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Brian McGrory

Mitt, we still hardly know ye

Maybe I should have seen all this coming that first time I met Mitt Romney in the paneled study of his Belmont house nearly 10 years ago.

He was fresh from turning around the Olympics in Salt Lake City. He was a well-spoken, multimillionaire businessman who had heard the siren call of public service since he was a child, an outsider who would keep an arms-length relationship with the whole sordid crew on Beacon Hill. I had written a couple of columns urging him to run for governor, and he invited me for an interview shortly after he announced his plans.


It made for an entertaining hour. Romney was open and often charming, moderate to the point of being nonpartisan. He was even kind of funny. At one point, Romney tossed his arms over his head to mimic a deer in the headlights - his imitation of himself in his 1994 defeat by Ted Kennedy.

For not foreseeing his rise from the State House to, potentially, the White House, I shouldn’t, in truth, be so hard on myself. Romney has made a habit of getting in his own way.

First, there was the small matter of that gubernatorial campaign. His very best day was the one right before he declared. On the stump, he was, in a word, terrible - hollow and plastic in speeches and mannerisms. “How are you?’’ he would repeatedly ask, never waiting for a response.

There was one October campaign swing through Boston’s North End with Rudy Giuliani when a burly laborer in a crowded Mike’s Pastry called out “Let me buy you guys a cannoli.’’ Brilliant, I thought. The cameras would capture Romney with ricotta cheese on his strong chin, a man of the people. Then Romney called back, “No thanks, got to run,’’ as he headed for the door. He said it with that nervous smile, which was still frozen on his face when Giuliani said to the guy “Let me buy you the cannoli!’’ The place erupted in cheers.


Romney’s victory led to another invitation to that same study, where he was even more forthcoming and effusive than before. There were no aides. His wife had left ahead of him on vacation. It was just Mitt Romney, suddenly comfortable again in his own skin, talking about wanting to “do a better job for people who need government’s help.’’

At one point, he pulled out some mementos of his late father, George Romney, the automobile executive turned Michigan governor, and it became suddenly and explicitly clear how much it meant to fulfill this destiny. George Romney never got to be his party’s presidential nominee, despite high expectations, so you can only imagine what must be in Mitt Romney’s head today.

He followed his mediocre campaign with a single term that was marked by fits and starts. The same governor who would get into trite disputes, like fighting against naming the Central Artery tunnel after legendary Democrat Tip O’Neill (he wanted to call it Liberty Tunnel), was a memorably reassuring presence when the ceiling collapsed in the Big Dig. The same governor who swore that fee hikes were a world apart from tax hikes worked with the Legislature to pass health care reform, one of the most important laws in generations.

One day, his voice literally cracked as he refused to answer questions about aide Eric Fehrnstrom instigating a shoving match with a veteran Democratic mayor; another day he called from the car with a pitch-perfect, off-the-cuff quote on the death of radio host David Brudnoy. He could be among the most thoughtful politicians I’ve ever met, and the least.


And then there were was the pandering to conservative orthodoxy with all those flip-flops.

The truth is, whether by default or design, we hardly knew him. And now that his path is clear to the Republican nomination for the presidency, the question is whether and how he’ll reveal more of himself to the nation. Will the country get the relaxed and impromptu Romney, or the Romney that leans too hard on the script?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at