In a new biography, two longtime Boston Globe reporters write about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a complicated man who also “loves dichotomies … strong versus weak, stagnation versus prosperity, leadership versus drift.”
On their hunt for The Real Romney, Scott Helman and Michael Kranish traced Romney’s life from his childhood in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to his career at private equity firm Bain Capital, and then to his work in politics — first as the governor of Massachusetts and then as a presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012.
On Thursday’s Fresh Air, Helman and Kranish join Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about Romney, who they portray as a deeply analytical man guided strongly by his Mormon faith.
Romney can seem detached in political settings, they write, and often struggles to connect outside of his closest confidants. Though his political career strongly mirrors that of his father, George, the former governor of Michigan, it also differs in significant ways: “If George Romney shot from the hip, 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,” write Helman and Kranish.
They start their biography by examining Romney’s ancestors, many of whom played crucial roles in the development of the Mormon faith.
“I really felt that the ancestral story [of Mitt Romney] was very important because through that story, you can really understand the story of Mormonism as well,” says Kranish. “And Mitt Romney doesn’t want to talk about this extensively, but if you’re writing a full-scale biography like we set out to do, you need to go back in history and explain where this family [came] from, how they [came] to the United States, what made them tick.”
Using genealogical records, Helman and Kranish learned that Romney’s great-great grandfather Miles immigrated to the United States from England, after hearing a missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preach. Miles became a prominent leader in the Mormon faith, and later designed several historic buildings in Utah. His son, Miles P. Romney, a colleague of Brigham Young, had five wives and more than 30 children. He founded a Mormon colony in Mexico in the 1880s after being forced to flee from the United States for practicing a polygamous lifestyle.
“They made [the Mexican colony] a very prosperous community,” says Kranish. “I have been down to Mexico and visited the community today and there are still many Romneys living there. The Romneys there are very proud of their heritage.”
Other Romneys eventually left Mexico and made their way throughout the American Southwest and Utah. Mitt’s father, George, who was born in Mexico, arrived in the U.S. when he was 5. He eventually made his way to Michigan, where he became an auto executive and then the three-term governor of Michigan.
“He was a man of deep faith,” says Kranish. “He established a small Mormon community in Michigan, where there are far fewer Mormons than there are in Utah. George Romney was a very proud leader of that and certainly raised his family to be devout Mormons.”
Mitt Romney grew up in Michigan and then moved to Palo Alto to attend Stanford University. After his freshman year, he left for 2 1/2 years to go on a mission to France, which he says greatly strengthened his own faith.
“He knocked on doors. He describes feeling ‘lower than a Fuller Brush salesman,'” says Kranish. “He would say, ‘Imagine if you go to Bordeaux and you tell people, “I’ve got a great new religion for you, and by the way, give up your wine.”‘ So he says he learned a lot about rejection and a lot about his faith.”
When Romney returned to the United States, he transferred to Brigham Young University in Utah. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he moved to Boston to attend Harvard University’s law and business schools. He also became a leader in the Mormon lay clergy in Massachusetts, and eventually became the leader of more than a dozen congregations in eastern Massachusetts. During his tenure, he successfully negotiated changes in church policy on behalf of women in his congregation who felt their voices were not being heard.
“Some of the more liberal members of the church told me that they were impressed that Romney was willing to accept many of [their demands],” says Helman. “Certainly there were things he could not change. Salt Lake City was not going to permit women from entering the priesthood, for example, but he made a lot of significant changes and that impressed a lot of people. If you ask them today, these people who are happy about these changes will recall him as a flexible, dynamic leader.”
On Romney and the Vietnam War
Kranish: “He spent a year at [Stanford University], his freshman [year] of college. And there were protests going on, on campus. Not like the kind of protests were at Berkeley. The protesters at one point wore suits and ties. But he saw these protests going on at the campus of Stanford and his father was certainly in favor of the Vietnam War. This was the moment when his father went over to Vietnam – later said he was brainwashed – but at the time, he came back to the United States very much in favor of the war, and stopped and visited Mitt Romney on the Stanford campus. So [he] reinforced the idea that this war was very important and a good idea and conveyed that to Mitt at that time. … Another student in Romney’s dorm … led some protests and was elected student body president and Mitt went out and protested these protesters.”
On Peggie Hayes
Helman: “One of the things the Mormon Church does not look kindly upon is single parenthood. There was a woman named Peggie Hayes who had known Romney when she was in his ward. She had come from a family which had had some struggles, had looked to Mormonism to anchor them. She had a child and then was pregnant with the second child. She was married when she had the first child and got divorced. So she was not married at the time. So Mitt Romney came to her apartment in the city of Somerville [in Massachusetts] and he delivers this message to her, which is, by her interpretation, fairly harsh. Which is: the church does not want you to keep this baby; the church thinks it would be better if your soon-to-be-born son would grow up in a family with two parents, so we think you should give the child up for adoption. And Peggie Hayes’ first reaction is that she must have misheard something because she can’t believe what he’s asking her to do. But he continues, according to her, and in fact goes so far as to threaten her with excommunication: that she could be thrown out of the church, essentially, if she didn’t follow the church’s orders. This was a very distressing visit from her perspective. Romney later denied that he had threatened her with excommunication. But this was a profound moment for Peggie and part of the reason why she ended up leaving the church.”
On Romney’s job creation record
Kranish: “We conclude that it’s really not possible to definitively say how many jobs were created, how many jobs were lost because most of [Bain Capital’s] investments were in private companies where there aren’t records available. We asked Bain Capital and the Romney campaign for specific records on every company and they did not hand them over. Bain Capital says Mitt Romney’s right when he talks about his job creation record, but there’s not a company-by-company listing of jobs lost and created that you can go to in that way.”
On the health care bill Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts that requires individuals to purchase insurance
Helman: “You hear him barely talk about it because it is not popular among the Republican primary electorate. I think that will change if he’s the nominee. I think he will start to talk about it more. … To Romney, there was a personal responsibility here. If you get sick, you go to the hospital and you’re treated and somebody pays for that. He felt that requiring people to have insurance was consistent with his philosophy, which was that everyone should look out for themselves and take care of themselves. This was his major achievement in Massachusetts as governor. … Now he goes to great lengths to say that he hates Obamacare and President Obama is wrong and it should be repealed. The fact is, there are a lot of similarities in the bills. The Obama plan was modeled in many ways after the Massachusetts plan. It will be interesting to see how [Romney] continues to talk about it.”