Book review: ‘The Real Romney,’ by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman

The position of Republican presidential aspirant, like that of New York Giants quarterback, is rich in patrilineal psychodrama. There is the slowly unfurling, three-generation saga of the Bushes; the meticulous dutifulness of John McCain, who followed his father and grandfather into the Navy; and now the fascinating case of Rand Paul, who is trying the tricky feat of at once upholding and modernizing his father Ron’s orthodox libertarianism.

The complexity of these relationships isn’t surprising — it is difficult living with a potent legacy. But if each of these famous sons has subtly recoiled from the model of his father, there is no such truculence in Mitt Romney, whose life, in its schedule and in its imagery, has mirrored his father’s almost exactly, with George Romney’s success acting as an advance advertisement for his eldest son. “When I saw Mitt, I instantly saw George Romney,” says Bill Bain, the man who picked Mitt to start the investment firm Bain Capital.

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(Harper) - “The Real Romney” by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman.

The younger Romney has done what he can to deepen the impression: He announced his first run for president in Michigan, a state where he had never been a public figure but his father had, as a lauded auto executive and then as governor. Next to Mitt onstage was a vintage Nash Rambler, the car that represented the triumph of George Romney’s business career. “His whole life,” said John Wright, a close family friend, “was following a pattern which had been laid out by his dad.”

Political observers have long noted the ways in which the shadow of the father, an iconic establishment figure — as a businessman, the savior of Detroit, as a politician, a moderate, pro-civil-rights Republican — has served Romney well and helped spur his career. But a curious hole at the center of Romney’s public persona has become more obvious during this presidential campaign. No one seems to know what his principles are or what motivates his involvement in politics, and the candidate has not seemed eager to let people know. This, too, may owe something to having inherited a calling.

We know from Mitt’s wife, Ann, that one morning in the summer of 1993 she woke up and, invoking the Romney family legacy, argued forcefully that Mitt had a responsibility to go into politics, and fast. (We also know that her husband’s first response was to dive under the covers.) A few months later, Romney was challenging Ted Kennedy in the Massachusetts Senate race. What we don’t know — what Ann Romney has not reported — is the precise dynamic of her husband’s decision: Did he volunteer, or was he pushed?

For any biographer, Romney presents — to put it gently — a high degree of difficulty. Not only is the former Massachusetts governor deeply cautious, but the two institutions that have been perhaps the most important to life and his career — the Mormon Church and the private-equity firm Bain Capital — are heavily fortified and stonily non-transparent. Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, veteran Boston Globe reporters, have assembled in “The Real Romney” a genuinely compelling story and a more thorough record of Romney’s life than has yet appeared. But their account nevertheless fails to penetrate Fort Romney’s formidable defenses. Theirs is a portrait of Romney as a public figure, its narrative exposing not so much the man as the career.

Many questions remain: Why is Romney in politics? When it comes to issues such as abortion, on which he has taken opposite positions at different times, does he have principles or beliefs? What does he think he is defending? Kranish and Helman do not exactly ask or answer these questions. But the mass of evidence and insight they’ve gathered reveals a man who has devoted himself not to elaborating a new politics but to doggedly making the philosophy of his father — a slightly anachronistic, executive-suite Republicanism in which politics is not defined by the interplay of interest groups or social movements but by the decisions of leaders — come to life.

Mitt Romney was born in 1947, early in the baby boom, but in Kranish and Helman’s telling, he managed to avoid the tidal movements of his generation. His status as the son of a governor — the media began speculating about a political future for Mitt when he was in his teens — and his Mormonism kept him apart from the common experiences of his era. At the elite Detroit private school Cranbrook (where classmates, surprisingly, recalled him mostly as a dedicated, though G-rated, prankster) and then at Stanford (where he mingled mostly with other Young Republican types), Romney gave the impression of being good-natured, inconspicuously smart and popular, and having a perfectly formed idea of where he was headed. He proposed marriage to Ann Davies, then 16 years old, a few weeks after they met, and by the time he was 24 they’d had their first child and Mitt was driving the car east for business school.

Romney is perhaps the only major politician of his generation who does not exhibit either enthusiasm or contempt for the tumult of the ’60s, possibly because he did not really take part in his generation. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he struck many as a decade older — mature, a good steward. Soon he was elected bishop of the Mormon Church in Boston and picked to run Bain Capital.

To those who knew him well, Romney seemed introverted and socially stiff — “the tin man,” one business partner called him — and he often created “a boundary that’s difficult to traverse,” Helman and Kranish write, leaving even those “who have worked with or known him for years outside the bubble.” His Mormonism kept him from drinking with the guys after work, but there was a self-isolating streak to him as well: His social life was his family life, and Kranish and Helman have found few sources willing to call Romney “friend.”

What he had instead were people who respected him and his impersonal, rigorous, data-driven habit of leadership — not followers, exactly, but something closer to vice presidents. His subordinates at Bain Capital, the authors write, were “utterly loyal.” On the evidence Kranish and Helman present, Romney’s most important adult relationship may not have been with any individual but with the idea of authority in general.

By any standard, Romney has been a remarkably effective institutional leader. Bain Capital, an early private-equity firm, was a tool for modernizing American industry, and many of the very young, very bright men he hired to work for him viewed themselves as buccaneers. Romney, the authors write, was “by nature deeply risk averse in a business based on risk.” But he had a near-absolute devotion to data and a fine-grained sense of the emerging science of management, and these traits made him a uniquely successful buyout artist. Romney and his group disdained Wall Street’s use of innovative financial instruments and stumbled backward into the great boom of the Internet. But with company after company, he and his associates improved efficiency, focused the product line and turned deficits into profits.

Romney seems most comfortable working within the established roles and hierarchies of the business world, and his social awkwardness seems to set in when he is forced to operate outside of it. There is the strange episode of Seamus, the family Irish setter, whom Mitt (in an effort to engineer a more efficient cross-country trip) strapped to the roof of the car as it roared down the interstate, until the animal defecated all over the windshield. More telling is his general stiffness around women, which appears again and again in this biography, often in the form of gaffes. Deliciously, Kranish and Helman capture Romney in his first campaign, for Kennedy’s Senate seat in 1994, shaking hands in Waltham, when a woman turned away from him. “Don’t run,” he said, “I’ll shake your hand anyway.” When the woman turned back, Romney said, “I know, you haven’t got your makeup on yet.” The woman protested, “I do! I do!” And Romney responded, “You do! You do!” He laughed nervously. “Good to see you!”

During this presidential campaign, Romney has sometimes seemed unable to comprehend the moral argument against his Bain Capital investments, which often resulted in job losses. In his first political bid, the authors write, Romney’s team was caught completely unprepared for Kennedy’s attack on Bain-instituted layoffs, and the problem has not seemed to diminish: Romney’s defense of Bain has been so poor that even Newt Gingrich, not a natural soldier for laid-off blue-collar labor, launched an effective attack.

But the character trait that was visible in the campaign debates — a certain lack of sympathy for those whom the decisions of the powerful have left behind — is even more vivid in the arresting anecdotes Kranish and Helman compile about Romney’s work as a church leader. We see him arriving in the home of a pregnant, 23-year-old, single Mormon woman named Peggie Hayes and threatening her with excommunication if she does not agree to give the child up for adoption. The authors show him counseling another woman, whose eight-week pregnancy threatened her health, to bring the fetus to term. (“As your bishop my concern is with the child,” he tells her.) When he peevishly signed off on another Mormon woman’s request to visit a temple in Washington (she had been married to a non-Mormon, which meant she needed the church’s institutional permission), he told her: “Judy, I don’t understand why you stay in the church. . . . You’re not my kind of Mormon.”

Romney’s great trait as a leader has been his devotion to process over vision. At Bain Capital, he managed to build profits in unlikely industries; as the chief executive of the Salt Lake Olympics, he turned around a failing enterprise; as governor of Massachusetts, he saw the merits of universal health care and acted. As governor, he could not address abortion as a matter of principle when his aides tried to talk him though his wildly shifting positions on the issue; instead, he needed to construct specific scenarios (how would he feel about a late-term abortion? should an underage patient tell her parents?) and build a politics from those.

And without a movement to lead, this elemental faith in his own management capabilities — the core of Romney’s case for himself — sometimes looks suspiciously like a personality cult. In the 2004 Massachusetts state elections, he spent much of his political capital trying to build up the Republican Party in the statehouse and failed badly. “From now on,” he said afterward, “it’s me, me, me.” A few years earlier, having dramatically and successfully rescued the Salt Lake Olympics, he compared himself to Dwight Eisenhower and became the first Olympics executive ever to issue commemorative pins with his own image. One read, “Hey Mitt . . . We love you!”

Once, early in the 2008 presidential campaign, Romney’s media consultant, the iconoclastic Republican Alex Castellanos, showed the candidate a PowerPoint presentation outlining his vulnerabilities. “Perception — phony. Slick — not human (hair?). You do not know where WMR [Willard Mitt Romney] comes from. No story beyond cold business, Olympic turnaround, CEO governor.” Castellanos, as usual, was perfectly on target. A little more than four years and two presidential campaigns later, these same descriptions could still apply.

The estimable columnist Frank Rich, in trying to make sense of Romney, argued recently that the candidate’s core seems so slippery because he has declined to speak frankly about his religion, therefore denying the public access to his deepest convictions. But the mass of detail assembled in “The Real Romney” suggests another answer. Perhaps the candidate has such lack of interest and difficulty in articulating his principles because he simply assumed that the right ones were already in place.

“I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t know how far back I’d have to look to see it in my ancestry,” Romney once said. “But there’s a sense of obligation to help my country, to help my family, to give back in some respects.”

Perhaps what we are viewing in Romney is not the problem of the opportunist, but the problem of the perfect son.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and Rolling Stone.

THE REAL ROMNEY

By Michael Kranish and Scott Helman

Harper. 401 pp. $27.99

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