Mitt Romney, a Chevrolet Caprice, and Oddness

The New York Times examines how the wealthy politician balances lavish tastes and an "instinctive" frugality.

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Mitt Romney sometimes seems a little weird. This is the problem, right? He's not significantly more of an automaton than any of the other candidates who are trying to stay diligently on message in running for president. (Think not just of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 answers, but Rick Perry and his tax code on a postcard, or Barack Obama talking about "high-powered lawyers" as he presses for the extension of the payroll tax cut.) The Romney issue is a perception of oddness.

Some of that may be about Mormonism, and the lingering doubts some conservatives Christians have about how his religion does or doesn't square with theirs. But the perception of oddness isn't just that. It's stories like The New York Times' piece about how Romney balances his taste for the things business success lets him afford with his "instinctive" frugality.

It's cheapness in extremis, rich with examples of high quirk that make Romney sound a little like an Alexander Payne character.

Romney doles out millions in bonuses, and marvels at a colleague's Porsche.

But Mr. Romney had insisted on driving an inexpensive, domestic stalwart that looked out of place in the company parking lot — a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon with red vinyl seats and a banged-up front end. 

Like a Payne character, the oddness quickly becomes endearing. It's humanizing to think of Romney the man as struggling to come to terms with astronomical good fortune and its trappings.

He has acquired six-figure thoroughbred horses for his wife, Ann, yet plays golf with clubs from Kmart. And he has owned a series of multimillion-dollar homes, from a lakefront compound in New Hampshire to a beach house in California, but once rented a U-Haul to move his family’s belongings himself between two of the vacation retreats.

Friends, co-workers and relatives describe Mr. Romney, now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, as something of a paradox: a man exceedingly deft at and devoted to making money who has never become entirely comfortable with his own wealth.

Some of their examples are unremarkable. (Of course the boss didn't like employees flying first class; who would?) But others are the stuff of obsession. Not a reason to like or dislike him as a candidate. Just... odd.

When Tagg was 16, he lost an inexpensive anchor off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., where the family had a summer home. Finding the 18-inch-long weight at the bottom of the ocean, he told his father, was a lost cause. 

Mr. Romney insisted that Tagg search for it, but after the teenager refused, Mr. Romney excused himself from the guests he had been entertaining, put on a bathing suit and a snorkel mask, and set out in a rowboat with his son. 

“We rowed back and forth for about 25 minutes,” Tagg, now 41, said in an interview. “Then I remember him jumping out of the boat. He had spotted it, and he went down and pulled out the anchor.” 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.