Who in God’s Name Is Mitt Romney?

Photo-illustration by DarrowPhoto: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the thick of the 2008 Republican presidential race, I asked a captain of American finance what he had made of Mitt Romney when they were young colleagues at Bain & Company. “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player,” he ­responded without missing a beat. Then came the CEO’s one footnote, delivered with bemusement, not pique: “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”

Here we are in 2012, and nothing has changed. What Romney’s former colleague observed of the young Mitt at close range decades ago could stand as the judgment of most Americans watching him at a cable-news remove now. That’s why his campaign has so often been on the ropes. That’s why, in a highly polarized nation, the belief that Romney is a phony may be among the very last convictions still bringing left, right, and center together. As a focus-group participant evocatively told pollster Peter Hart in November, Romney reminded him of the “dad who’s never home.” Nonetheless, this phantom has spent most of the campaign as the “presumed” front-runner for his party’s nomination. Amazingly, this conventional wisdom held up throughout 2011, even though 75 percent of Romney’s own party was searching so frantically for an alternative that Donald Trump enjoyed a nanosecond bump in the polls.

Now much of the 75 percent has identified the non-Mitt candidate who really does express where the GOP is today. Newt Gingrich is proud to stir a dollop of race into the vitriol he hurls at Barack Obama, “the food-stamp president.” He’s a human Vesuvius at spewing populist anger at all elites; attacks by the press or by Republican Establishment talking heads like Karl Rove and Joe Scarborough only make him stronger. And unlike any other GOP leader, he can boast that he actually realized the tea party’s goal of shutting the government down. The morning after Newt shut Mitt down in South Carolina, Rich Lowry, the editor of the pro-Mitt, anti-Newt National Review, channeled the horror of GOP grandees everywhere. “If Romney can’t right himself,” he wrote, then “every major elected Republican in the country will panic” and “every unlikely scenario to get another candidate in the race will be explored.” The names once again being floated—Mitch Daniels! Jeb Bush! Paul Ryan! Bobby Jindal!—have not been known to raise the pulse rate of anyone beyond the 25 percent of the GOP embodied by elite conservative pundits in Washington and New York.

What’s more likely is that the party’s panicked Establishment, and its Wall Street empire, will succeed in their push to crush Gingrich and prop up Romney in any way they can. They still see Mitt as the best available front man for the radical party the Republicans have become—the dutiful Eagle Scout who can hold down the fort as the right’s self-styled revolutionary rabble threaten to overwhelm today’s GOP elites the way the Goldwater insurgents once did Nelson Rockefeller and Romney’s father, George. Some of the same Beltway types who have reinforced Mitt’s presumed victory march since last summer believe he can be rebooted for the fall merely with some stern course correction.

As this narrative has it, Americans are at least comfortable with old, familiar Mitt—heaven knows he’s been running long enough. He may be a bore and a flip-­flopper, but he doesn’t frighten the ­horses. His steady sobriety will win the day once the lunatic Newt has finished blowing himself up. As one prominent Romney surrogate, the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, has it, Romney is “the most vetted candidate out there.” Maybe—if you assume there will be no more questions about Bain, the Cayman Islands, the expunged internal records from Romney’s term as governor, or his pre-2010 tax returns. Or about the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October: Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But you can also construct an alternative narrative—that the vetting has barely even begun, and that the “Mitt Romney” we’ve been sold since 2008 is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax.

For four years now, Republicans have been demonizing Barack Obama for his alleged “otherness”—trashing him as a less-than-real American pushing “anti-colonial,” socialist, and possibly Islamist ideas gleaned from a rogue’s gallery of subversive influences led by his Kenyan father, Saul Alinsky, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And yet Romney is in some ways more exotic and more removed from “real America” than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow. He can come across like an android who’s been computer-­generated to be the perfect genial candidate. When forced to interact with actual people, he tries hard, but his small talk famously takes the form of guessing a voter’s age or nationality (usually incorrectly) or offering a greeting of “Congratulations!” for no particular reason. Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times. Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.

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.

Known for being frugal to a fault, Romney does not seem to particularly relish spending his fortune. He likes data, and his piles of dollars seem to be mainly markers to keep score of his success. Though he now tries to wrap himself in Main Street brands like Staples and Domino’s Pizza that passed through Bain’s clutches, he was not intellectually or managerially engaged in the businesses that Bain bought and sold; he didn’t run any of them. He seems to have no cultural passions beyond his and his wife’s first-date movie, The Sound of Music. He is not a sportsman or conspicuous sports fan. His only real, nonnumerical passions seem to be his photogenic, intact family, which he wields like a weapon whenever an opponent with multiple marriages like John McCain or Gingrich looms into view—and, of course, his faith.

That faith is key to the Romney mystery. Had the 2002 Winter Olympics not been held in Salt Lake City, and not been a major civic project of Mormon leaders there, it’s unlikely Romney would have gotten involved. (Whether his involvement actually prompted a turnaround of that initially troubled enterprise, as he claims, is a subject of debate.) But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns. When the Evangelical view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult threatened his 2008 run, Romney delivered what his campaign hyped as a JFK-inspired speech on “Faith in America.” This otherwise forgotten oration was memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once.

In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to “the same church.” But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. Which leaves him unable to talk about the very subject he seems to care about most, a lifelong source of spiritual, familial, and intellectual sustenance. We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

His campaign is intent on enforcing the redaction of his religion, not least, one imagines, because a Gallup poll found that 22 percent in both parties say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. (Only 5 percent admit feeling that way about an African-American.) A senior adviser explained the strategy of deflecting any discussion of Romney’s Mormon life to Politico: “Someone takes a shot at the governor’s faith, we put a scarlet letter on them, RB, religious bigot.” Good luck with that. Like Romney’s evasions about his private finances, his conspicuous cone of silence about this major pillar of his biography also leaves you wondering what he is trying to hide. That his faith can be as secretive as he is—Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend the religious ceremony consecrating her marriage to Mitt—only whets the curiosity among the 82 percent of Americans who tell pollsters they know little or nothing about Mormonism.

Weeks before his death, Christopher Hitchens, no more a fan of LDS than of any other denomination, wrote that “we are fully entitled” to ask Romney about the role of his religion in influencing his political formation. Of course we are. Romney is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an ­American-born faith that has played a large role in the public square. Since his youthful stint as a missionary, he has served LDS in a variety of significant posts. The answers to questions about Romney’s career as a lay church official may tell us more about who he is than his record at Bain, his sparse tenure as governor, or his tax returns.

The questions are not theological. Nor are they about polygamy, the scandalous credo that earlier Romneys practiced even after the church banned it in 1890. Rather, the questions are about the Mormon church’s political actions during Mitt Romney’s lifetime—and about what role Romney, as both a leader and major donor, might have played or is still playing in those actions. To ask these questions is not to be a religious bigot but to vet a candidate for the nation’s highest job. Given how often Romney himself cites his faith as a defining force in his life, voters have a right to know what role he played when his faith intersected with the secular lives of his fellow citizens.

As we learn in The Real Romney, Mitt Romney has performed many admirable acts of charity for members of his church in dire straits. But the flip side of this hands-on engagement is whether, in his various positions in the church, he countenanced or enforced its discriminatory treatment of blacks and women, practices it only started to end in earnest well after he had entered adulthood. It wasn’t until 1978, when he was in his thirties, that blacks were given full status in his church—an embarrassing fact that Romney tried to finesse in his last campaign by speaking emotionally on Meet the Press of seeing his father join Martin Luther King on a civil-rights march. (The Boston Phoenix would soon report that this was another lie about his past.) In the seventies, Romney’s church also applied its institutional muscle to battling the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women. And these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans. Its actions led Stuart Matis, a faithful graduate of Brigham Young University who’d completed his missionary service, to commit suicide on the steps of a Mormon chapel in 2000 in anguished protest of his dehumanized status within his religion. Unchastened, the Mormon church enlisted its congregants to put over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Mormons contributed more than $20 million to the effort and constituted an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the campaign’s original volunteers. Romney, who endorsed gay rights when running as a moderate against Kennedy in 1994, has swung so far in the other direction that he ridiculed gay couples when pandering to South Carolina Republicans a few years ago. (“Some are actually having children born to them!” he said with horror.) Did some of his yet undivulged Mormon philanthropy support the Prop 8 campaign?

Even if these questions yield benign answers, we know that Romney’s faith has contributed to his self-segregation from the actual “real streets of America.” His closest circle comes from within his faith, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the fact remains that today the American Mormon population is still only 1 percent black. (Those recent television promo spots marketing LDS as a fount of diversity are a smoke screen.) Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as “not very much” (to take just one recent example of his cluelessness about how the other 99 percent lives), so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll. When he’s forced to interact with the America beyond his hermetically sealed Mormon orbit, we get instant YouTube classics like his attempt to get down and rap with black voters on Martin Luther King Day four years ago by quoting “Who Let the Dogs Out?

Given Romney’s maladroitness as a retail politician, the failure of even his own fans to convey any enthusiasm for him, and the 75 percent of his party that questions his conservatism, it’s hard to fathom how he kept being judged inevitable by so many observers just as he was losing two of the first three election-year contests. Even a normally hardheaded, data-driven analyst like the Times’ poll maven Nate Silver couldn’t resist being swept up by this narrative, going beyond the numbers to write in a January 16 post that the 90 percent odds given a Romney nomination by the betting market Intrade “may if anything be too conservative.” (Six days later, after South Carolina, Silver wrote, “Perhaps, then, there is profound resistance among Republican voters to nominating Mr. Romney after all.”) Much of the Romney inflation, naturally, has to do with his good fortune in having such a splintered and screwy scrum of opponents. Often we’re told that he “looks like a president” (that would be a pre-Obama president). We also hear constantly about his message discipline, his organization, and his money—attributes that matter more to political consultants and the pundits who pal around with them than to an angry electorate trying to dig out of a recession. To the political class, Romney is the most electable candidate because his mealy-mouthed blandness is what will lure that much-apotheosized yet indistinct band of moderates and independents to his side. But as Michael Kinsley long ago joked that Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, so Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president. Voters may have another view, and certainly did in South Carolina, where exit polls found that those who most valued a candidate’s electability rallied to Newt.

But if the power of Mitt’s money and the power of pack journalism helped contribute to his status as indestructible, the power of denial at the higher reaches of the GOP did even more so. The Republican Establishment has been adamant in insisting that economic populism and class warfare do not infect their own ranks, and that economic inequality is strictly a lefty and Democratic gripe. If that’s the case, then Romney’s strong identification with the one percent stigmatized by Occupy Wall Street would indeed present no problem. But a January Pew poll found that a majority of both Republicans and Independents now join Democrats in feeling that there are “strong conflicts” between the rich and poor in America; a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey found that Republican voters were just as likely as Democrats to blame “Wall Street bankers” most of all for the country’s economic problems. It’s hardly a stretch that some of that blame might attach itself to Romney, especially after Gingrich turned a spotlight on his Bain résumé.

When the battle over Bain broke out in New Hampshire, both the Romney campaign and the right were blindsided. “Perhaps the most striking thing about the current fight over Mitt Romney’s career in private equity is how little we knew about it,” wrote Byron York, the conservative columnist at the Washington Examiner, adding that Romney’s “business experience has not been the topic of long and detailed public examination and debate.” He, like many of his cohort in the Fox echo chamber, seemed unaware that Romney’s Bain record has been debated for nearly two decades, starting with his 1994 battle with Kennedy (who engaged “truth squads” of downsized workers from a midwestern Bain-owned company to stalk Romney). That record has been examined repeatedly by mainstream journalists ever since.

Even as the Republican Establishment continues to prop up Mitt, it remains in denial about his long-term prospects. Romney rationalizers argue that Gingrich’s blunderbuss assault on Bain was a blessing in disguise, for it will force Romney to come up with an airtight defense before the fall. But Romney has been trying since 1994 to formulate answers to questions about his Bain career, his vast wealth, and his leadership role in his church. If he hasn’t found them by now, it’s because he doesn’t have them. And so his preferred route has been just to avoid tough questions altogether—and confrontation in general—by sticking to manicured campaign events as immaculate as his Brooks Brothers shirts. He tries to shun mainstream-news-organization interviews, and dropped the “Ask Mitt Anything” sessions with voters that were a staple of his 2008 campaign. Even straightforward interviews with sympathetic interlocutors like Fox News’s Bret Baier and the radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham throw him into a tizzy, if not a hissy fit. Remarkably, he received high marks for months for his steady demeanor and discipline in the Republican debates, but as we now know, all it takes is a tough question about his own biography to prompt a stammering answer and robotic herky-jerky head movements suggestive of a human-size Pez dispenser. His belated efforts to go on the attack against Gingrich often make him sound like an adolescent tattletale. In Romney’s best debate, last Thursday, he was still outshone by the also-ran Rick Santorum.

To escape the twin taints of Bain and his one-percenter’s under–15 percent tax rate, some Republican elders are urging Romney to “stake his campaign on something larger and far more important than his own business expertise” (The Wall Street Journal editorial page) or, as Fred Barnes suggested more baldly, to find “a bigger idea to deflect attention from Bain.” But even Mitt’s own spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, once described him (to the Des Moines Register) as “not a very notional leader.” Romney is incapable of an arresting turn of phrase, let alone a fresh idea. Running on empty, he resorts to filling out his canned campaign orations with lengthy recitations of the lyrics from patriotic anthems. (“Believe in America” is his campaign slogan.) Take away the bogus boasts about “job creation” at Bain and the disowned Romneycare, and what else is there to Mitt Romney? Mainly, his unspecified service to his church and his perfect marriage. That reduces him to the stature of the Republican presidential candidate he most resembles, Thomas Dewey—in both his smug and wooden campaign style and in the overrating of his prospects by the political culture. Even the famously dismissive description of Dewey popularized by the Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth—as “the little man on the wedding cake”—seems to fit Mitt.

No Republican has ever won the nomination after losing the South Carolina primary. No incumbent president since FDR has won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent on Election Day, and ours currently stands at 8.5 percent. No candidate with a 58 percent disapproval rating—especially Newt—is likely to win a national election, even for dogcatcher. But surely someone has to be nominated by the Republicans, and someone has to win in November.

“This race is getting to be even more interesting,” said Romney when conceding to Gingrich in South Carolina. As always, it’s impossible to know whether he really meant what he said or not, but this much is certain: He will continue to be the least interesting thing about it.

Who in God’s Name Is Mitt Romney?