The white Chevy station wagon with the wood paneling was overstuffed with suitcases, supplies and sons when Mitt Romney climbed behind the wheel to begin the annual 12-hour family trek from Boston to Ontario.
As with most ventures in his life, he had left little to chance, mapping out the route and planning each stop. The destination for this journey in the summer of 1983 was his parents' cottage on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron. Romney would be returning to the place of his most cherished childhood memories.
Even for someone who had always idolized his father, the similarities between his path in life and the one George Romney had cut before him were remarkable.
Husband to his high school sweetheart, father to a brood of young children, bishop of his local LDS church, and businessman on the threshold of life-altering success.
If anything, 36-year-old Mitt, who had just been tapped to lead a new venture capital firm, was on track to achieve more at a younger age than his famously overachieving father.
His father had known poverty as a child, Mitt only privilege. His father had succeeded without a college degree while Mitt was launched with the finest educational pedigree. Given all his advantages, Mitt seemed restless to make his mark sooner.
Before beginning the drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family's hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon's roof rack. He'd built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.
Then Romney put his boys on notice: He would be making predetermined stops for gas, and that was it.
The ride was largely what you'd expect with five brothers, ages 13 and younger, packed into a wagon they called the "white whale." As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble.
"Dad!" he yelled. "Gross!" A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding on the roof in the wind for hours. As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Romney coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station.
There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management.
And it offered his sons a rare unplanned stop.
"Think about it," Tagg says, "a 12-hour drive and the only time we stop is to get gas. When we stop, you can buy your food and go to the bathroom, but that's the only time we're stopping, so you'd better get it all done at once."
Yet there was one exception to Mitt's nonstop policy. "As soon as my mom says, 'I think I need to go to the bathroom,' he pulls over instantly and doesn't complain. 'Anything for you, Ann."'
Tagg didn't get it back then, but now at age 37 he finally understands why his father has been willing to suspend his regimented ways when it comes to his wife. "When they were dating," Tagg says, "he felt like she was way better than him, and he was really lucky to have this catch. He really genuinely still feels that way, thinks, 'I'm so lucky I've got her.' So he puts her on a pedestal."
Back in 1967, when Romney was moving into a Paris apartment with fellow Mormon missionaries at 126 Rue du Chateau, his eyes were immediately drawn to a wall covered with hand-written letters. They were all "Dear John" break-up notes that other missionaries had received from their girlfriends back home.
Staring at the wall, Romney worried, "Is this what's in store for me?"
Ann Davies had said yes to his informal marriage proposal when she was just 16. After Romney went to France, his father personally baptized her a Mormon.
But the 2 1/2-year mission took its toll on the romance. Under the rigid rules for missionaries, Romney was forbidden from telephoning Ann more than a couple of times a year, and his two visits with her were brief and supervised.
Ann, meanwhile, was living the life of a co-ed at Brigham Young University. The Provo, Utah, campus was flush with men who had just returned from their own missions, with sharpened skills of persuasion and a determination to find a wife made more urgent by the Mormon ban on premarital sex. Not for nothing was the place nicknamed B-Y-Woo.
So it was in the fall of 1968, just months after he had survived a horrific car crash, that Romney received the letter he had been dreading. It wasn't the classic breakup letter, but it was close. Ann wrote that she hadn't had feelings for any of the Brigham Young University men pursuing her, until this one fellow named Kim Cameron, a basketball player and vice president of the student government. He reminded her, she wrote, of Mitt.
Romney's fellow missionaries recall that the letter threw him into despair.
Ann's roommate at BYU was Cindy Burton, a Michigan friend who would go on to marry Ann's older brother. Now Cindy Davies, she says that for a time she thought Ann might end up marrying Cameron.
"I think that's probably right," Cameron says now. "Emotionally, I felt very close to her."
Romney feared the same.
In letters to Ann, he implored her to wait for him.
As he flew home just before Christmas 1968, Romney worried about what awaited him and Ann. "I didn't know how we would feel."
Ann joined the Romney clan in meeting him at the airport.
Showered with hugs from his family, Mitt kept his focus squarely on Ann. Sitting with her in the third-row seat of his sister's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, he wasted little time.
"Gosh, this feels like I've never been gone," he recalls telling her. "I can't believe it."
"I feel exactly the same way," she said.
"You want to get married?" he asked.
When they made it home, he told his parents about their plans for an immediate wedding. His father was delighted. His mother was horrified. A pillar of Detroit society, Lenore Romney knew a wedding was not something to be rushed. But that was only part of her hesitation.
"I think Lenore had a hard time letting go of her youngest son," sister-in-law Cindy Davies says, stressing Lenore's special connection to the baby her doctors had said she could never have.
While George had quickly forged a loving bond with Ann, it took longer for Lenore. "Her relationship with Ann wasn't as warm. She held back more."
Mitt and Ann agreed to wait three months to walk down the aisle. The wedding was held in two parts. On March 21, 1969, exactly four years after their first conversation, Mitt, then 22, and Ann, 19, exchanged rings in a civil ceremony in her parents' home. It was officiated by church Elder Edwin Jones, the man after whom teenage Mitt had patterned his hairstyle.
Superman to supernerd
Mitt and Ann moved east in 1971 so he could attend graduate school at Harvard. They settled in Belmont and began expanding their family. In 1981, Ann delivered their fifth and final son. By then, they had moved from a modest three-bedroom place to a handsome four-bedroom, natural-shingle house near the private Belmont Hill School, which all five boys would attend.
While moving ahead briskly in the business world, Mitt took on the added responsibility of serving as a lay bishop of Belmont's LDS congregation. "Mitt," says Kem Gardner, a fellow church official from this period, "just had the capacity to keep all the balls up in the air."
The church was at the center of the family's spiritual and social lives. Before high school every day, the boys went to a neighbor's house for "seminary," where they would discuss scripture for 45 minutes. Sunday mornings were spent in church, and Sunday afternoons were devoted to volunteer work. Tuesday evening "mutual" brought together church families for basketball games and cookouts.
At night, the family had a tradition of holding a freewheeling discussion while sitting together in a room, with the lights turned off. The practice was an outgrowth of the boys' habit of wandering into their parents' room in the middle of the night, climbing onto the couch at the foot of their bed, and wanting to talk.
Over time, the discussion drifted to the evening hours before bed, with the darkened room somehow allowing the boys to feel more free to open up. "It was just a time to totally be yourself," Tagg says.
In time, the five boys would take on their own profiles within the family.
As Tagg would later describe his brothers, Matt was "the jokester, always pushing people's buttons" and Josh was "the typical middle child, wanting lots of attention and getting a lot of it."
Ben remained "very reserved and quiet, a little aloof from the situation" while Craig relished his role as "the ultimate baby, everyone's favorite brother." Tagg says he himself was the typical oldest brother, "Type A and too tightly wound."
As Mitt had before him, Tagg spent his early years idolizing his father. But then he spent much of his adolescence wanting nothing to do with his dad. It began around age 11, when his father in his eyes went from "superman to supernerd."
"Overnight," Tagg says, "everything about him bugged me." The way he wore his jeans so short. The way he insisted all the boys wake up early on Saturdays for chores. Even the way he said good morning. "It bothered me that he would be so nice about it."
Family members say Mitt had a tough time dealing with this rejection from his oldest son. After all, Mitt's relationship with his own father had never suffered such strain.
Tagg had no problem with his mother, "but my dad and I would just go at it."
Tagg's early-adolescent struggles were emotional in nature, which meant they played more to his mother's strengths than his father's. With a few exceptions, "he's not emotional at all," Tagg says. "She runs on emotion, he runs on logic."
After a few years, the tensions lifted, as Mitt learned to give Tagg more space, and Tagg began to regret how he'd been behaving. By the time he was 15, the arguments stopped, and Tagg was once again looking at his father and seeing his hero.
A few years later, Ann would be mocked for her public claim that she and Mitt had never had an argument, which sounded preposterous to the ears of many married mortals. But Tagg says it's not that his parents never disagree.
"I know there are things that she says that he doesn't agree with sometimes, and I see him kind of bite his tongue. But I know that they go and discuss it in private. He doesn't ever contradict my mother in public."
In that way, the relationship between Mitt and Ann differed from the one between Mitt's parents. Despite their lifetime of devotion, George and Lenore had no problem airing their disagreements, especially in later years, according to Tagg. "Listen, they fought like cats and dogs. We called them 'The Bickersons."'
As the 1980s wore on, Mitt's responsibilities grew both at work and in the church, where he was promoted to stake president, overseeing about a dozen congregations. And his Midas touch at Bain Capital was helping to make him rich.
Yet Mitt eschewed the trappings of wealth. The family had no cook or full-time maid. And Mitt continued to drive a dented Chevy Caprice Classic nicknamed "the gray grunt."
His sons urged him to buy a luxury car, but he refused. Still, they had no idea how much money he had.
Then, in 1989, Mitt and Ann allowed their first bout of conspicuous spending, plunking down $1.25 million for a stately five-bedroom house up the road, enlarging and renovating it, plus installing a pool and tennis court. At the time, Tagg was in France, following in his father's footsteps as a Mormon missionary. After his parents sent him a photo of their new place, he asked his father, "How can you afford that house?"
Before long, his father could have afforded to buy up the whole street, as he built a fortune that two of his former partners now estimate to be more than $400 million.
Swinging at a giant
Not long after settling into their new house, Ann and Mitt invited her parents to move in to their guest suite above a bank of garages. Ann's father was battling prostate cancer, her mother ovarian cancer, and Ann nursed them through their treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In late summer 1992, Ann's father's condition quickly deteriorated. He remained opposed to organized religion, even though all three of his children, thanks largely to their association with Mitt Romney, had built their lives around the Mormon Church. As he bid his life goodbye, he urged his only daughter to make the most of hers.
In June 1993, as her condition worsened, Ann's mother asked her sons, Rod and Jim Davies, to baptize her a Mormon, according to both sons. Five days after her baptism, she died.
In summer 1993, Ann and Mitt, according to the story they both would tell, were lying in bed when she turned to him. She told Mitt, "You've got to run against Ted Kennedy." He laughed and pulled the covers over his head.
Mitt had been contemplating a move into politics for some time. At age 55, his father had used his success as a business turnaround artist to launch his second act of politics. Now Mitt, who had already established his own turnaround credentials, was looking to follow the same script, except a decade ahead of his father's schedule.
For a man who had succeeded in business largely by using rigorous analysis and fastidious preparation to reduce his margin of error, a run against Kennedy would be quite a roll of the dice.
In 32 years, no Republican had come close to dislodging Kennedy, the embodiment of Democratic liberalism. But Romney had timing on his side. An anti-Democratic storm was building nationwide. The youngest Kennedy brother was a tarnished icon, even to Catholic voters raised in homes with brittle palm fronds wedged behind pictures of John F. Kennedy. The shocking revelations about the senior senator that emerged during the 1991 Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew remained fresh in many voters' minds.
Political operatives told Romney that Kennedy was never more vulnerable. "People said to me, 'You know, he's getting older, he's over the hill. He's not coherent any more,"' Romney recalls. "I was getting ready for this guy that was going to be kind of a doddering old fool. I'd be able to crush him like a grape."
In October 1993, Romney changed his party affiliation from independent to Republican and began raising money. In February 1994, he formally announced his candidacy.
Despite Kennedy's baggage, Romney's team ruled out a character assault. Instead, Romney attacked Kennedy and his "big-government" policies as both being overdue for retirement.
He demanded work for welfare recipients and talked tough on immigration, mandatory drug sentencing, and the death penalty. And, running in a state where the GOP's limited success had come mostly from fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidates, Romney staked out moderate positions on some issues.
He supported the assault weapons ban and the Brady gun-control law. He favored indexing the minimum wage to inflation. In a letter to an organization of gay Republicans, he claimed he would be a stronger advocate for their rights than Kennedy.
And he advocated abortion rights, even backing the abortion-inducing pill RU-486.
Romney stressed his own family values to create a contrast with Kennedy, who had a past reputation for womanizing. One commercial showed Mitt and Ann on their porch with glasses of lemonade. Asked to name his greatest personal failing, Romney lamented that he only had time to help the needy one day a week.
It was the year Newt Gingrich was pushing his Contract with America, but Romney distanced himself from Gingrich and rejected help from the national right-wing apparatus.
"I don't want their money. I don't want their help," Romney said. "This is my race."
He was more welcoming of help from his family.
During the campaign kickoff, George Romney introduced his son, signaling the active role the former Michigan governor would play in the race and the re-emergence of the father-son dynamic that had defined Mitt Romney's early life.
Before long, George and Lenore moved into the guest suite above Mitt and Ann's garage, and George wasted no time in tutoring his son in politics.
On the trail and on the fund-raising circuit, the vigorous 86-year-old was a celebrity stand-in for his son, relishing his return to the podium. Years later, Mitt Romney would recall watching the cameras shift away from him and onto his irrepressible father during press conferences, as George shook his fist and spoke his mind.
Despite the similarities between father and son in appearance and career path, the race highlighted the differences in their makeup. Behind the scenes, George whose unguarded nature had hastened his downfall in the 1968 presidential campaign admonished Mitt to loosen up, stop listening to consultants, and trust his gut.
Mitt had always been more careful and wary than his father, according to family members, and, in that way, more like his mother. In fact, his race against Kennedy had stronger parallels to his mother's single run for office than any of his father's campaigns.
Lenore Romney ran for US Senate in 1970 against popular Democratic incumbent Philip Hart. Taking a break from college to help out, 23-year-old Mitt turned to his older brother, Scott, and said, "Gee, you and I ought to be running this campaign."
They resented how Hart tried to paint Lenore as a nice woman whose place was in the home, not the Senate. "At the start of every debate, he would come over and hand her a rose," Scott recalls.
Tied in polls
Mitt's own race in 1994 got off to a good start. After he easily won the Republican primary, polls showed Romney to be even with or even slightly ahead of Kennedy.
But the Kennedy machinery, rusty at the start, was cranking up. So was the senator.
Kennedy's campaign said Romney should be asked about past policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that excluded blacks from the priesthood.
Romney held a news conference to criticize Kennedy for violating his own brother's edict to separate religion and politics, which in 1960 helped John Kennedy become the nation's first Catholic president.
But it was George Romney who stole the show that day. Surprising even his son, he stepped forward and thundered, "I think it is absolutely wrong to keep hammering on the religious issues. And what Ted is trying to do is bring it into the picture."
The Kennedy camp also hammered Romney on abortion, asserting that he had a secret pro-life agenda.
Although he always said he was personally opposed to abortion, Romney sought to reassure Massachusetts voters of his pro-choice bona fides by citing his mother's example.
Lenore had run for the Senate in Michigan on an abortion-rights platform, a stance forged by the death of her son-in-law's teenage sister from an illegal abortion.
"My mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter," Romney declared. "And you will not see me wavering on that."
But there had been some wavering. Early in the campaign, he said he opposed Medicaid funding for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. Later in the campaign, he said he would leave that matter up to the states. Women's groups and political foes voiced skepticism over Romney's support of abortion rights.
Although he said that as a politician he would not force his beliefs on others, Romney acknowledged that as a church leader, he had counseled women against having abortions. The Globe reported that as a Mormon bishop Romney had urged a mother of five, whose pelvic blood clot made her pregnancy dangerous, not to have an abortion.
Romney accepted the endorsement of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, though his aides labored to blur the distinctions with Kennedy, who years earlier had dropped his opposition to abortion and become a leader on abortion rights. Asked at the time how the two candidates differed on abortion, Romney's political consultant Charles Manning said, "It's tiny nuances."
About a month before the election, Kennedy launched his most devastating attack. On the airwaves, he strafed Romney with tough ads designed to turn his greatest asset of business success into a vulnerability.
Romney's Bain Capital had bought a paper company called American Pad & Paper, or Ampad, which then bought an Indiana plant and laid off workers, cut wages, and reduced benefits. The workers began striking. Seizing on Romney's candidacy, they brought their complaints to Massachusetts.
Romney was on leave as Bain Capital's chief executive when the cuts occurred, but he struggled to rebut the charge. His polls numbers began to drop, with more voters describing him as a cold-hearted businessman.
Romney remained within striking distance, down 44 percent to Kennedy's 49 percent in a Globe poll in early October. Then came the first televised debate.
Expectations were low for Kennedy, seen as past his prime, and high for Romney, the telegenic upstart. But with his booming voice and fiery tone, Kennedy came out swinging. Although Romney had some effective parries and Kennedy occasionally tripped on his words, Romney appeared overmatched on stage with a legend.
Kennedy laid into Romney on Ampad. "I don't know why you wouldn't meet with the strikers with that flimflam deal of yours out there in Indiana," he snorted.
When Romney charged that Kennedy had benefited from a no-bid real estate deal, the senior senator thundered back with the full weight of his family's history behind him. "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money," he said, delivering a rehearsed line to wild applause. "We have paid too high a price in our commitment to the public service of this country."
A post-debate poll found Kennedy with a yawning lead, 56 to 36.
By the end of the campaign, Romney began to heed his father's advice and loosen up. But it wasn't enough. Mitt Romney had allowed his opponent to define him.
On Election Day, as Gingrich helped the GOP capture both houses of Congress for the first time in nearly half a century, Kennedy crushed Romney, 58 percent to 41 percent.
After a year spent surrendering control to others consultants, voters, even his father Romney wasted no time in returning to his more comfortable position of being in charge. The morning after the election, he held a meeting at Bain Capital.
"I'm sure I ruffled a lot of feathers," Romney recalled in his autobiography "Turnaround." "I had been gone for a year, and they were getting along fine without me. But Bain Capital was my baby and I was back in town. I owned 100 percent of the voting stock."
With Mitt back at Bain, his parents returned to Michigan. A year later, George Romney collapsed while running on his treadmill. He died at age 88.
An unfailing optimist, George had never wallowed in his own failed campaign, and he didn't dwell on his son's either. Still, for Mitt, there was no denying that his idol's last image of him was one associated with failure.
In 1997, Ann Romney felt numbness in her right leg. Then it spread to her entire right side. She had trouble getting up the stairs. Over the next year, she began having some difficulty swallowing, needing more sleep than usual, and feeling nauseated for a good part of every day.
Fit and not yet 50, Ann knew something was seriously wrong. At first, Mitt held out hope that the numbness might be from a pinched nerve. In 1998, when Ann's primary care doctor referred her to a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Mitt went along.
It was there, sitting in the neurologist's waiting room, when Mitt grasped the severity of what his wife was up against. One of the brochures he spotted was about Lou Gehrig's disease, another about multiple sclerosis. There was no brochure for pinched nerves.
Mitt turned to his wife and, seeing the worry in her eyes, said, "I can deal with anything, so long as it's not fatal."
Once in the exam room, Dr. John Stakes led Ann through a series of neurological tests pinpricks, standing on one leg, turning around with her eyes closed. It quickly became clear she was not doing well. "When she'd stand, for instance, with her eyes closed," Mitt recalled recently, "she'd fall over."
After the doctor left the room, Mitt recalled, Ann "broke down and cried, and I shed tears with her."
The confirmation of the diagnosis as multiple sclerosis would come later, after an MRI. But it was this crushing experience of watching Ann fail test after test that Mitt would describe later as the worst day of his life.
Until this moment, his had been mostly a charmed life. He had suffered defeat as a candidate, but that could be dismissed as the folly of taking on an icon. Mitt's siblings, meanwhile, had all suffered setbacks, including painful divorces endured by his brother and older sister.
"My life did not remain golden. I hit bottom," his sister Jane says. "But it continued for Mitt."
Yet, seeing the love of his life have to face a potentially crippling disease changed Mitt Romney. "It subdued him," Jane says.
The first two years after Ann's diagnosis were particularly trying, Mitt says. "She'd get a little better and then she'd get worse."
Meanwhile, his mother's health was also deteriorating, and in the summer of 1998, she suffered a stroke and died.
Eventually, Ann found remarkable relief through a surprising mix of treatments mainstream, alternative, and equestrian.
To supplement her traditional care, Ann found a retired 80-year-old guru of reflexology by the name of Fritz Blietschau who agreed to take her on as a patient, helping her to build muscle strength. Ann also rekindled her childhood passion of horseback riding, finding that the exercise improved her mobility and spirits.
She was beginning to see how MS didn't necessarily have to mean a future in a wheelchair. The lesson was coming not in Belmont, where she had made her home for nearly 30 years, but rather in Utah, where her reflexologist and equestrian companions were both based.
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