Paul Ryan’s path to Saturday’s surprise announcement that he would be Mitt Romney’s running mate began with a walk in the woods.
But these were not just any woods. No, these were the woods where the Wisconsin congressman grew up. To escape his Janesville home undetected on Friday, Ryan snuck out his back door, walked through the woods behind his house and past the old tree fort he built as a boy and the driveway of his childhood home.
“I know those woods like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t too hard to walk through them,” Ryan told reporters. He recalled thinking, “It’s gone from the surreal to the real.. . . It was the biggest honor I’ve ever been given in my life.”
From his Janesville neighborhood, Ryan was ferried to an airport in nearby Waukegan, Ill., and was not spotted until the Saturday morning when he stepped down from the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Va., to the soundtrack of “Air Force One.”
Ryan’s journey to Norfolk, detailed by Romney adviser Beth Myers, illustrates the elaborate lengths to which the Romney campaign went to keep the vice presidential selection under wraps in the 10 days between when Romney settled on Ryan and when the GOP ticket was revealed.
“We just knew that we wanted to try to do this very quietly,” Myers said at a Saturday evening briefing with reporters in a hanger at Dulles International Airport in Washington.
Myers detailed Romney’s four-month confidential search process, which she helmed but described as “Mitt’s decision.”
The process began once Romney secured the GOP nomination in April. Myers met with former Vice President Cheney and former Secretary of State James Baker, both of whom ran vice presidential vetting in past cycles, for advice. In April, she presented Romney with a background briefing on a “large” number of candidates, and by early May they had formed a short list.
Myers would not disclose who was on the short list, but it is believed to have included former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), in addition to Ryan. Through May and June, a small team of lawyers worked in a secure room at the campaign’s Boston headquarters. They locked personal financial records — Myers said she reviewed “several” years of Ryan’s income tax returns — and other sensitive materials in a safe each night, and Myers said “no copies were ever made.”
In mid June, Myers met with Romney to go over preliminary vetting reports and later that month, at Romney’s donor retreat in Utah, she met with several candidates in person to go over issues that needed clarification.
Romney periodically consulted a team of top advisers — strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, campaign manager Matt Rhoades, advisers Peter Flaherty, Eric Fehrnstrom, Ed Gillespie and Ron Kaufman, pollster Neil Newhouse and longtime friend Bob White.
“Everyone was very candid with Mitt, they offered their input and perspective,” Myers said. “He also talked to a lot of people outside that group informally — a lot of people.”
But Myers said she did not share her thoughts on whom Romney should pick because she thought it was important to maintain her impartiality.
Although Romney had wanted to consider naming a vice president earlier in the summer, he and Myers ended up deciding to make the announcement after he returned from his late July foreign trip.
When he returned home to Boston on Aug. 1, Romney largely had made up his mind, Myers said. But first he gathered his top advisers for a final “gut check” meeting at campaign headquarters.
Then Romney retired with Myers to her office, where after a long talk he told her his decision: Ryan. Romney picked up the phone to call Ryan, but did not yet offer him the job. They scheduled a face-to-face meeting for that Sunday, Aug. 5, in Boston.
Speculation was swirling in the news media about Romney’s running mate, and Ryan was being followed by a campaign embed from NBC News. “We knew we had to be very diligent in throwing her off the scent,” Myers said.
Myers wanted to ensure Ryan would not be spotted making his way to Boston. So he told the congressman to dress casually for a flight between Chicago O’Hare to Hartford, Conn.
Ryan, wearing jeans, a baseball hat and sunglasses, flew undetected to Hartford, where Myers’ s 19-year-old son, Curt, picked him up in a rented sport-utility vehicle and drove back to the family home in Brookline, Mass.
After lunch with the Myerses, Romney drove down from his vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he was taking the day off the campaign trail, to see Ryan. They met alone in Myers’ s dining room for more than an hour. That’s where Romney asked Ryan to be his vice presidential nominee, and Ryan accepted.
“By the time we met in person I kind of knew it was going to happen,” Ryan recalled. “I was very humbled.”
Romney told reporters, “We talked about the campaign and how it would be run and how we’d work together if we get the White House, what the relationship would be and how we’d interact and be involved in important decisions,” Romney told reporters. “We talked about our families and what this meant for them.”
After accepting Romney’s offer, Ryan sat down with Rhoades, Gillespie, White and Spencer Zwick, the campaign’s national finance chairman. That was also when he learned of the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in his Wisconsin district, Myers said.
On Monday, Romney called Pawlenty to tell him he had not been chosen for the ticket, Myers said. He called Portman and other candidates on Friday.
Meanwhile, Myers said, a handful of campaign officials, including Romney’s personal assistant, Kelli Harrison, began covertly planning the Ryan announcement for Friday in New Hampshire — which has become a symbolic base for Romney’s campaign. But those plans were scratched because the Sikh temple memorial service was Friday, and Ryan was going to attend it.
So campaign officials turned to Plan B: A roll-out on Saturday at the start of Romney’s swing state bus tour. Hoping to maintain the element of surprise, the campaign went to elaborate lengths to keep Ryan’s movements undetected.
After attending Friday’s memorial, Ryan returned home, where reporters had been staking him out. Ryan sneaked out the back door, through the woods, and out to a waiting car driven by his chief of staff, Andy Speth.
Ryan took a chartered flight from Waukegan, Ill., to Elizabeth City, N.C., Ryan was whisked to a Fairfield Inn to be reunited with his wife, Janna, and their three children.
About 8 p.m. Friday, a small coterie of Romney advisers met Ryan at the hotel to help him prepare for next morning’s announcement: Myers, Gillespie, and Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official leading the vice presidential operation, as well as Harrison, Curt Myers and Speth. They ate dinner from Applebee’s, Myers recalled.
On Saturday, the Ryans, the advisers and a single Secret Service agent drove to Norfolk for his debut on the USS Wisconsin.