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So long, Mitt Romney, man of many masks

Let’s hope that, in his post-politics life, Romney doubles down on his sometimes role as truth-teller.

Mitt Romney's two campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination put on display a man torn between his honest evaluation of facts or situations and his instinct for expedience.Win McNamee/Getty

Goodbye, Mitt Romney, man of many mysteries. And masks. And modes. And makeovers.

Maybe now that you’re preparing to leave elected life after 30 years in and out of politics, we’ll be left with the best, truth-telling version of you.

I first started covering Romney when he ran for US Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994. He ran as a Bill Weld-style moderate Massachusetts Republican. I thought well of him. He lost that race, but after running the Winter Olympics, he came back to Massachusetts and won the 2002 governor’s race — whereupon he almost immediately came down with Potomac fever.


What can one say of the Romney(s) of that era? Occasionally he stood tall. Other times, he shrunk small.

The last extensive conversation I had with him found him so angry that his hair was shaking, which says something, given the abundance of styling product he deployed to keep his hair in close formation.

Let’s see, what had I done? Was it writing a politically parodic “Tale of Two Mitties,” one a masterly manager, the other a Bill Clintonesque “Slick Willard,” a weasel wordsmith able to conceal connivance in a comma and pirouette on a period?

No, if memory serves, my offense was wondering whether Mitt would emulate his damn-the-political-torpedoes father, George, on this issue or that or whether the episode at hand would be another chapter in “The Amazing Adventures of Mitty Mouse.”

To my mind, the Romney of those days showed too little spine. His two campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination put on display a man torn between his honest evaluation of facts or situations and his instinct for expedience. Massachusetts saw that proclivity on full display as he transformed himself from a moderate Massachusetts Republican into a newly minted conservative. The man who had been an abortion-rights proponent declared he was now antiabortion. The guy who had supported gay rights battled against a Massachusetts high court ruling establishing gay marriage. The fellow who in his 1994 campaign had distanced himself from the GOP’s Ronald Reagan years started gushing about the Gipper. And let’s not even mention his attempt to portray himself as a gun-and-NRA friendly varmint hunter.


During the 2008 campaign, Mitt’s manifest morphing led to a well-placed debate barb from then-Republican rival John McCain, a gibe that played off Romney’s claim to be a change agent: “Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change.”

The crowd broke into appreciative laughter, proving once again that levity was the role of Mitt.

The problem with Romney was that he too often put what he knew was correct or right on hold to pursue what was politically advantageous. Witness his journey from believer to skeptic back to convert on climate change.

Sadly, we saw the same kind of thing on his big Massachusetts achievement, the private-insurance-based near-universal health care plan he engineered. Impressed, Barack Obama used Romneycare as a model for Obamacare, whereupon once-admiring conservatives turned against the Romney approach. Romney then disavowed his own program as a possible national model — and called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

We saw the same competing instincts when it comes to Donald Trump. Romney launched an 11th-hour stop-Trump effort in 2016 — but then, after Trump won, auditioned to be his secretary of state. It should have been obvious that Trump’s only real intent was to highlight his former foe in a flattering supplicant’s role.


Still, give Romney his due. Once those hopes were quashed, he came, again, to recognize Trump for what he was. Indeed, Romney, by then a US senator from Utah, was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial, in 2020. By the time of Trump’s second impeachment, this one after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol that Trump’s lying and scheming inspired, six other Republican senators joined Romney in voting to remove Trump from office.

In a new piece in The Atlantic, Romney biographer McKay Coppins quotes Romney as telling him that “a very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”


Asked about those comments on Wednesday, Romney implausibly tried to extend that constitutional disdain to both sides. But having swerved disingenuously into both-sides-ism equivocation, Romney did underscore that Trump had said we should put aside the Constitution and reinstall him as president.

He also observed, accurately, that Trump’s MAGA movement is a populist, resentful, demagogic wing of the party that lacks realistic solutions to the problem of the day.

All that will make MAGA loathe Romney all the more. After all, there’s nothing that any movement dependent on lies for its continuance fears more than a truth-teller.


Let’s hope that, his political ambitions apparently expired, Romney unleashes that estimable side of himself permanently.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.