THE FIRST TIME I INTERVIEWED MITT ROMNEY, as I settled onto the couch in his State House office in the summer of 2006, I noticed the governor wince a bit as he rotated his arm, like an aging closer warming up in the bullpen.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “Just a little tennis elbow.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to make small talk. “You hurt yourself playing tennis?”
He froze and stared back at me. I could almost see the calculations spinning like cherries on slot-machine reels behind his eyes. Is this guy so dumb that he thinks you have to play tennis to get this? Should I set him straight? Just let it pass?
“No,” he said haltingly. “You can get tennis elbow from any number of activities.”
My clumsy small talk had evidently violated his logic-driven operating system too much to be left uncorrected.
Romney’s no robot. He’s smart and sharp and occasionally even funny. Still, he’s got to be one of the least natural politicians ever to get so close to the Oval Office.
Tuesday’s election showed that even after Romney had been running for president for the better part of six years, many Americans still have no idea who he actually is.
The economy effectively made the election Romney’s to lose, despite the GOP’s alienation of minorities and President Obama’s personal popularity. The candidate who made history by breaking the color barrier made history on much less celebratory grounds this time around, as the only incumbent president since the Depression to win reelection with such a resolutely high unemployment rate.
Romney’s spike in the polls after the first debate showed how willing so many Americans were to consider replacing Barack Obama with him. The Romney they saw then resembled the same engaged, pragmatic turnaround artist who had forged consensus in rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics and then gotten himself elected governor of the perma-blue Bay State.
“My dad can solve problems,” his oldest son, Tagg, once told me. “Even now, if my wife and I can’t figure out something, I’ll say, ‘It’s time to call the Mittster.’ ” Many in America seemed poised to entrust the Mittster with the turnaround of this nation and its gridlocked government.
Romney’s first few years as governor suggested he was up to the challenge. He had successfully attracted capable fresh faces to government and successfully attacked the seemingly insoluble problem of universal health care. But after he spent so much of his last year in office mocking Massachusetts and running from his achievements here, all in service of his presidential ambitions, many voters soured on him.
That pattern repeated itself during this campaign, as the second and especially the third debate found Romney adopting numerous positions that were unrecognizable from those he had staked out earlier in the campaign. The political calculus behind each position shift was understandable. But taken together, they seem to have rekindled questions about Romney’s core and fears about his perceived inauthenticity. It’s hard to miss the message embedded in Romney’s failure on Tuesday to carry not just Massachusetts but also his other two home states of Michigan and New Hampshire.
Back during my first interview with him, I showed Romney rare footage of the incident that many historians blame for the implosion of his father’s 1968 presidential bid, the TV interview in which George Romney said “brainwashing” had duped him into supporting the Vietnam War. Mitt had actually never seen the footage before, and I was struck by how much his stiffness seemed to soften while watching it.
For all the similarities between father and son, as a candidate George was undisciplined and unbudging. Mitt, meanwhile, was controlled and exquisitely adaptive. With his emotion-free reliance on the inputs and outputs that had served him so well in business, he was determined to avoid the mistakes of his father and finally close the deal.
In the end, though, he proved you can learn a lesson too well.