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?

In appearance and demeanor Mitt is clearly his father's son: forty years after Newsweek described George Romney as being straight from "central casting," the former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich (who competed in the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary as a Democrat in 2002) described Mitt in exactly the same words. George Romney was born in 1907 to a farming couple at a Mormon outpost in Mexico. Forced from their home in 1912 by the army of Pancho Villa, the Romneys migrated around the West (they spent one impoverished winter in Idaho eating little but potatoes) before settling in Salt Lake City. George worked his way out of poverty, starting as a senator's stenographer in Washington, D.C., and going on to scale the heights of the automotive industry; he was the general manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Association and later the president of American Motors. He also became active in Michigan politics, and in 1962 the Republican Party deemed him the worthiest gubernatorial candidate.

As governor, Romney didn't always toe the GOP line. A champion of civil rights and a perceived moderate, he walked out on Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964. He also instituted Michigan's first income tax. But in the late 1960s the Republican Party was still a place with room for the likes of Nelson Rockefeller, and Romney was an early favorite for his party's 1968 presidential nomination. Not for long, though. His candidacy was badly shaken when—though he had initially supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam—he described an extremely disenchanting trip he had made to visit the troops there and said, "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam, not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job." He dropped out of the race two weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

"It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words," Mitt said when I asked him about his dad's experience. "The careful selection of words is something I'm more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire."

Mitt Romney's initial foray into politics was not a success. In 1994 he spent $3 million of his own money in a campaign to topple the mighty Ted Kennedy from his perch in the U.S. Senate. Why did he waste money on such a quixotic project? "I felt very strongly that the social programs of the sixties and seventies, the liberal agenda—I'll call it the Johnson agenda—had hurt working families, had hurt the poor in many instances," he told me. "And while the liberals had the best of intentions, I felt that the programs themselves had created a permanent underclass and had fostered poverty instead of eliminating it."

At first few people paid Romney's candidacy much heed. After all, in his six previous Senate campaigns Kennedy had scarcely been challenged, so what did he have to fear from an upstart venture capitalist with no political experience? More than he had bargained for, as it turned out. Less than two months before the election a complacent Kennedy was stunned to find himself virtually tied with Romney in the polls. All of a sudden everyone was paying attention: could a Kennedy actually lose in Massachusetts?

Once awakened, the Kennedy apparatus cranked up. Because Romney had no political record to run against, Kennedy ran against his private-sector career, attacking his business decisions and the way he ran his companies. Striking employees from a paper company called Ampad (which was owned by Bain Capital) traveled from central Indiana to Boston to rail against Romney's alleged disregard for manufacturing jobs. "I got caught up in all the 'Romney's a venture capitalist, he's laid off people,'" Romney said. "Well, no, I didn't—it wasn't my factory." But the damage was done. Kennedy won going away.

The defeat was jarring for Romney, who "was embarrassed to have asked so many people to work for him without delivering results," according to Tagg Romney, the oldest of Mitt's five sons. "At that point he was so used to delivering—delivering shareholder results to investors, turning Bain & Company around. Losing the Senate race was his first major experience with defeat."

"I was taught a lesson by one of the great politicians of our age," Romney joked to me. "Never, ever run against Ted Kennedy. At least not in Massachusetts. Give me any other state and I'm all up for it."

Afew years ago the smart money would have bet that that state would be Utah, where the Romney name carries great currency. It was in Utah that Romney returned to the public stage as the savior of the 2002 Olympic Games.

In 1998 the organizers of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were accused of having used bribes—including a college scholarship for the child of an African Olympic official—to secure the votes necessary to bring the games to Utah. Though the Utah officials were eventually cleared in court of outright criminality, a stain was left on Salt Lake City's pristine image. The morale of the Olympics' staff had gone into free fall. Revenues were not meeting costs. New sponsorship had dried up. The marketing program was effectively dead. In desperation, state leaders turned to Romney, who had spent the previous four years back in the private sector. He was cool to the idea at first; he had never been much of a sportsman, and knew very little about the Olympics. But, prodded by Ann, he took the job, as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and by applying the Bain world view (emphasizing the need to be disciplined about spending, he scaled back the budgets for the opening and closing ceremonies and cut many other Olympics extras), he saved the day. When the games ended, in February of 2002, people were talking not about payoffs to African Olympic officials but, rather, about the Canadian skaters who had been shafted by a French judge. They were also talking about the skill of Mitt Romney.

"Mitt personified the 2002 Winter Olympic Games," Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, told me. Anderson is a Democrat, and a strong supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage. Yet he endorsed Romney for the 2002 gubernatorial run because of Romney's success with the games. "I've told all my Democratic friends that they politically need to be aware of him," Anderson says.

Republicans in Massachusetts and elsewhere took note of Romney's success, and his political star rose rapidly. For a time he avoided responding to rumors about his future (would he run for office in Utah? return to Massachusetts?), and he had expressed his reluctance to run against a fellow Republican—which seemed to rule out Massachusetts for the moment, since it was then governed by its third consecutive Republican, the acting governor Jane Swift. But Swift's poll numbers were dropping by the day, and both Democrats and Republicans were attacking her. A "Draft Mitt" campaign sprouted up in the state, leading Swift to gripe that "powerful men" were trying to force her to step aside.

Though it seems in retrospect that Romney's entrance into the 2002 race was a foregone conclusion, both Romneys say that's not so. Ann Romney had grown to love living in Utah. (Among other reasons, she'd been found to have multiple sclerosis a few years earlier, and horseback riding in the Utah mountains was therapeutic.) And they still bore the scars of the 1994 campaign. But the forces beckoning Romney to run were too strong to resist. Nearly everyone, it seemed, wanted him. Swift saw the writing on the wall: the day Romney declared he would be running in the Republican primary, she ceded the nomination without a fight.

Democrats tried in vain to keep him off the ballot, challenging his residency by citing his Utah driver's license and the fact that his home in Park City was classified as his primary residence. During the general election Romney said that he (like Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci before him) was a different kind of Republican: a Massachusetts-friendly Republican, fiscally conservative but socially moderate and respectful of different ethnic origins and sexual orientations. He wouldn't mess with the pro-choice laws on the state books, he said. Meanwhile, in time-honored fashion, he painted the Democratic nominee, Shannon O'Brien, who was state treasurer, as a Beacon Hill insider, and himself as the outsider unsullied by previous association with statehouse cronyism. In the end the race was reasonably close, but it was Romney who took the oath of office in January of 2003.

Some people saw the inclusion of Democrats in his cabinet as a sign of a kinder, gentler era of state politics, but they were soon disabused of that notion. Romney called (with limited success) for the most sweeping changes in state government in a generation, aiming to merge previously independent agencies and eliminate jobs. He threatened to eliminate the position of president of the state's university system; its occupant, the former state senate president William Bulger, had upset Romney by taking the Fifth during congressional testimony about his brother, the mobster "Whitey" Bulger, who is wanted in connection with the murders of nineteen people. Romney's plan was defeated in the state senate, but Bulger eventually resigned anyway. Faced with a $3 billion deficit and having pledged not to raise taxes, Romney slashed social programs, the higher-education budget, and local aid to cities and towns. Although he boasts that the state ran a $700 million budget surplus in 2004, Michael Widmer, the head of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, points out that the number does not reflect a true structural surplus—only the fact that revenues came in higher last year than the conservative targets the Romney administration and the legislature had set.

Romney doesn't have enough votes in the legislature to sustain a veto, so his initiatives are repeatedly thwarted. He put a lot of effort into campaigning for local Republican candidates in 2004, only to see his party lose three seats in the statehouse.

Steve Adams, formerly the head of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank in Boston, and now with the Small Business Administration, concedes that Romney doesn't have much to show in the way of legislative accomplishment. But that, Adams says, is because the Democrat-dominated statehouse "won't give him anything." Phil Johnston, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, isn't buying this: "To say 'I can't do anything' because the legislature won't let him is ridiculous. Romney doesn't reach out to people. He tries to destroy them and then says it's nothing personal." But Adams argues that what Romney has succeeded in doing is reshaping public-policy debate. Adams says that in recent history the only way for Republicans to get anything done in Massachusetts was to cave in completely on certain issues in exchange for compromise on others. According to Adams, Romney is saying, "I'm not willing to compromise over here for this win. I'm willing to come halfway with you on an issue, but I'm not going to give up on issue A so that I can win on issue B."

When I told Romney what Adams had said, the governor told me he appreciated the free pass he had been given, but that he would respectfully decline to take it—because he has managed to pass some measures and doesn't consider any of the outstanding ones to have failed irredeemably yet. He handed me a document that listed ninety-seven promises he had made during his 2002 campaign, each one falling into one of three categories: "done," "ongoing," or "not yet." An asterisk indicated those promises on which he had tried to act but had been rebuffed by the legislature. There is something distinctly Romneyesque about the document: the businessman's ledgerlike mentality; the deep concern that he be seen as a man of his word, a man who will try his hardest to deliver on whatever he promises; and the sheer earnestness. It's the same earnestness that's reflected in his ability to toggle from Bain analytic mode to golly-gee mode in seconds flat. I once heard him, in the kitchen of a home in a fifty-five-and-over community near Cape Cod, go from rattling off numbers concerning COBRA payments and health-insurance premiums to saying eagerly, "Well, let's have some of this banana bread!" Romney's sincerity, oddly enough, can sometimes make him seem artificial—but it's a sincerity that others can only hope to fake.

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

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