A Mitt Romney You Haven’t Seen Yet
By David Gergen in Parade Magazine
Mitt Romney has sailed through every debate in the past six months, but to many voters, he’s still a faraway figure. We know the former Massachusetts governor can rattle off facts and figures without uttering a single “oops,” but who is he offstage?
Sitting down with him at the warm, spacious home of his son Tagg last month, I saw two sides of Mitt Romney. During our interview, there was the pragmatic CEO who surrounds himself with strong people, including Democrats, and considers every angle of an issue before making a decision or answering a question. But as the photographer set up for the shoot, I conversed with the loving family man who proudly showed me photos of himself sledding with grandsons and who lit up when his wife, Ann, walked into the room. If he can emerge triumphant from the upcoming primaries and gain the GOP nomination, his ability to win the White House may rest on his ability to be as comfortable in public life as he is surrounded by his family.
Americans know your policy positions, but they don’t know you well as a person. Tell me how your father, George, influenced you.
My dad was a carpenter who never completed college, yet he went on to be CEO of American Motors and governor of Michigan. At home, he filled us with the conviction that life was not handed to us on a silver platter. He made sure my brother and I mowed the lawn, shoveled the driveway. When he ran for president and his tax returns were published, it was clear he could’ve hired a landscaper. But he decided we would learn to work with our hands.
Did he get you up early in the morning to go do the chores?
Yeah, the early morning chores began with the snow shoveling. We had a long driveway and a lot of snow in Michigan. The lawn mowing was not early in the morning. That was Saturdays. We had many, many seedlings of pine trees he planted on the bank around our home, and I was required twice a week to water all of these seedlings and then pull the weeds out from around them. We had a large flower bank or a vine bank in the backyard, which required constant weeding, the task I disliked the most.
Did he give you your drive?
You know, I don’t know whether that comes from DNA or from one’s home, or perhaps the combination. I do recall that I argued with my parents, not just about the social things I might want to do, but about business or government or politics. I recall my father taking me to American Motors to show us the clay models of the next automobiles that were going to be introduced three and four years down the road, my saying that they weren’t attractive enough, that they didn’t look as good as the competitors’ models, and he and I arguing. That was when I was 12 or 13 years old. He chuckled at that kind of confrontation from someone so young.
Did your father ever give you advice about politics?
He said, “Don’t ever get involved in politics if you require winning an election to pay your mortgage or if your kids are young—you don’t want money to shape your views, and you don’t want your kids’ heads turned by the attention politicians sometimes receive.”
I happened to think that I would never be in a position financially to follow his advice—meaning I never thought I’d be independent of a salary—and therefore never anticipated being involved in politics. The furthest thing from my mind was that I would run for political office.
Really? That isn’t something a lot of presidential candidates say.
I thought I’d be a business guy. I had dreamed of being involved in the automobile industry because I loved cars and I grew up in Detroit. My hope was that I could become an executive at one of the car companies. Had I thought politics was in my future, I probably would have picked Michigan, not Massachusetts as the place to live. [laughs] And yet I paid a great deal of attention to the political process and was concerned about policies that I thought were counterproductive. So when Ted Kennedy was running in a race where he was virtually unopposed, I decided to run just to try and set him or the public straight on the failings of his policies. I must admit, I didn’t think there was much prospect of actually winning. I’m smart enough to realize that a Republican in Massachusetts is unlikely to beat Ted Kennedy.
Your eldest son, Tagg, has said that the 30-month mission you went on for your church in 1966 shaped who you are today.
I was sent to live in France among the lower middle class. Each month I received $100 or $110 from home, probably equal to $500 or $600 a month today. With it, I had to pay for everything—rent, food, transportation. The toilet was in the hall, shared by a few apartments, and the shower consisted of attaching a hose to the sink faucet, standing in a plastic tub, and holding the hose over your head.
Did it help you become self-sufficient?
Yes. I recognized my life was up to me, and what I became was a function not of what my father achieved or what my mother dreamt, but what I could accomplish on my own.
It was a good growing up experience?
It was a good growing up experience. I made friends and had social experiences with people who lived in the apartment building I lived in and recognized the extreme value of education, the amazing advantage of being born in America and a passion for the principles that make America the land of opportunity. I think most people going through college consider it just something that you do that’s kind of fun and entertaining and engaging, but the relevance to one’s life is not clear. If you go to a foreign place, particularly if you’re living with people of very humble financial circumstances and you see the impact of education and the power of freedom and opportunity that we enjoy in America, you become motivated. It concentrates the mind.
How did the 1968 car accident in France [in which a vehicle crossed into Romney’s lane, seriously injuring him and killing a passenger] change you?
It brought a seriousness to my life—a recalculation of what was important and a recognition of life’s fragility. Young people think bad things won’t happen; I recognized that bad things can happen to me and those I love.
That’s interesting when you talk about fragility. Did it make you have a sense of being accountable every day as opposed to thinking, “I just can take it easy?” After Ronald Reagan was shot, it deepened his sense of commitment.
I think for me it deepened my sense of purpose. Growing up in a Judeo-Christian religious foundation, one measures one’s life by the contributions one has made to God and to the children of God. As the fragility of life becomes more clear in one’s mind, the need and passion to help others becomes more of a daily motivation.
Tagg suggested that those six years starting from France going through your Brigham Young education also deepened your commitment to and understanding of your religious life and the LDS experience.
Well, I didn’t know much about my church before I served as a missionary. [laughs] You see these young fellows on their bikes with their name badges on, and you assume they’re all experts in their faith, but starting off, they don’t know as much as they might have hoped. I learned a great deal about my faith and the teachings of my church. At the same time, one learns a great deal of one’s self. I read the Bible. I read it with much more interest and attention, and that made me, I think, more fundamentally appreciative of the truths and wisdom that had been provided by our Creator.
You’d already met Ann by the time you left for France, right?
That’s right. It’s hard to explain, but we fell completely and totally in love. I was 18 and a senior in high school. She was a sophomore. I told her I didn’t want to go on my mission, that I wanted to go to college and get married to her. She wasn’t a member of our church yet, but she said, “No, you must go on your mission. That’s your family heritage.” I did, but the thought of losing her was a source of great anxiety. [laughs]
Did you talk often on the phone while you were away?
No, we wrote weekly, but we were not to talk but once or twice a year.
Under the rules of the church?
Under the rules of the church. I was fortunate that she went to Grenoble, France, to study for a semester abroad, and I got to see her when she came through Paris. I was, of course, there with a missionary companion.
A male missionary companion?
Yeah, so we were always chaperoned.
You mean that even when you saw her you had a male companion around?
Oh yes, of course, yes. As a missionary, you’re never alone. You’re always supposed to be with your companion. It keeps us out of trouble, I’m sure. It saves the church a lot of headache.
Did you ever get a “Dear John” letter from her?
I got a letter toward the end of my mission saying she’d met someone she liked, though not as much as me. So I was pleased when I saw her waiting at the airport with our families. Immediately we knew we still had the same feelings for each other. On the ride home, she and I were in the third row of this station wagon. I said, “Do you want to get married?” She answered, “Absolutely.” [They wed on March 21, 1969.]
You two came through a crisis almost 30 years later when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
I think that was one of the most difficult experiences that we shared together. We knew that she was getting tingling on one leg and numbness on one leg, one side of her body. We made an appointment with a neurologist, and we went to his office where there were these brochures. One was about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and the other was about MS. We were looking at each other with great trepidation. I said to Ann, “If it’s MS, we’ll be just fine. I can deal with anything that’s not terminal.” We went in and he performed a series of neurological tests, and it was clear something was very wrong. She became very emotional and cried, and we hugged and expressed our feelings to one another and prepared for a very different life. We anticipated as her condition worsened that she would soon be in a wheelchair, and we looked to see about putting an elevator in the house so she could get from the first to the second floor. Then, through a series of very fortunate events—a superb doctor here in Boston, her horseback riding, the power of prayer—these things combined to allow her to recover her physical strength. She now is virtually without physical impairment, but we recognize that that’s in part the nature of the disease. It is a relapsing, remitting disease for some, where it gets bad and then it gets better. But she’s had no significant physical symptoms since about 2002.
What kind of First Lady do you think she would be?
She is the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known, an extraordinary mother, and a very caring person. People immediately identify her connection to and passion for others. She would be one of the great First Ladies.
She’s been supportive of your campaign?
Not just supportive—insistent. I was reluctant after 2008 to run again. She was very committed to my doing it and pushed me for six months to a year to proceed.
And she pushed you to go to France. Did she also urge you to run against Ted Kennedy in 1994?
Yes. I think at least 90 percent of my life could be explained as Mitt trying to impress Ann. [laughs]
Why has she pushed you?
I think she has more confidence in me than I have in myself. She believed that my business experiences in start-ups and turnarounds, in the Olympics, and as a Republican governor in a Democratic state prepared me uniquely to help the country in a troubled time. And that I have a responsibility to serve. As she calls on that sense of duty, I’m defenseless.
If you could use one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Devoted. Devoted to my family, my faith, and my country.
When you’re not campaigning, how do you like to spend Sundays?
When the whole family’s together, we start with a big breakfast. Ann makes batter for pancakes, and I flip them. Then we go to church for three hours. In the afternoon, we’ll watch a football game, tell stories, wrestle, read, take walks. If we’re in New Hampshire, we have a little manmade beach where we dumped some sand next to the lake. We sit down there all day, and the kids play in the sand and they swim in the water and we swim back and forth to the swim platform. We have a little 25 horsepower outboard that the grandkids can drive. I go with them around the lake. There is nothing I enjoy as much as just watching my grandchildren and my children. It’s been that way since we first started having children.
Do you engage in prayer every day?
We have a blessing on the food and a prayer at mealtime.
How about in your daily life? How does your religion shape you?
Coming from a Judeo-Christian foundation, one again has a sense of purpose. One recognizes the value of integrity and honesty and the need to make a difference.
Mormons are not permitted to smoke, drink alcohol or coffee, or have premarital sex. Has it been hard to follow these rules?
My view is that the commandments of God—let’s take the Ten Commandments, the basis of all Judeo-Christian faiths—are not so much restricting as liberating. I think being faithful to one’s spouse is a wonderful source of passion and devotion in marriage and that paying tithes as suggested in the Book of Malachi makes one’s money less important.
Do you tithe on a regular basis?
Yes. I’ve given away 10 percent of what I’ve earned, pretax.
That means you’ve given millions of dollars to your church so far?
Your net worth is an estimated $250 million. How can you connect with the people struggling to get by?
Americans have looked to people like Dwight Eisenhower, F.D.R., and the Kennedys, who all had unusual experiences that were needed for the times they served. In the U.S., the very poor are provided a safety net, which must be maintained. The very rich are doing fine. The middle class is suffering. It is for the great majority of Americans, the 90 percent in the middle, that I’m running for president.
How as a candidate or as a president can you show that you understand what life is like for people at the edge?
I had the occasion, as you know, to serve my church in a foreign place and to live with people who lived extraordinarily modestly. I’ve also served as a lay pastor in my church and counseled people with very modest means and provided welfare funds from the church to them. I’ve had the experience of watching people under very intense personal stress—financial, unemployment, family, and marital. Those heartbreaking experiences are what give me such conviction that we have to turn this country around economically and restore the prosperity which has always characterized the middle class in America.
Do you have a way to talk directly to people who are from all different backgrounds and classes so you can understand them?
I have town meetings on a regular basis in various states. Campaigning puts you face to face with people across the country, and you get a chance to hear their concerns. Attending church on Sundays, I meet people of all different backgrounds and experiences. The most isolated part of my life has been running for president. [laughs] When you’re in a normal work environment, it’s quite different.
You’ve touted your experience in turning around companies, but some opponents have argued that you achieved success by shutting down a number of businesses.
Democrats sometimes live in a Pollyanna world where every business succeeds. Anyone who works in the real economy knows that batting a thousand is nearly impossible. I’ve been chief executive in four settings, all successful. But when investing in other people’s companies—we invested in over 100 companies, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and some failed. It’s a heartache to know people lost savings and jobs. But I’m proud of the fact that we were more successful than not. Now, let me note, there’s a big difference between running my own business or for my own enterprise. Bain and Company the consulting firm, Bain Capital the investment company, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and the state of Massachusetts—those were the four chief executive spots that I’ve had. There’s a very big difference between actually being the leader of an enterprise that’s your responsibility and investing in someone else’s business, such as Staples. I got to be part of the Staples experience as a board member and investor but the people who really built Staples were Tom Stemberg, Leo Kahn, and a management team that was assembled there.
Right. But you learned there that the role of government is to create an environment where companies can compete and thrive?
Yes. The Democratic opposition reveals its extraordinary naïveté when it tries to assert that all businesses will be successful. The truth is, businesses will not all succeed, and the nature of our free enterprise system has as one of its downsides that some businesses fail. It’s an upside that the best succeed and lift others to better employment and higher standards of living. The job of government is to encourage the functioning of the private sector such that it lifts the incomes and wellbeing of all citizens.
Who are your role models as president? I’ve read that you asked your grandkids to call you Ike.
[laughs] That’s right. Ann and I were Ike and Mamie. Ann’s still Mamie, but they’ve switched me to Papa. As for other presidents, I recognize Ronald Reagan’s exceptional capacity to educate Americans about the challenges they faced and the sacrifices needed. At the same time, I recognize in him a capacity to engage the opposition. Rather than attack them, he cheerfully pointed out the weaknesses of their arguments and tried to co-op the best that came from their ideas and to work collaboratively where possible. He did that in a highly effective way both internationally and domestically. But there was no question that he would stand by his principles. And I have great affection for George Bush. I’m talking about 41—although I also like 43—and his extraordinary preparation both as a private sector leader and then having been head of the CIA and the RNC. This is a man who had a broad series of experiences which allowed him to stare down the Communist regime. We forget that he was the man that was there when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And he was an individual that did not exalt in the failure of others.
You’ve been attacked by the left and the right. The White House’s David Plouffe said you had no core; George Will called you a “pretzel candidate.” Do these attacks sting?
Well, one, I don’t read them [laughs]. Secondly, I wrote a book, No Apology, in 2010 that laid out my views on the issues. That’s what I believe. I know there will be an effort on the part of some to distract the American public from the significant issues, which are, domestically, the failure of this administration to reboot our economy and, internationally, the growth of entities that wish to reshape the world in their image—namely, the jihadists, an emerging China, a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran unless we take corrective action, and a resurgent Russia. America faces extraordinary challenges, and there are some people who would rather divert attention from those issues to secure their long-term tenure in the White House.
How would you describe your core? What are your passions?
I love this country. I love the principles upon which this nation was founded. I have a deep affection for the American people. And I was raised with a conviction that I have a responsibility as an American citizen to help the country and to help my fellow citizens.
As governor, you brought in some Democrats to work with you. Would you do the same as president?
I’d bring in people with the experience and skills I thought the nation needed. And if they went off in directions that conflict with my principles and policies, I’d remove them.
How would you break the partisan gridlock in D.C.?
By finding people who care more about the country than anything else. And I would intend not to attack the people across the aisle. When I was governor of Massachusetts, with a legislature that was 85 percent Democrat, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if I attacked the House or Senate leaders, I’d get nothing done. I worked with the Speaker and the Senate President. We met every week in one of our three offices for an hour or two, discussed problems that the state faced, and did so off the record.
Let’s say you become president and you’re trying to reach a bargain on deficits. The other side says, “We’ll reform retirement, but you need to budge on revenue.” Your party says, “No way.” What would you do?
If you’re climbing a mountain and encounter a cliff, you don’t scramble against it—you look to the left or right to see if there’s a way around. It means saying, “You’ve got your principles. I’ve got mine. Let’s see if we can both honor them and achieve our objective.”
Is there anything else you’d like Americans to know about you?
What I enjoy most in life is being with my family—my five sons [Tagg, 41; Matt, 40; Josh, 36; Ben, 33; Craig, 30] and 16 grandkids.
It sounds like you truly cherish your time together.
Some people bring work home. They eat dinner and then they go into the study and work. When I came home, I put the briefcase by the door and didn’t look at it till the next morning. For me, life is what happens away from work. Life is about family. I recognize that if I get elected to the office I seek, family time will be dramatically cut back. It will be my time to serve.