Mitt, whose net worth had grown to as much as $250 million by 2007, the authors estimate.
But Mitt Romney’s family history is just the start, according to the book. His relationship with his father was marked by contrasts just as sharp.
“Alike in so many ways, George and Mitt Romney had distinct views of politics,” Kranish and Helman write. “George was famously headstrong and outspoken, willing to follow his gut where it took him. . . . If George Romney shot from the hip, his son, before he shoots at all, carefully studies the target, lines up the barrel just right, and might even fire a few practice rounds. Mitt Romney, who saw the shortcomings of his father’s approach, has often been more inclined to identify the consequence he wants, then figure out how to get there.”
Those differences have been both a boon and a stumbling block for Mitt Romney. His analytical bent led him to success at the helm of Bain Capital and, later, in his efforts to save the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. But it has also led to some strained encounters on the campaign trail, such as one exchange at a shelter for homeless veterans during his 1994 Massachusetts Senate bid that Kranish and Helman describe:
After giving his pitch, Romney was talking to the center’s director, Ken Smith. Romney asked him what his biggest problem was. Smith said that just that morning, he’d met with the guy in charge of food services for the shelter and learned that the high price of milk was killing their budget. ... Romney attempted a joke: why don’t you just teach the veterans how to milk cows? Then he was out the door. Smith was stunned. “One of the press guys said, ‘Did he just tell you to have veterans milk cows?’ I said, ‘That’s what I heard,’ ” Smith recalled. “It did rub everyone the wrong way.”
Romney later quietly worked out a deal, the authors write, to cover part of the center’s milk costs for the next few years, a move that underscored another part of his character — his “tremendous charitable impulse when people needed help.”
What Romney appears to have shared with his father — in addition to his drive to pursue higher office — is a readiness to stake out a moderate stand on social issues at points in his career.
George Romney butted heads with Mormon leaders over their refusal to let African Americans serve in the priesthood; he also stormed out of the 1964 Republican National Convention and refused to endorse Barry Goldwater over the GOP nominee’s lack of support for civil rights legislation. Mitt Romney, too, embraced a similarly moderate profile during his 1994 Senate run, although that would change with time.
When it comes to the matter of his faith, Romney’s time as a young missionary in France was apparently pivotal. He converted only 10 to 20 people during his two and a half years in the town of Le Havre, but the experience was a defining one for him, Kranish and Helman write: “Having begun his mission with what he called thin ties to the faith, he became a stalwart believer.”
Those beliefs later caused Romney some tense moments during his years as a lay leader in the Boston area Mormon church, according to the authors. They recount a 1983 story, first reported in 1994 by the Boston Globe, in which Peggie Hayes, then a 23-year-old single mother who used to babysit the Romneys’ children as a teenager, one day received a visit from Romney, who was the local church leader at the time.
Hayes, then pregnant with her second child, recalled that Romney urged her to give up her son for adoption or else face excommunication from the church. Romney has denied that he ever made such a threat, but Hayes “said his message was crystal clear: ‘Give up your son, or give up your God,’ ” Helman and Kranish write. Hayes went on to keep the child and later decided to leave the Mormon church.
The book also portrays other dichotomies in Romney’s life. When Romney in 1991 agreed to take charge of Bain, then on the brink of collapse, he found himself in a showdown with a banker from Goldman Sachs who recommended he let the firm go bankrupt, according to Kranish and Helman:
The discussion grew increasingly heated. As Romney made his pitch, the Goldman banker said, “Shut up,” and told him that Bain & Company’s best hope was to file for bankruptcy protection, according to a Bain partner. Romney rose to his feet, and the other partners in the room thought he might launch across the table and hit the banker; they had rarely seen him so angry.
According to Kranish and Helman, Romney “would embrace (the idea of bankruptcy) when it came to reorganizing other failing companies, given his belief in the creative destruction of capitalism. But if Bain & Company went bankrupt, hundreds of jobs would be lost and Romney’s effort would be seen as a failure.”
If there is one overarching contrast that has defined Romney both personally and politically, it has been the distinction between his relationship with those in his inner circle and those outside it. One former aide is quoted in the book as saying of Romney: “He’s very engaging and charming in a small group of friends he’s comfortable with. When he’s with people he doesn’t know, he gets more formal. And if it’s a political thing where he doesn’t know anybody, he has a mask.”
Such a contrast was evident in a 2006 meeting the authors recount between Mitt and Ann Romney and Doug Gross, who later went on to chair Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign in Iowa. Gross noted that Romney was “fabulously successful” and asked him, “Can you really relate to an average voter?”
At that, Romney’s wife, Ann, stormed out of the room. Romney, in turn, became so angry and insulted that “he didn’t talk to me the rest of the night,” Gross said — even when the two men later sat side by side at a women’s collegiate basketball championship game. “It was the coldest shoulder I’ve ever experienced.”
Kranish and Helman note: “The things that troubled Gross at the outset — Romney’s defensiveness when challenged, his resistance to advice from outside his immediate circle, his failure to face just how little he knew about running for president — would ultimately drive his campaign down a very bumpy road.”
Now, years later, Romney again finds himself on the road to the presidency. And as was evident in his New Hampshire primary night speech, the former Massachusetts governor is intent on drawing as clear a contrast as possible between himself and the opponent he hopes to meet in the general election, President Obama.
But for all their differences, Romney and Obama shared something, albeit briefly, in the early days of the 2008 campaign, the authors reveal:
The media team urged Romney to counter [charges that he was a flip-flopper] with a forward-looking brand. One of the slides suggested that Romney use this as his catchphrase: “Yes, we can.” But Barack Obama would take it before Romney could.