The Holy Cow! Candidate

Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, loves data, hates waste, and reveres Dwight Eisenhower. He's also the Next Big Thing in the Republican Party. But can anyone so clean-cut, so pure of character, and (by gosh!) so square overcome the "two Ms"—Mormonism and Massachusetts—to be our next president?

Of course, Romney can be as ruthless and determined as the next politician. One prominent Utah politician who is a fan of his told me that when the circumstances call for it, Romney is "extremely tough" and unafraid to engage in direct combat, even with his political allies. And more than one witness has described to me how he can "eviscerate" opponents who try to take him on in meetings without having their facts straight.

But this is a side of Romney that reporters seldom see behind the golly-gee-willikers boyishness. A few weeks before the Celtics game, when he took me on a tour of his office in the Massachusetts statehouse, he was like a kid showing off a new poster of Ken Griffey Jr. or Tom Brady. On his desk were pictures of his mother and father and wife, and of four of his five sons floating with their respective families in a lake on a sunny day. In a cabinet on one wall was a black-and-white photo of Mitt and his wife with his parents in the White House during his father's tenure as Nixon's secretary of housing and urban development. There were Romney for President postcards and buttons from his father's presidential run. And there was the Bible on which his father had sworn his oath of office each of the three times he was inaugurated as governor of Michigan.

"And then there's a story behind this," Romney said, pulling out a plate with a picture of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower painted on it. "Not only was Eisenhower one of my favorite presidents; when we became grandparents, you get to choose what the kids will call you. Some call you Papa. I chose Ike. I'm Ike, and Ann is Mamie." (Actually, this is partly wishful thinking: Romney's son Tagg later told me that although his daughter, the oldest grandchild, did in fact call her grandfather "Ike" at his request, she was the only one of the eight grandchildren who ever did. When later grandchildren started to call him Papa, she went along.)

Eisenhower was a reputable two-term president, and a reasonably popular one at that. There are reasons to admire him. But he's not generally thought worthy of Mt. Rushmore. At any rate, how many politicians today would cite him as their role model? Romney does, and that says a lot about what kind of man, and what kind of politician, he is.

Romney's brief for Eisenhower stems in large part from his respect for the man's character and personal rectitude. For instance, while acknowledging the power of Thomas Jefferson's rhetoric, Romney said he felt disappointed by his personal shortcomings (see Hemings, Sally). "I believe people who are in a position of visibility and leadership affect the character of young people and individuals who look to them as leaders," he told me. "And in some respects just as important as their policies and positions is their character and their substance. What for me makes people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and John Adams and George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan such extraordinary leaders is that they had integrity through and through. What they were on the inside and what they said on the outside was harmonious. There are a lot of people like that. I think that if people try to live a very different personal life not consistent with the role they've assumed as a governor or a senator or a president, we lose something as a nation."

He continued, "Many would say, 'Dwight Eisenhower—what did he do?' I would say he did the interstate highway system, and he took on communism, and so forth, but let's put that aside for a moment. He also was a person whose leadership during World War II made him someone the entire nation revered and respected. And there's nothing wrong with having heroes in positions of prominence."

Romney is not a hero, but he has edged into a position of prominence on the national political stage. In politics such personal attributes as looks and personality can take you only so far. So how has he managed to achieve such visibility in merely his third year as governor? Partly it is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place: Massachusetts, famously one of the most progressive states in the Union, where voters are ardent in their support of stem-cell research and other liberal social policies that Romney opposes. The wrong time: Not even a year into Romney's term, in November of 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that marriage in Massachusetts would no longer be limited to unions between men and women but would be defined as the exclusive, voluntary "union of two persons as spouses." The majority based its decision on the equal-protection and due-process provisions of the Massachusetts constitution, saying that they guarantee the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Though the court's decision was rendered in explicitly juridical terms, not moral ones, Romney felt that the act reeked of judicial activism, and that it trampled on millennia of tradition. He was also vocal about discouraging out-of-state gay couples from coming to Massachusetts to get married. The story, and in particular Romney's resistance to the ruling, propelled him into the national news. Recently, in speeches in Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah, Romney lamented that as a result of gay marriage's legality in Massachusetts some town clerks want to replace "mother" and "father" on birth certificates with "parent A" and "parent B." (Some gay couples, he explained to a Republican crowd in South Carolina, "are actually having children born to them.")

I asked Romney why he didn't just accept the ruling as law even if he disagreed with it, as he has with the state's statutes on abortion. "During the [2002] campaign I said what my position was," he told me. "I said I was in favor of traditional marriage and not Vermont-style civil unions or gay marriage. And this state had not yet had the chance to have the final word on that issue. I would like the citizens to have the final word." He is pushing for an amendment to the state constitution that would outlaw gay marriage.

"Once the legal process is completed and the amendment is either successful or not successful, I will live by the law of the land," he continued. "I might not agree with it, and I'll say it's wrong and people have made the wrong choice, but I do abide by the law."

True to his word, Romney has not tried to change the laws governing abortion in Massachusetts. But there are those—and not just his critics—who say he has not always been entirely truthful, or at least not entirely clear, about what his views on abortion are. One Friday in early June, Romney held a makeshift press conference in New Hampshire to address comments made by his adviser and friend Mike Murphy, who had said of Romney in a story just published in the conservative National Review, "He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly." Since the story broke Murphy had been telling everyone that his comments had been taken out of context (explaining that the "faking it" line conveyed what he thought Romney's liberal critics were saying), but the press demanded to hear it from the governor himself.

Romney was stiff, almost robotic, as he read a prepared statement. "While I've said time and again that I oppose abortion, I've also indicated that I would not change in any way the abortion laws in Massachusetts. And I've honored that promise. I take my promises very seriously. As to the comment [of] one of the advisers associated with my campaign, he expressed to me clarification of his comments. He's a good friend and I accept that clarification."

After dodging the inevitable question from one of the assembled journalists about whether he planned to run for president (Romney just laughed amiably in response, as he always does), he went back inside the gray, eye-deadening walls of the Radisson Hotel Manchester, where he would soon be speaking to a group of elderly Republican women and eating a largely inedible dinner—one of many he will have to ingest should he decide he wants to succeed Bush in 2009.

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His profile of Geraldo Rivera appeared in the June issue.

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