February 12, 2012 7:50 pm

Mitt’s small matter of the three Ms

This well-timed biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman sheds new light on an elusive subject – but fails to explain why Mitt Romney thinks he should be president

The Real Romney, by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, HarperCollins, RRP£17.99

 

When Mitt Romney first ran for the presidency in the 2008 election, his campaign huddled to discuss what they called his “three M” problem: Mormon, millionaire and Massachusetts. Or to quote his then campaign manager: “There is a perception out there that this is a rich guy from a liberal state who’s got a funny religion.”

Four years later, Mr Romney is still grappling with the same issues. This well-timed biography by two journalists at the Boston Globe – channelling the reporting of many colleagues on the paper which followed him closely of course in his years as Massachusetts governor – helps to explain why he still struggles to free himself from the shackles of his stereotype.

Mr Romney’s fortune, made as a private equity executive at Bain Capital, makes it easy to depict him as a fully paid-up member of the “one per cent”. But the book makes it clear that Mr Romney sees himself differently, as a self-made outsider rather than the son of privilege blessed with an inside track on life.

It is a mentality fuelled by his Mormon upbringing. His great-grandfather fled to Mexico in the late 19th century when the federal government cracked down on the religion’s then practice of polygamy. As a young man, Mr Romney served as a Mormon missionary in France for two years, door-knocking residents bemused by the religion and hostile to Americans over the Vietnam war. “As you can imagine, it is quite an experience to go to the Bordeaux and say: ‘Give up your wine! I’ve got a great religion for you!” Mr Romney quipped years later.

It is a fascinating story but something that Mr Romney rarely talks about, except in vague terms about the right of religious freedom. Mormonism may be America’s home-grown religion but it still cannot shrug off its somewhat weird image in the land of its birth. The book offers no particular insights on why Mr Romney does not seem minded to try, although most would probably assume that he believes the less said about the subject the better his chances.

The book leaves a few questions hanging, perhaps because its subject is so elusive. Aside from his wife and five sons who have featured prominently on the election campaign, his broader family is largely absent from the narrative. The section on his business career lacks the context that would give readers a strong sense of how much of a pioneer Mr Romney and his team were in the leveraged buy-out world.

But The Real Romney does illustrate well how in his private life and in business, he has relied on a tight, protective circle all his life. As his lacklustre results in the Republican electoral contests last week underlined, for all his wealth and campaign muscle, even conservative Americans still feel they do not really know him. As this book makes clear he is cut from very different cloth from his father, George Romney, a former Michigan governor who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Mr Romney Snr was as blunt and outspoken as his son is scripted and smooth.

When his father was in his late eighties, he still insisted on working on his son’s 1994 senatorial campaign in Massachusetts. The authors recount how Mr Romney Snr would fly from Detroit to Boston, take the bus and then two subway lines before walking the last mile, wheeling his baggage behind him, to campaign headquarters, reporting for duty. His father was a force of nature. His son may appear less forceful, but as this book makes clear he is not to be underestimated as the most likely opponent for Barack Obama.

There is nothing in the book, however, or Mr Romney’s campaign for that matter, that tells us why he wants to be president or thinks he should be. There is always the favoured fall-back explanation of some political pop-psychologists-cum-newspaper-columnists – that he wants to surpass his father, like George W. Bush. But that is not enough.

So can Mr Romney, the self-styled data-driven “turnaround” guy, remake his own political personality in a way that voters can finally learn to love. The US is mired in a generational funk and Mr Obama remains eminently beatable in November. Mr Romney himself has worked ruthlessly to learn the lessons of his disastrous 2008 campaign to make sure no one gets between him and the nomination this year.

But can “matinee Mitt” persuade voters that he has the character and steel needed to occupy the White House? On this book’s measure, even with the head start of a terrible economy, he still falls short.

The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief

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