Amid a campaign of American exceptionalism, reminders of Romney’s international past

Campaigning in Ohio last week, Mitt Romney suggested he was the presidential candidate most in sync with the national spirit, accusing President Obama of being “out of touch with the character of America” and promoting a philosophy “so foreign to us, we can’t even understand it.”

Romney, fond though he is of singing “America the Beautiful” and describing the “special gift” of his nationality, is, himself, no stranger to the wider world. His 21 / 2-year mission to France shaped his Mormonism. The internationalism at Harvard accented his education. His foreign travel as a young consultant, the early Central American investment in Bain Capital and the windfall he received from deals in Italy all boosted his signature business. He uses his chairmanship of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, literally the world’s games, as Exhibit A to make his case as a turnaround artist.

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This week, Romney is to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies in London and make stops in Israel and Poland. The trip offers him a platform to highlight his extensive travel as a salesman of American-centric beliefs, but it also serves as a reminder that the world has curved Romney’s trajectory.

Opening the door

Before Mitt Romney ventured out into the world, the world came to him. In 1959, the Romney family opened its Bloomfield Hills home to Attilio Cortella, an Italian exchange student who had won a scholarship from the American Field Service to study in the United States. Cortella had no idea who the Romneys were, and he was impressed at receiving a letter in Italy from Mitt’s mother, Lenore, saying that the only two families she knew in Italy were the Agnellis and Pininfarinas, the equivalent in America of the Kennedys or the Fords.

Soon enough, young Mitt was bidding Cortella farewell with “ciaos” and “arrivedercis” and serenading him with the “Volare” chorus of the then-popular “Nel blu dipinto di blu.” On a road trip, Cortella expressed astonishment at how much gas the relatively small American Ramblers swallowed compared with the tiny Fiat 600s. “With your full tank,” Cortella recalled saying, “we can last for a month!” Mitt, he said, found the notion of the tiny Italian car hysterical.

Romney participated in his prep school’s World Affairs Seminar and was a member of the American Field Service club, which promoted the program that had earlier brought Cortella into his home, and raised money to support a German student on campus.

Starting as a freshman at Stanford University in 1966, Romney received a series of deferments, including one for his role as a “minister of religion or divinity student,” that kept him out of Vietnam. His mission instead led him to France.

French connection

As a missionary, Romney had one free day a week. Preparation Day, or P Day, as the missionaries called it, fell on Mondays, and it allowed them a brief glimpse of the more traditional, if less wine-drenched, expat experience.

Romney went with friends in the seaside tourist town of Biarritz to take pictures of the Rocher de la Vierge, a rock outcropping that resembles the Virgin Mary, and then climbed a nearby hill to write “Mitt Loves Ann” in the wet sand. In Roman ruins outside Le Havre, a port city at the mouth of the Seine, he struck an authoritative pose next to a statue of Julius Caesar. In Paris, he ate couscous in the Latin Quarter.

On specially arranged Monday viewings at the Louvre, he took in the depictions of Christ by the old masters with George Keele and other missionaries but avoided the Impressionists for their lack of religious iconography and preference for nudes.

Romney arrived in July 1966, learning the language in a Normandy class that emphasized the memorization of French along with proselytizing conversation and reciting of Joseph Smith’s 13 Articles of Faith (“10: Zion (the new Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent . . .”). He was both immersed in and separate from French culture, trying to draw in French converts with USA nights, according to “The Real Romney,” a biography by two Boston Globe reporters. But the bonds among his fellow missionaries grew strong.

In Bayonne, he awoke in the middle of the night covered in fleas and told Keele the infestation reminded him of the crowded religious meetings in Salt Lake City: “ ‘It was like somebody called general conference in my navel!’ ”

His faith strengthened, too. “You are thrust into this situation where you are saying, ‘Gee, I’m standing out on people’s doorsteps and telling them this is true. Do I really know this is true? Or is that I heard my parents say this is true?’ ” said Dane McBride, now a doctor in Virginia, who met Romney at language training in Normandy. He said that he and Romney had pensive discussions about Mormon scripture and fortified their faith through the pursuit of new believers. “The more you do that, the more it enforces itself.”

By the end of his mission, Romney had become a leader. At meetings Romney spoke, Keele said, in a voice trembling with emotion about “the work and about his love for the people of France, his love for the Lord.”

When the Paris strikes in the spring of 1968 brought down phone lines, the church’s French mission prepared for evacuation, informing missionaries that a telegram reading “pack books” meant to gather their belongings. During that tense period, the mission president called on Romney, his newly promoted assistant, to drive to France’s southern border. With the home numbers of fellow missionaries in hand, he crossed into Spain and found a working phone line.

“This is Elder Romney,” the 21-year-old told thankful parents, according to Keele, the fellow missionary. “I just thought I’d call and give you an assurance that the missionaries are all fine.”

Romney was to endure much worse in France — notably a horrific auto accident in which the car he was driving was struck head-on, killing one of his passengers, his mission president’s wife. But he still came away proud of his time abroad and would mock his American-stationed counterparts by singing, to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”:

When you’re alone

And life is making you lonely,

You can always go

Stateside.

‘The world is our campus’

Romney’s foreign experience deepened his reverence for the stability provided by his country, family and faith. It was a worldview he solidified at Brigham Young University, where signs at the entrance declare: “The world is our campus.”

He took that perspective to the Harvard business school, where he would sometimes address Eric Dufaure, a French student who described his crew as the “wild Euros,” as “Monsieur Dufaure” and then sprinkle his conversation with French bons mots to “show that we weren’t total aliens to him,” Dufaure said.

On campus one day, Romney spoke about his missionary years to classmate Patrice Caillat, son of a Swiss diplomat and another member of the so-called “Chalet Group,” named for the ski houses those students rented together. Romney told him how the mission allowed him to experience the world through the prism of modest means.

Romney’s exposure to an international milieu continued after graduation from Harvard in 1975, when he befriended Benjamin Netanyahu at the Boston Consulting Group and began working often in Europe. The international business travel continued as he made the leap to Bain & Co., although his curiosity rarely took him out of the office.

“When Mitt was out of town, he worked,” said Jim McCurry, a Romney protégé at Bain who helped open the firm’s London office in 1979. “In his mind, being out of town was being away from his family.”

Romney showed his interest in the world in other ways. In 1984, when Romney took over Bain & Co. offshoot Bain Capital, $6.5 million of the $37 million in the firm’s first fund came from Central American investors.

“Romney and I traveled to Miami to meet with a group of my former clients and friends from Central America who were looking for good investments,” Harry Strachan, a Bain partner, wrote in a self-published memoir, “Bain Stories.”

Peter Tornquist, a senior Bain partner in Europe at the time, helped Romney put together the fund’s first investment outside of the United States, in a German book wholesaler called Libri.

“It was a deal that we had through friends and connections found and brought to Bain Capital’s attention,” Tornquist said.

Romney joined roving meetings with an advisory board consisting of captains of European industry, including former Royal Dutch Shell leader Andre Benard; Umberto Agnelli of the Fiat dynasty; and Herbert Gruenewald, a professor and chairman of the Bayer Group.

In the company of the power brokers, Romney would ask what Bain should do differently to absorb the cultures and the business climates in the countries where it operated. And when friendly cracks were made at the expense of Americans, Tornquist said Romney would gamely respond, “Don’t be so damned French.”

When Bain & Co. ran into serious financial difficulties, the global partners asked Romney to return and rescue the original firm. Romney succeeded, and he called his ascension “an exciting opportunity for the worldwide organization” in an Oct. 30, 1990, company statement that noted Bain’s foreign offices in Toronto, Brussels, Geneva, London, Milan, Moscow, Munich, Paris, Sydney and Tokyo. The release also announced Romney’s immediate reduction of worldwide staff by 15 percent.

With Bain & Co. shored up, Romney returned to Bain Capital in 1992 and enjoyed a remarkably lucrative run. For the company’s worldwide retreat in 1993, he flew to the luxury Hotel Pitrizza on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, where he danced with his wife, Ann, and played volleyball with members of the office.

“Sometimes I’ve had experiences with people, particularly people who come from the Midwest, that really think the world stops at the Atlantic coast,” said Gianfilippo Cuneo, who ran Bain’s Milan office. “He was never saying we should be doing something this way because that’s the way we do it in the United States.”

After some initial caution, Romney became more comfortable with foreign deals. Cuneo said that in 1998, Romney told him to “go ahead” and acquire an Italian telephone directory company, a deal that rode the Internet boom and made Bain more than a billion dollars, while netting tens of millions for Romney.

Global Games

A decade later, Cuneo and his family were vacationing with the Romneys at their Park City, Utah, ski house when the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Olympics named Romney as its chief executive. In the chalet’s kitchen that morning, Cuneo answered the phone.

“Hey, this guy says he is Ted Kennedy and he wants to talk to you,” Cuneo said, handing the phone to Romney. Kennedy, who had crushed Romney in the 1994 race for U.S. Senate, congratulated his old nemesis on the appointment. Romney hung up and turned to Cuneo, explaining with a grin that Kennedy told him to “please stay there as much as you want. Don’t come back to Boston.”

Romney had long coveted elected office in the United States, and now the path to power ran through the global games.

As the manager brought in to clean up the 2002 Olympics effort, Romney recruited from the circles he knew best, hiring Fraser Bullock, a fellow Mormon and former Bain partner, as his chief operating officer.

In Moscow, Romney toured Red Square and shook hands with Vladimir Putin, according to Romney’s campaign. (Putin’s office said it had “no record” of any meeting.) In the middle of meetings with the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, Romney cracked wise in French.

Bullock, who often traveled with Romney, believes that his friend and colleauge was deeply touched by foreign cultures.

“We climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge together,” said Bullock. “We mingled with the Aussies.” At a torch-lighting ceremony at the ancient site of the Games in Olympia, Greece, Bullock recalled Romney’s eyes welling at the release of white doves. The future Republican nominee for president crouched down after the event to collect souvenir rocks and “leftover feathers from the birds that flew away.”

 
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