In conversation: Michael Kranish

On Mitt Romney’s father issues, his Mormonism, and his Canadian blood

On Mitt Romney’s father issues, his Mormonism, and his Canadian blood

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but in many ways he remains an enigma. In their book, The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, reporters at Romney’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, drew on hundreds of interviews to probe Romney’s youth, business career and tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and traced his family’s colourful history as Mormon pioneers.

Q: You describe Mitt’s father, George Romney, a former governor of Michigan who also once ran for the presidency, as headstrong, idealistic and outspoken: “He did what he felt was right and if the torpedoes came, the torpedoes came.” Yet Mitt’s image is the opposite of his father’s—that he will say anything to please. What mark did his father leave on him?

A: To understand Mitt Romney, you have to understand who his father was and the impact he had on Mitt’s life. Like Mitt, George Romney was a successful businessman and governor who ran for the presidency. Yet George’s campaign in 1968 was upended by his famous quote that he had received “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” from U.S. generals about the Vietnam War, and his turn against U.S. policy. As a result, George abandoned his bid before the first primary vote. Mitt Romney’s sister, Jane, is quoted in the book saying this had a big impact—that Mitt is more careful and more scripted as a result. That’s part of the reason he seems so wooden. And when he has gone off script, such as saying he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” that has blown up in his face. That’s why he tries to walk a fine line between being careful and also speaking in a way that is revealing and shows that he has a connection to regular people.

Q: Does he have any connection to regular people or did he, as his critics say, grow up in a bubble?

A: He grew up in series of bubbles, in a very rarified world. He grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., one of the wealthiest communities in the country. His father was governor and sent him to live at a prep school. Mitt went for a year to Stanford University and then he went off on a Mormon mission to France where he moved in a tightly knit circle. Then he went to Brigham Young, a Mormon university, and then to Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. He never ran for mayor or for city council. He’s not a glad-hander. His first political race was for the U.S. Senate. He doesn’t have that local politics background where he could have made a connection to folks. Friends say he is introverted and reserved.

Q: The same has been said of President Barack Obama: that he is reserved and not a natural politician. They both seem to have trouble connecting with regular blue-collar voters in Middle America. Do you see parallels between the two men?

A: They are both intellectual and not backslappers as politicians. But a big difference is in the way they express themselves. Obama wrote a very emotional and revealing book, Dreams From My Father, in which he talked at great length about the impact of his father who had for most of his life been missing and yet in many ways shaped his life. Romney wrote two books, yet he has not been very revealing and does not feel comfortable talking about himself. Also, Obama was not raised in a world of wealth and privilege.

Q: The story you tell of Romney’s family background is one of privilege—but also one of persecution . . .

A: We try hard in the book to convey this rollicking story of his family history. His great-great-grandfather, Miles Romney, was a builder near Liverpool, England, who heard a Mormon missionary and converted to the faith. He then moved to Nauvoo, Ill., because that was the centre of Mormonism. He got to know Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and helped build the Mormon temple in Nauvoo. During an anti-Mormon wave, Smith was assassinated and Mormons were forced to leave Nauvoo. Mitt’s ancestors fled to what later became the state of Utah. One of their sons, Miles P. Romney, married a girl named Hannah Hood Hill, who had been born in Canada—near Toronto. She became the first of Miles P. Romney’s five wives and is Mitt’s great-grandmother. When polygamy was banned in the U.S., the family fled to Mexico and established a colony there at the request of Mormon leaders. Mitt’s great-grandfather lived there with several wives. His father was born in Mexico and lived there until the revolution forced the Romneys to flee.

Q: So how did these repeated experiences of exile affect the Romney family?

A: Something you see over and over in the Romney family history is the story of flight, persecution and determination to move on and rebuild. But Mitt was born into a family that was well off and didn’t have to rebuild. Mitt’s father ran American Motor Corporation and became governor of Michigan.

Q: And his mother is also an interesting character.

A: His mother, Lenore, actually had a studio contract to be a Hollywood actress and George talked her out of that to marry him. His mother ran for the U.S. Senate and failed in that bid, just as his father failed in his bid to be president.

Q: How does the Mormon faith shape him?

A: This is not something he likes to talk about openly, but years ago he called his faith “one of the most important treasures of my life.” It’s a big part of who he is. As a leader in the Mormon Church in Massachusetts, his role was to help people and counsel people—sometimes in a way that those people later said they did not agree with—such as telling a single mother who said Romney told her to put a child up for adoption or face excommunication. He is a devout Mormon but hasn’t wanted to talk about it much on the campaign trail because it’s controversial and there are Evangelicals who do not believe Mormonism is part of Christianity.

Q: And he’s a rare American politician who is fluent in French.

A: Mitt spent about 2½ years in France as a Mormon missionary. He converted perhaps a dozen people. But what clearly happened is Mitt himself became far stronger in the faith. He describes having the door slammed in his face by people opposed to the war in Vietnam. He tells the story of going to Bordeaux and telling people that he has this great new religion for them—oh, and by the way you have to give up your wine. He describes it as a humbling experience where rejection was the norm and it prepared him for political life.

Q: You tell the story of Romney sneaking around as a college student to see his teenage sweetheart Ann. What did you learn about his marriage?

A: Mitt began courting Ann when they were in high school in Michigan. She was 15 and he was 18. When he went to Stanford, he’d often sneak back to visit Ann. His father became concerned that he was missing his studies and he cut off his allowance—but Mitt was so determined to see Ann that he sold off some of his clothing to pay for a plane ticket. Ann’s role has been extraordinarily important. She’s the one who would tell him that if he didn’t do this he’d regret it—the Mormon mission to France, the runs for Senate, governor and president.

Q: How did a Mormon from Michigan end up governor of liberal Massachusetts?

A: One of his father’s life ambitions was to go to Harvard Business School and he was never able to do that. Mitt fulfilled that ambition and went one better—he attended Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School simultaneously. He ended up staying in Boston. He went through a series of financial jobs and founded Bain Capital in Boston. And then he got into politics from there.

Q: Romney claims that he created 100,000 jobs as a businessman, while Newt Gingrich called him a “vulture capitalist” who profited from closing factories. What kind of businessman was he?

A: Mitt founded and ran Bain Capital for 15 years. The first phase was venture capital—he invested in new companies and by definition, jobs were created. The best example was Staples, the office supply company—Bain invested $2.5 million and got back about $13 million. It was a small deal for them. The second phase of Bain Capital—and where they made most of their money—was leveraged buyouts. They invested in companies, sometimes made them take out loans that made them more indebted, and Bain would charge the companies management fees, and then sell the companies.

We looked at about 100 deals they did over a 15-year period and concluded Bain was one of the most successful companies of its kind during the 1990s. They more than doubled their investors’ money. There were cases in which Bain went in and jobs were lost and factories closed and Bain still profited. There were others where Bain went in and jobs were created. The question of whether they created more than 100,000 jobs is subject to debate.

Q: How does Romney make decisions?

A: He made his living as a business consultant and believes deeply in the idea of having outsiders come in and analyze, present opposing points of view, and having people argue that out.

Q: So who is the real Romney?

A: I am often asked if the real Romney is liberal, moderate or conservative. My answer is, “Yes, he has been all those things.”

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