Mitt Romney has long been a front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination—even if no one really knows who he is. Digging into the candidate’s record as a Mormon leader, his business deals at Bain Capital, and that infamous car trip with the family dog strapped to the roof, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman pierce the Mitt bubble in an adaptation from their new book, The Real Romney, to find that the contradictions, question marks, and ambivalence go deeper than his politics.
THE 1 PERCENT SOLUTION “He has that invisible wall between ‘me’ and ‘you,’” says a fellow Republican.
Adapted fromThe Real Romney, by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, to be published this month by HarperCollins.
Mitt Romney’s privileged pedigree was common knowledge to his classmates at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, where he was simultaneously enrolled in 1971 through a joint-degree program. By that time, his father, George Romney, had run a major corporation (American Motors), been elected three times as Michigan’s governor, sought the presidency, and been appointed to President Nixon’s Cabinet. Despite strongly resembling the elder Romney—the full head of strikingly dark hair, square jaw, dazzling smile—Mitt did little to draw attention to his parentage. The only hint was George’s faded gold initials on a beat-up old briefcase that Mitt carried around.
In truth, Mitt cherished his father’s example and endeavored to follow it. George became more than just a mentor to his youngest son. He was a pathfinder, showing the way of their Mormon faith through the thickets of politics and business, home life, and character. Through his achievements and mistakes, George had bestowed many lessons, and Mitt soaked them up. “His whole life,” said John Wright, a close family friend, “was following a pattern which had been laid out by his dad.” So with his wife, Ann, as a partner and his father as an inspiration, Mitt set out to build a family, a career, and a place in the church that he loved.
The Romneys’ Mormon faith, as Mitt and Ann began their life together, formed a deep foundation. It lay under nearly everything—their acts of charity, their marriage, their parenting, their social lives, even their weekly schedules. Their family-centric lifestyle was a choice; Mitt and Ann plainly cherished time at home with their children more than anything. But it was also a duty. Belonging to the Mormon Church meant accepting a code of conduct that placed supreme value on strong families—strong heterosexual families, in which men and women often filled defined and traditional roles. The Romneys have long cited a well-known Mormon credo popularized by the late church leader David O. McKay: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” They had arrived in the Boston area with one son, Taggart, and soon had a second, Matthew. Over the next decade, the Romneys would have three more boys: Joshua was born in 1975, Benjamin in 1978, and then Craig in 1981.
To Mitt, the special one in the house was Ann, with her wide smile, piercing eyes, and steadying domestic presence. And woe was the boy who forgot it. Tagg said there was one rule that was simply not breakable: “We were not allowed to say anything negative about my mother, talk back to her, do anything that would not be respectful of her.” On Mother’s Day, their home would be fragrant with lilacs, Ann’s favorite flowers. Tagg didn’t get it back then, but he came to understand. From the beginning, Mitt had put Ann on a pedestal and kept her there. “When they were dating,” Tagg said, “he felt like she was way better than him and he was really lucky to have this catch. He really genuinely still feels that way.” What makes his parents’ relationship work, he said, is their distinct characters: Mitt is driven first by reason, while Ann operates more on emotion. “She helps him see there’s stuff beyond the logic; he helps her see that there’s more than just instinct and feeling,” Tagg said. Mitt and Ann’s relationship would grow and change as their family entered the public eye. But she has remained his chief counselor and confidante, the one person who can lead Mitt to a final decision. Though she did not necessarily offer detailed input on every business deal, friends said, she weighed in on just about everything else. “Mitt’s not going to do something that they don’t feel good about together,” said Mitt’s sister Jane. Tagg said they called their mom “the great Mitt stabilizer.” Ann would later be mocked for her claim that she and Mitt had never had an argument during their marriage, which sounded preposterous to the ears of many married mortals. Tagg said it’s not that his parents never disagree. “I know there are things that she says that he doesn’t agree with sometimes, and I see him kind of bite his tongue. But I know that they go and discuss it in private. He doesn’t ever contradict my mother in public.” Friends of the Romneys’ back up that account, saying they cannot recall Mitt ever raising his voice toward Ann. Nowhere was Ann’s special status more evident than on long family car trips. Mitt imposed strict rules: they would stop only for gas, and that was the only chance to get food or use the restroom. With one exception, Tagg explained. “As soon as my mom says, ‘I think I need to go to the bathroom,’ he pulls over instantly and doesn’t complain. ‘Anything for you, Ann.’” On one infamous road trip, though, it wasn’t Ann who forced Mitt off the highway. The destination of this journey, in the summer of 1983, was his parents’ cottage, on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron. The white Chevy station wagon with the wood paneling was overstuffed with suitcases, supplies, and sons when Mitt climbed behind the wheel to begin the 12-hour family trek from Boston to Ontario. As with most ventures in his life, he had left little to chance, mapping out the route and planning each stop. Before beginning the drive, Mitt put Seamus, the family’s hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon’s roof rack. He had improvised a windshield for the carrier to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.
Then Mitt put his sons on notice: there would be pre-determined stops for gas, and that was it. Tagg was commandeering the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, when he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. “Dad!” he yelled. “Gross!” A brown liquid was dripping down the rear window, payback from an Irish setter who’d been riding on the roof in the wind for hours. As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Mitt coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station. There he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the road with the dog still on the roof. It was a preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management. But the story would trail him years later on the national political stage, where the name Seamus would become shorthand for Romney’s coldly clinical approach to problem solving.
The Book of Mitt
If Romney is exceedingly comfortable around family and close friends, he’s much less so around those he doesn’t know well, drawing a boundary that’s difficult to traverse. It’s a strict social order—us and them—that has put co-workers, political aides, casual acquaintances, and others in his professional circles, even people who have worked with or known him for years, outside the bubble. As a result, he has numerous admirers but, by several accounts, not a long list of close pals. “He’s very engaging and charming in a small group of friends he’s comfortable with,” said one former aide. “When he’s with people he doesn’t know, he gets more formal. And if it’s a political thing where he doesn’t know anybody, he has a mask.” For those outside the inner circle, Romney comes across as all business. Colleagues at work or political staffers are there to do a job, not to bond. “Mitt is always the star,” said one Massachusetts Republican. “And everybody else is a bit player.” He has little patience for idle chatter or small talk, little interest in mingling at cocktail parties, at social functions, or even in the crowded hallway. He is not fed by, and does not crave, casual social interaction, often displaying little desire to know who people are and what makes them tick. “He wasn’t overly interested in people’s personal details or their kids or spouses or team building or their career path,” said another former aide. “It was all very friendly but not very deep.” Or, as one fellow Republican put it, “He has that invisible wall between ‘me’ and ‘you.’” Referring to the time later when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, a Democratic lawmaker recalls, “You remember Richard Nixon and the imperial presidency? Well, this was the imperial governor.” There were the ropes that often curtailed access to Romney and his chambers. The elevator settings restricted access to his office. The tape on the floor told people exactly where to stand during events. This was the controlled environment that Romney created. His orbit was his own. “We always would talk about how, among the legislators, he had no idea what our names were—none,” the lawmaker said, “because he was so far removed from the day-to-day operations of state government.”
This sense of detachment is a function partly of his faith, which has its own tight social community that most outsiders don’t see. Indeed, the stories of Romney’s humanity and warmth come mostly from people who know him as a fellow Mormon. His abstention from drinking also makes parties and other alcohol-fueled functions distinctly less appealing. He is the antithesis of the gregarious pol with a highball in one hand and a cigar in his mouth. Romney’s discomfort around strangers would later become more than just a curiosity; it would be an impediment on the campaign trail. Lacking an easy rapport with voters, he would come across as aloof, even off-putting. “A lot of it is he is patrician. He just is. He has lived a charmed life,” said one former aide. “It is a big challenge that he has, connecting to folks who haven’t swum in the same rarefied waters that he has.” His growing wealth, the deeper he got into his career, only widened the disconnect. Even as he began shouldering more responsibility at work, Romney would assume several leadership positions in the Mormon Church. But he could handle it. “Mitt,” said Kem Gardner, a fellow church official from this period, “just had the capacity to keep all the balls up in the air.” Or, as Tagg put it, “Compared to my dad, everyone’s lazy.” Helen Claire Sievers, who served in a church leadership position under Romney, got a glimpse of his work habits during weekend bus trips to the Mormon temple near Washington, D.C. Church groups would leave late on a Friday, drive all night, and arrive early on Saturday morning. Then they’d spend all day Saturday in temple sessions before turning around and driving home, to be back by Sunday morning. It was a grueling itinerary, Sievers said, so everyone used the time on the bus to sleep or read quietly. Everyone but Romney. “Mitt was always working. His light was on,” she said.
Mormon congregations, typically groups of 400 to 500 people, are known as wards, and their boundaries are determined by geography. Wards, along with smaller congregations known as branches, are organized into stakes. Thus a stake, akin to a Catholic diocese, is a collection of wards and branches in a city or region. Unlike Protestants or Catholics, Mormons do not choose the congregations to which they belong. It depends entirely on where they live. In another departure from many other faiths, Mormons do not have paid full-time clergy. Members in good standing take turns serving in leadership roles. They are expected to perform their ecclesiastical duties on top of career and family responsibilities. Those called to serve as stake presidents and bishops, or leaders of local wards, are fully empowered as agents of the church, and they carry great authority over their domains. Mitt Romney first took on a major church role around 1977, when he was called to be a counselor to Gordon Williams, then the president of the Boston stake. Romney was essentially an adviser and deputy to Williams, helping oversee area congregations. His appointment was somewhat unusual in that counselors at that level have typically been bishops of their local wards first. But Romney, who was only about 30 years old, was deemed to possess leadership qualities beyond his years. Romney’s responsibilities only grew from there; he would go on to serve as bishop and then as stake president, overseeing about a dozen congregations with close to 4,000 members altogether. Those positions in the church amounted to his biggest leadership test yet, exposing him to personal and institutional crises, human tragedies, immigrant cultures, social forces, and organizational challenges that he had never before encountered.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is far more than a form of Sunday worship. It is a code of ethics that frowns on homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births, and abortion and forbids pre-marital sex. It offers a robust, effective social safety net, capable of incredible feats of charity, support, and service, particularly when its own members are in trouble. And it works hard to create community, a built-in network of friends who often share values and a worldview. For many Mormons, the all-encompassing nature of their faith, as an extension of their spiritual lives, is what makes belonging to the church so wonderful, so warm, even as its insularity can set members apart from society.
But a dichotomy exists within the Mormon Church, which holds that one is either in or out; there is little or no tolerance for those, like so-called cafeteria Catholics, who pick and choose what doctrines to follow. And in Mormonism, if one is in, a lot is expected, including tithing 10 percent of one’s income, participating regularly in church activities, meeting high moral expectations, and accepting Mormon doctrine—including many concepts, such as the belief that Jesus will rule from Missouri in his Second Coming, that run counter to those of other Christian faiths. That rigidity can be difficult to abide for those who love the faith but chafe at its strictures or question its teachings and cultural habits. For one, Mormonism is male-dominated—women can serve only in certain leadership roles and never as bishops or stake presidents. The church also makes a number of firm value judgments, typically prohibiting single or divorced men from leading wards and stakes, for example, and not looking kindly upon single parenthood.
The portrait of Romney that emerges from those he led and served with in the church is of a leader who was pulled between Mormonism’s conservative core views and practices and the demands from some quarters within the Boston stake for a more elastic, more open-minded application of church doctrine. Romney was forced to strike a balance between those local expectations and the dictates out of Salt Lake City. Some believe that he artfully reconciled the two, praising him as an innovative and generous leader who was willing to make accommodations, such as giving women expanded responsibility, and who was always there for church members in times of need. To others, he was the product of a hidebound, patriarchal Mormon culture, inflexible and insensitive in delicate situations and dismissive of those who didn’t share his perspective.
In the spring of 1993, Helen Claire Sievers performed a bit of shuttle diplomacy to resolve a thorny problem confronting church leaders in Boston: resentment among progressive Mormon women at their subservient status within the church. Sievers was active in an organization of liberal women called Exponent II, which published a periodical. The group had been chewing over the challenges of being a woman in the male-led faith. So Sievers went to Romney, who was stake president, with a proposal. “I said, ‘Why don’t you have a meeting and have an open forum and let women talk to you?’” she recalled. The idea was that, although there were many church rules that stake presidents and bishops could not change, they did have some leeway to do things their own way.
Romney wasn’t sure about holding such a meeting, but he ultimately agreed to it. Sievers went back to the Exponent II group and said they should be realistic and not demand things Romney could never deliver, such as allowing women to hold the priesthood. On the day of the meeting, about 250 women filled the pews of the Belmont Chapel. After an opening song, prayer, and some housekeeping items, the floor was open. Women began proposing changes that would include them more in the life of the church. In the end, the group came up with some 70 suggestions—from letting women speak after men in church to putting changing tables in men’s bathrooms—as Romney and one of his counselors listened and took careful notes.
Romney was essentially willing to grant any request he couldn’t see a reason to reject. “Pretty much, he said yes to everything that I would have said yes to, and I’m kind of a liberal Mormon,” Sievers said. “I was pretty impressed.” (Ann Romney was not considered to be sympathetic to the agitation of liberal women within the stake. She was invited to social events sponsored by Exponent II but did not attend. She was, in the words of one member, understood to be “not that kind of woman.”)
Romney’s leadership was not so rosy for everyone, though. As both bishop and stake president, he at times clashed with women he felt strayed too far from church beliefs and practice. To them, he lacked the empathy and courage that they had known in other leaders, putting the church first even at times of great personal vulnerability. Peggie Hayes had joined the church as a teenager along with her mother and siblings. They’d had a difficult life. Mormonism offered the serenity and stability her mother craved. “It was,” Hayes said, “the answer to everything.” Her family, though poorer than many of the well-off members, felt accepted within the faith. Everyone was so nice. The church provided emotional and, at times, financial support. As a teenager, Hayes babysat for Mitt and Ann Romney and other couples in the ward. Then Hayes’s mother abruptly moved the family to Salt Lake City for Hayes’s senior year of high school. Restless and unhappy, Hayes moved to Los Angeles once she turned 18. She got married, had a daughter, and then got divorced shortly after. But she remained part of the church.
By 1983, Hayes was 23 and back in the Boston area, raising a 3-year-old daughter on her own and working as a nurse’s aide. Then she got pregnant again. Single motherhood was no picnic, but Hayes said she had wanted a second child and wasn’t upset at the news. “I kind of felt like I could do it,” she said. “And I wanted to.” By that point Mitt Romney, the man whose kids Hayes used to watch, was, as bishop of her ward, her church leader. But it didn’t feel so formal at first. She earned some money while she was pregnant organizing the Romneys’ basement. The Romneys also arranged for her to do odd jobs for other church members, who knew she needed the cash. “Mitt was really good to us. He did a lot for us,” Hayes said. Then Romney called Hayes one winter day and said he wanted to come over and talk. He arrived at her apartment in Somerville, a dense, largely working-class city just north of Boston. They chitchatted for a few minutes. Then Romney said something about the church’s adoption agency. Hayes initially thought she must have misunderstood. But Romney’s intent became apparent: he was urging her to give up her soon-to-be-born son for adoption, saying that was what the church wanted. Indeed, the church encourages adoption in cases where “a successful marriage is unlikely.”
Hayes was deeply insulted. She told him she would never surrender her child. Sure, her life wasn’t exactly the picture of Rockwellian harmony, but she felt she was on a path to stability. In that moment, she also felt intimidated. Here was Romney, who held great power as her church leader and was the head of a wealthy, prominent Belmon