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Who in God’s Name Is Mitt Romney?

That missing human core, that inauthenticity and inability to connect, has been a daily complaint about Romney. To flesh out the brief, critics usually turn to his blatant political opportunism and rarefied upbringing—his history of ideological about-faces and his cakewalk as the prep-school-­burnished, Harvard-educated son of a fabled auto executive. But the hollowness of Romney is not merely a function of his craven surrender to the rightward tilt of the modern GOP or the patrician blind spots he acquired at too many fancy schools and palatial country clubs. If that were the case, he’d pass for another Bush, and receive some of the love that Bush father and son earned from the party faithful in their salad days. Some think he can get there by learning better performance skills: As Chuck Todd of NBC News put it, he “has to learn how to connect, how to speak emotionally … more from the heart.” If Nixon could learn how to sell himself in 1968 under the tutelage of Roger Ailes, and Bush 41 could receive coaching from the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in 1980, there might still be hope for Romney under the instruction of, say, Kelsey Grammer. But Romney is too odd, too much a mystery man. We don’t know his history the way we did Nixon’s and Bush’s. His otherness seems not a matter of style and pedigree but existential.

We don’t know who Romney is for the simple reason that he never reveals who he is. Even when he is not lying about his history—whether purporting to have been “a hunter pretty much all my life” (in 2007) or to being a denizen of “the real streets of America” (in 2012)—he is incredibly secretive about almost everything that makes him tick. He has been in hiding throughout his stints in both the private and public sectors. While his career-long refusal to release his tax returns was damaging in itself, it resonated even more so as a proxy for all the other secrets he has kept and still keeps.

Just as Republican caucus votes were being (re-)counted in Iowa, the first serious and thorough Romney biography was published, to deservedly favorable reviews. The authors, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, are Boston Globe investigative reporters who have tracked him for years. Their book, The Real Romney, is manifestly fair and nonpartisan, giving him full credit for his drive and smarts as a pioneer in the entrepreneurial realm of private equity. But it’s a measure of how much voters view Romney as a nonentity that they have shown so little interest in reading it. Not even a rave in the Times the week before the South Carolina primary could catapult The Real Romney into the top 500 of the Amazon list, despite the serious possibility that its protagonist could be the next president of the United States.

The "Mitt Romney" we've been sold is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax.

The book has no bombshells, and the very lack of them is revealing. For all the encyclopedic detail its authors amassed, and all the sources they mined, their subject remains impenetrable. “A wall. A shell. A mask,” they write at the outset, listing the terms used by many who “have known or worked with Romney” and view him as “a man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes but past them.” Former business and political colleagues are in agreement that he has scant interest in mingling with people in even casual social interactions (in a hallway, for instance) and displays “little desire to know who people are.” He so “rarely went out with the guys in any social venue” that one business associate dubbed him the Tin Man for “his inability to bond.” During his one term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was inaccessible to legislators, with ropes and elevator settings often restricting access to his suite of offices. He was notorious, one lawmaker explained, for having “no idea what our names were—none.” A longtime Republican, after watching Romney’s vacuous, failed senatorial campaign against Teddy Kennedy in 1994, came to the early conclusion that Mitt’s “main cause appeared to be himself.” This was borne out in 2006, when Romney spent more than 200 days out of Massachusetts ginning up a presidential run rather than attending to his duties as the state’s chief executive.

Aside from his ability to build Bain Capital and pile up profits there, Romney has remarkably few visible accomplishments to show for his 64 years. He can’t prove that he actually generated any jobs as a venture capitalist (beyond those at Bain itself), which is why he constantly revises the number of jobs he claims to have created (or, as he carefully hedges it, “helped create”). His sole achievement as governor was the Massachusetts prototype for the Obama health-care law—a feat he now alternately fudges or runs away from. The state’s record of job creation on his watch was the fourth worst of the 50 states.