“THE REAL ROMNEY,” by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, Harper, $27.99, 416 pages (nf)
You don’t need to read "The Real Romney" by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman cover to cover, and many won’t really want to. It’s convenient that Mitt Romney’s life, like his personality, is structured.
You can read about his youth and his college years, his early business days and the heady success at Bain Capital, the failed run against Ted Kennedy for the Senate and the Olympic turnaround, the successful run for Massachusetts governor and the failed 2008 bid for the GOP nomination. All of these are convenient, easy-to-swallow capsules. The book is also well-written and generally fair.
This is a book that will confirm both the hopes of those who adulate Romney for his leadership and personal character and the suspicions of those who seem him a wooden and calculating. Open-minded readers may find Mitt, on balance, an attractive if quirky personality — quite different from anyone who has yet sought the office, but deeply authentic in ways that really matter.
But the story doesn’t begin with Mitt Romney. The book begins with his stunning heritage, and it is this narrative that many readers of these pages will find most compelling. Romney’s family story is a uniquely American epic. Were to become president, it would be a shame if someday it were not captured on film.
The story begins in Nauvoo, Ill., where a poor but gritty immigrant patriarch worked as a carpenter on the Nauvoo Temple, then on the Salt Lake Temple, and then on the St. George Tabernacle.
The family became reluctant polygamists, was sent to Northern Arizona, and from there was driven to the Mexican colonies. There they built a prosperous life but were again driven away by the Mexican revolution in 1912. Mitt’s father was a young boy by this time, and never went back home to Mexico. Instead, he went on to become a titan in the automotive industry and served three terms as governor of Michigan.
The treatment of Mormon history is generally accurate and fair, but certainly not airbrushed. The same is true of Mitt Romney’s college years at Stanford, Brigham Young University and Harvard. If nothing else, this book deserves credit for introducing the phrase “BY Woo” into the national consciousness.
For Mormon readers the most interesting chapter after the family heritage is likely Chapter 5, which focuses on Romney’s church and family lives, sides of the man that remain largely hidden to the public. The picture of Romney’s service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must be remarkable to an outsider, and is indeed remarkable even to an insider. His capacity for work and his drive to not waste a minute are striking, but even more so is the personal attention that he gave to his flock as a bishop and stake president.
No story of Boston LDS leadership in the 1990s would be complete without friction surrounding gender roles and feminism, and the book includes several anecdotes that will be troubling to some. Some controversial anecdotes hinge on one-sided memories of one-on-one conversations and lack verisimilitude. Others seem more credible. The reader will have to judge for herself.
Understandably, Romney’s business career consumes a chunk of the book, and the authors strike an agnostic pose as to whether Romney earned his wealth, manipulated a flawed system, or simply got lucky. In a couple of cases, the latter explanation seems plausible, but it can hardly explain the track record as a whole.
To political junkies, the tales of Romney’s three previous political campaigns will be most compelling. A quick review such as this cannot do justice to the anecdotes and insights in these chapters, but the recurring motif of Romney’s philosophical core as a confounding cipher is amply documented. His effort to apply data-driven business and branding to politics is problematic. The struggles of his team to craft a message and a brand begin in 1994 and do not end in 2008. Romney’s often stilted and clumsy efforts to connect with the man on the street are also well-documented.
Sandwiched between the political races is the section on the Salt Lake Olympics. Here, Romney is driven as usual, but also human in his reactions to tough situations. (As bit player in the Olympic narrative, by the way, is former Utah governor John Huntsman Jr., who does not come off especially well here.)
In sum, even after reading this book, those who think Adam Smith’s invisible hand cheats will resent Romney. Those inclined to dislike Mormons will find nothing to change their minds. Those who think that philosophical clarity is more important than ability will not be dissuaded. Those who wish he could connect better on the street will find more evidence for their doubts. But through it all, Romney emerges as a compelling, capable, sane, compassionate and likable man, to those who are open to persuasion.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News.