'The Real Romney': Tracking a life hidden behind adjectives

The cloud of adjectives that has come to hover over the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in news reports is familiar by now: smooth, smart, slick; detached, disciplined, dogged; pragmatic, protean, phony; careful, cautious, calculating.

"The Real Romney," by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman
"The Real Romney," by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman

The cloud of adjectives that has come to hover over the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in news reports is familiar by now: smooth, smart, slick; detached, disciplined, dogged; pragmatic, protean, phony; careful, cautious, calculating.

Journalists have described him as robotic (not unlike Al Gore), father-haunted (not unlike George W. Bush), disdainful of hands-on politicking (not unlike Barack Obama) and capable of complete flip-flops on hot-button issues (not unlike Newt Gingrich).

He has been hailed for his analytic business skills as a turnaround specialist, and assailed as a job-killing vulture capitalist; lauded for his skill in getting health-care legislation passed in Massachusetts, and criticized by both the left and right for subsequently trying to distance himself from that achievement.

A new biography, "The Real Romney," by two reporters from The Boston Globe, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, won't substantially alter such perceptions of the candidate. The book retraces ground familiar to anyone who has been following coverage of the Republican nomination race, but it pulls together lots of details into a narrative that's absorbing and fair-minded.

Drawing on the collective expertise of The Globe's staff in covering Romney's tenure as Massachusetts governor and his lucrative career at the Boston firm Bain Capital, the book judiciously assesses his evolving views (or, in some cases, outright reversals) on an array of social issues, while trying to evaluate assertions he's made on the campaign trail and in two books.


Helman and Kranish conclude, for instance, that it's impossible to independently verify Romney's claim that he helped create a "net, net" of tens of thousands of jobs (a claim ratified by Bain Capital officials in 2011, say the authors, though without documentation) "with anything approaching certainty." After all, they reason:

"Many companies that Romney held briefly were in private hands and changed owners numerous times. They were saddled with debt, restructured, and split up. Some companies under Romney's control prospered, and some failed; some produced new jobs, and others shut down and left people out of work."

As for the prominent role the Romney family has played in Mormon history, the book's authors say this is little known outside the church because "Mitt rarely talked about the special legacy of his ancestors." When he did, he often offered a truncated version: His book "Turnaround," Kranish and Helman write, recounted the story of his great-grandfather Miles' dramatic journey to Mexico in the 1880s, "but left out most of the details, with no mention of Miles' multiple wives or his perilous assignment to create a sanctuary for polygamy across the border."

Perhaps the most useful portions of "The Real Romney" deconstruct his management style as a Bain executive and governor of Massachusetts, providing clues as to how he might govern as president. Also interesting are the detailed accounts of Romney's unsuccessful effort to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994 and his unsuccessful effort to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 - accounts that shed some light on his chameleonlike political stands and his current travails in the primary process.

Kranish and Helman note that from the start of Romney's foray into politics, the question of identity - "What were his issues? What did he believe?" - was central. They write that in his campaign against Kennedy: "Some of his positions seemed to be calibrated for voter approval, not necessarily reflective of personal convictions. Strategy trumped ideology: What kind of candidate did he need to be to win?"

Mindful of Kennedy's legacy as a defender of civil rights and William Weld's ascent to the Massachusetts governorship as a socially liberal Republican, the authors argue, Romney's Senate campaign tried to "present him as an acceptable choice on social issues to independents, wayward Democrats, and especially women." Romney, the authors report, did not join the Republican Party until October 1993, had previously given money to Democratic congressional candidates and "voted for Paul Tsongas, the iconoclastic liberal, in the 1992 Democratic primary."

Early in the Senate race, they write, Romney "established himself as a passionate supporter of abortion rights," despite his personal opposition to abortion, and "his professed views would grow more liberal over the course of the race." They report that he endorsed the legalization of RU-486, the abortion-inducing drug, and appeared at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood.

Romney would later explain, however, that a November 2004 meeting with a Harvard University stem-cell researcher triggered "an awakening on 'life' issues." He began calling himself "firmly pro-life" and, according to Kranish and Helman, he made "a series of shifts" as his gubernatorial term went on - "in some cases wholesale reversals of past positions, in others significant changes in emphasis" - on other issues as well. These included abstinence-only sex education, a plan to reduce greenhouse gases, and gay rights.


Disgruntled constituents saw this recalibration as a sign that Romney "had set his sights on a bigger prize than Massachusetts," the authors write. "Some were furious at his reversals on issues that were personally important to them. Others felt his presidential ambitions had clouded his judgment about what was best for Massachusetts."

Conservative social agenda

Several advisers warned that Romney's efforts to cast himself as a true social conservative would backfire and that he should focus on his economic message in the 2008 presidential nomination race. Instead, Kranish and Helman write, the campaign embraced a strategy that relied heavily on the idea that Sen. John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani "would fight for the more moderate voters within the GOP primaries and caucuses, leaving Romney room to court the right."

The governor's abrupt "rebirth as a social conservative" not only stood in marked contrast to his earlier career but also to that of his father, George. A chairman of American Motors who became governor of Michigan, the elder Romney was an idealistic moderate, walking out of the 1964 Republican National Convention over the party's foot-dragging on civil rights.

"If George Romney shot from the hip," the authors of this book write, "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 consequences he wants, then figure out how to get there."

Family members were acquainted with Mitt's "zany side," Kranish and Helman write, and a fellow church member even described him getting up at a meeting and delivering a credible rendering of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," complete with moonwalking. But with outsiders, he tended to be so formal that one business partner dubbed him "the Tin Man" for his inability to bond emotionally - not a temperament exactly suited for the contact sport that is politics.

What were the origins of this detachment? Kranish and Helman quote his sister Jane, suggesting that an incident in which their father helped torpedo his own success as a presidential candidate in 1967 with a single remark - he blurted out in a television interview that he'd been subjected to "the greatest brainwashing" by the generals and the diplomatic corps in Vietnam - had a lasting impact on her brother.

"Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think that made him more so," she is quoted as saying. "He's not going to put himself out on a limb. He's more cautious, more scripted."


Following a trusty formula

Business school and law school - he got a double degree at Harvard in 1975 - would hone Romney's analytic bent, as would his years at Bain and his experience turning around the troubled 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Whether he was "expanding the boundaries of private equity or enacting a novel universal health care plan" in Massachusetts, the authors of this book say, "he followed a trusty formula: pursue data aggressively, analyze rigorously, test constantly, and observe always."

"Having grown up around engines, Romney adopted a kind of car hobbyist's mindset," they write. "Almost anything, he believed, could be taken apart, studied, and re-engineered."

After the collapse of his 2008 presidential bid, Romney talked through the failure with his advisers, crunching the numbers and evaluating what went wrong. He concluded, Helman and Kranish say, that "he had failed to get across what he was really all about," that "he had lacked definition."

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