‘To this day,’’ Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write, Mitt Romney remains “an enigmatic presence to people outside his closest circle, a puzzle whose pieces don’t neatly fit.’’
Kranish and Helman’s “The Real Romney,’’ a timely, balanced new biography of the founder of Bain Capital and former Massachusetts governor, arrives as its subject moves to the front of a shrinking pack of Republican president hopefuls.
The authors, both longtime political reporters at The Boston Globe, set as their task presenting “the first complete, independent biography of Mitt Romney, a man whose journey to national political fame is at once remarkable and throughly unsurprising.’’ Romney’s story, they write, is one of a man “guided by his faith and firmly grounded in family’’ who grew up out of step with many in his generation to become a successful businessman and politician balancing an “uneasy relationship between conviction and vaunting ambition.’’
Romney’s story begins with his 1950s boyhood in a tony Detroit suburb as the youngest of four children of George Romney, automotive industry executive, Michigan governor, and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, and Lenore LaFount, whom George convinced to drop a promising career as an actress (“the biggest sale I ever made in my life’’ he would later say) in order to marry him.
Throughout “The Real Romney’’ the authors examine the ways the Mormon faith influenced the direction of Mitt’s life and helped shape his evolving attitudes, with the religion’s disapproval of premarital sex, alcohol, homosexuality, and abortion.
Romney, who showed an early interest in politics, started college at Stanford but left after freshman year to embark on a two-year evangelical Mormon mission in France. While there, he was injured in a car crash that took the life of the wife of a mission leader. That brush with mortality marked a turning point in Romney’s life.
After returning from France, he married his high school sweetheart, Ann Davies, and finished his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University. He then attended Harvard, where he earned a law degree and an MBA - while remaining staunchly traditional amid the counterculture tumults of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
After grad school, Romney helped found Bain Capital, the private investment firm where he would make his fortune. It was there that he honed a data-driven style, which would become a signature trait. The intense focus on numbers and facts allowed him to analyze companies, buy and overhaul them, and sell them at a profit, an approach that sometimes resulted in layoffs. Those cuts later would dog Romney, allowing political opponents to paint him as callous and money-grabbing, although Kranish and Helman note that Romney probably saved several companies from collapse, preventing even larger job losses.
After his success at Bain, Romney sought other challenges, launching an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Massachusetts’ Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, rescuing the troubled Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games and winning the Massachusetts governor’s race in 2002, and failing in a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
Throughout his political career, Romney employed his laser-like ability to focus on goals and adapt his strategy to evolving conditions, sometimes to his detriment: “In business, changing positions . . . can be the secret of survival,’’ write the authors. “In politics, it can brand you a ‘flip-flopper.’ ’’
In races in sometimes left-leaning Massachusetts, Romney ran as a fiscal conservative tolerant on social issues. He spoke in defense of Roe v. Wade and backed gay rights so openly that he won the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans, an equal rights organization.
Since then he has shifted positions as he turned his focus to a broader, national audience. Recently, when Romney was confronted with a letter he wrote in 1994 to the Log Cabin group, outlining his support for gay rights, he said: “Let’s look at that in the context of who it’s being written to.’’ Likewise, Romney’s position on abortion rights has taken a clear turn to the right.
Perhaps most telling is the way Romney has found himself backtracking on what is perhaps the signature achievement of his governorship, the passage of a universal healthcare law.
Other aspects of Romney’s public persona have proven liabilities. The data-driven, buttoned-down Romney often has been accused of having difficulties connecting with people. These accusations, however, constitute a “vexing rap’’ to friends and family. “They see a very different Mitt Romney and can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want him to lead their country,’’ the authors say. “The man they know is warm . . . funny . . . [and] deeply generous with both his time and money when people need a lift.’’
In examining his personal life, the book details the genuinely close relationships between Mitt, his wife, and their five sons, taking a special look at how the couple has faced her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. It also gives readers an inside account of Romney’s leadership role within the Mormon church, offering critical views from Mormon women, for instance, about how Romney upheld Mormonism’s strict views about abortion and the limited role of women in the church hierarchy. The book also takes us into the halls of Bain Capital, describing Romney’s business career in private equity, as well as the way he interacted with colleagues (who sometimes found him less-than-charismatic). Finally, the book makes clear the “evolution’’ of Romney from socially tolerant moderate to hard-core conservative on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and stem-cell research.
In “The Real Romney,’’ Kranish and Helman paint an impressively researched and thought-provoking portrait of man many Americans may want to know more about in the coming weeks and months.Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer in Dorchester, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.