Last winter Ann Romney curled up in the family mansion to write her memoir, in pen on yellow legal pads. She wanted the story to hinge on her struggle with multiple sclerosis.
The fatigue. The agony. The depression.
After she miraculously went into remission, the brutality of presidential politics became a new source of pain — which she re-lived when she saw Hillary Rodham Clinton on the “Today” show Tuesday.
Voters “just don’t connect with you,” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie said to Clinton. And “they might not like you.”
Horrible, Romney thought.
“Oh that really hurts my feelings, I have to tell ya,” Clinton said, and Romney believed her, because she has felt those feelings.
The judgments of likability.
The accusations of inauthenticity, of out-of-touchness.
“It’s like: ‘We don’t like you; how come?’ ” Romney says, mimicking the querulous media. “It’s like, really? I know her. And she’s obviously an extraordinary mother, she’s extremely brilliant, with unbelievable experience. The whole thing, with the attacks from everything, you develop — a bubble. From that. A protective bubble. Which you have to do. You have to. Whatever that bubble then projects to somebody is really not what’s inside the bubble.”
The almost-FLOTUS arrives for breakfast alone, without a bubble. No security or entourage or husband or horse or any of her 28 children and grandchildren. Just herself and her Givenchy purse.
If we’re going to let Donald Trump brag about his billions, let’s allow Ann Romney her Valentino shoes.
Can you believe that only one presidential cycle after the Romneys were doomed by their demure wealth — the dressage, the car elevator, the off-handed $10,000 bets — Trump has momentum precisely because he flaunts his success?
Romney orders oatmeal, passes on coffee, considers this 1-percent double standard.
She’s not here to make news or talk Trump.
“So much of politics is theater,” Romney, 66, says. “And it’s ‘how do you play it?’ And he’s playing it well. Let’s give him credit for that.”
The Romneys are not theater people. They are too nice for that. Too herringboned and Town & Country. They don’t burn bridges. They build them above creeks on their property.
Picture this: Exactly four years ago, Mitt Romney was leading in the polls for the Republican primary while fending off a clown car of challengers. After he clinched the nomination in 2012, Trump threw Ann a birthday-party fundraiser in Manhattan at his penthouse triplex, complete with a cake topped by a figurine of her horse Rafalca.
It was “totally Donald,” she remembers. Everything was gold.
Then the coal miner’s daughter — who had once been crippled by M.S., who had been through a miscarriage and a breast-cancer scare and raised five boys — was giving a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which built to a promise on behalf of her husband:
“This. Man. Will. Not. Fail.”
He did, of course, by 126 electoral votes. Last year’s documentary “Mitt” ends two days after the election, with the Romneys alone in their living room outside Boston. Mitt stares into the ice-blue November twilight. The camera swings to Ann, wearing black, looking at him with tears in her eyes.
The strain in her face — did she want it more than he did?
She sighs, and the film ends.
And now Trump might be our next president and the Romneys are full-time grandparents in suburban Salt Lake City, with at least 18 of 23 grandchildren no more than one time zone away. Their Christmas cards look like staff photos from the office family picnic.
“Truly, our life is better,” Ann says, exuding relief, stirring blackberries into her oatmeal. “We have flexibility, freedom, ability to do what we want, go where want, be with our grandchildren. Our personal life is better.”
The memoir is called “In This Together: My Story,” and as far as this kind of book goes, it’s not bad. It’s breezy and frank, with just enough eyebrow-raisers to redeem the platitudes: She once gut-punched her son Tagg in a fit of motherly rage when he was 16. Her road to recovery began with an elderly German foot-whisperer and a grandson of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Her mother told her late in life that she once nearly had an abortion but instead birthed the very Ann Lois Davies who would go on to marry the son of Michigan Governor George Romney at 19 and be first lady of Massachusetts at 53.
Ann says she wrote the book herself — she was an English minor, remember — after getting an “unbelievable” advance from St. Martin’s Press earlier this year. She had some polishing assistance from David Fisher, who co-authored books with William Shatner, Bill O’Reilly and Johnnie Cochran.
The book has a definite purpose, and so does Ann Romney: to offer hope to people living with “the monster” of M.S., and to promote the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The center, for which the Romneys gave seed money, has 250 scientists and researchers working to unlock the mysteries of M.S., Alzheimer’s and other neurological ailments that don’t get as much attention as heart disease or various cancers.
People with canes show up to her book signings. So do people in wheelchairs. And teenagers who have just been diagnosed. They praise her aura, her elegance, her willingness to be a voice for those who are suffering. At a signing Wednesday in Clarendon, Va., she is in casual first-lady mode, receiving thanks and well wishes with cheery expediency.
Of course Mitt read a draft, tweaked her passage on Romneycare, and is portrayed as the sweetest of sweethearts throughout — though the loving couple on the back of the book jacket is Ann and her horse Darling, whom she rides 40 minutes from home in the “little cowboy town” of Heber City, Utah.
She doesn’t care if you think riding and dressage are snooty.
The horses saved her and are still saving her.
“They have a language as well but it’s very subtle, and you really have to get in tune with them,” she says, wonder in her hazel eyes. “And when you do, all the cares of the world dissolve. Time, everything — it’s just unbelievable. It’s just a magical place they take you to. And I think the thing that Mitt can’t get over is that I can’t get enough of it. He kind of thinks, ‘Well you’ve done that, go on to something else now.’ ”
How is he?
He’s exulting in his grandfatherness, she says, and advising his sons. He helps Tagg with investments. He’s a political sounding board for Josh, whom Ann said she thinks will run for statewide office in Utah. Mitt’s more involved in the Mormon Church now. And people keep telling him to run again for president.
The family had a 20-second conversation about it in January.
The answer was no, even though everyone in the Romney clan believes in Mitt’s presidentiality like they believe in their Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
“I felt worse for what America had lost than what we had lost,” Ann writes in the memoir. “More than anyone else in the world, I knew the kind of president Mitt would have been.”
What does that parallel universe look like — the one where Mitt had won? If anyone can peer into that dimension, it’s his bride of 46 years.
She thinks for a moment.
“What he said about what was going to happen with Syria, what he said was going to happen with Russia — all of those things he was prescient on,” Ann says. “There’s gotta be a lot of people thinking that we could’ve handled both situations better.”
The choice of “we” is another tantalizing window into that dimension, especially for a woman dismissed during campaigns as an accessory, as a mere stay-at-home mom, as if that isn’t the hardest job in the world. But there’s a curious phrase, a skeleton key to something, that appears on page 127 of the memoir.
“Eternal perspectives.” What does it mean?
Is it the feeling of timelessness on the back of a horse?
Is it remembering that public service is more important than position?
Is it the awareness that no political loss is greater than the struggles of everyday Americans?
Maybe all of those. But also:
“Our faith believes that the family is the structure that will last beyond this Earth life,” Ann says, before scooting off to lunch with a friend. “And that’s why we put such importance on the family. We invest in it, we are committed to it, we are committed to marriage, we’re committed to raising children. And that is going to be that eternal structure that will always be there.”
The White House, by comparison, seems as fleeting as a sand castle.