After Boston venture capitalist Mitt Romney decided last year to run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, some members of the Romney clan suggested he read “The Senator,” a kiss–and–tell account of life with Kennedy by his former chief of staff.
Romney seemed almost embarrassed to admit that such a hardball suggestion had come from one of his own. “I don’t want personal perspective to cloud my vision of the race,” he said.
Of course, his campaign would like it known that if voters want a senator who represents the antithesis of the wild sex, drugs and other debauchery attributed to Kennedy in the book by Richard E. Burke, Romney is their man.
As a devout Mormon, Romney doesn’t drink or smoke. In fact, in 25 years of marriage, his wife says, she has never heard him swear. Neither did his older brother when they were growing up.
Romney, the son of former Michigan governor and presidential candidate George Romney, is a handsome, self–made millionaire with an attractive wife and five sons. Aides to Kennedy admit privately that, on paper at least, they consider Romney to be the most formidable opponent the senator has faced since he was first elected 32 years ago.
Romney, vying with John Lakian for the Republican Senate nomination, is running for office for the first time, working to make the difficult transition from private to public figure. And while not beating the Chappaquiddick drum or overtly raising the character issue, he doesn’t mind underscoring basic differences between him and the senator as he sees them, effectively casting himself as Pat Boone to Kennedy’s Dean Martin.
“I will not embarrass you,” Romney told the delegates at the Republican state convention in Springfield three months ago.
Romney, 47, grew up outside Detroit in the exclusive suburb of Bloomfield Hills, the youngest of four children born to Lenore and George Romney. George Romney was the former chairman of American Motors who revolutionized the auto industry by challenging the gas–guzzling ethos of Detroit’s Big Three. He introduced the Nash Rambler, America’s first compact car.
Building on his success at American Motors, the elder Romney, a moderate Republican, was elected governor of Michigan in 1962 – the same year Ted Kennedy was elected to the Senate. Mitt was 15.
George Romney was elected to three, two–year terms as governor before deciding to seek the 1968 GOP nomination for president. The campaign was relatively short–lived, and Romney dropped out of the race following a controversy regarding his explanation of why he had turned against the Vietnam War. He said he had been “brainwashed” by American generals and diplomats on a visit to the country.
Lenore Romney, a former film and radio actress, followed her husband into politics, winning the 1970 Republican nomination for Senate in Michigan before losing to the incumbent Democrat, Philip Hart.
The Romney family, absorbed and involved
Politics and the issues of the day absorbed the Romneys. Lively family discussions were the norm, and Mitt would pipe up frequently, often to challenge pronouncements from the governor.
Dinners were regarded as family institutions not to be missed. Mrs. Romney would put on a fresh dress every night for her husband, the patriarch, and the four children would gather around the table, evoking a “Father Knows Best” scene.
Devotion to their faith centered the Romneys. George Romney was president of the Detroit stake, a grouping of area Mormon churches roughly equivalent to a Catholic diocese. As he ran for president in 1968, the country learned more about his beliefs and a religion that was seen – especially in areas of the nation where there are few Mormons – as somewhat exotic.
Before deciding to run for governor, Romney had sought the counsel of then–church president David O. McKay; then he prayed and fasted for 24 hours. In the campaign, Romney spoke of the Mormon belief that the Constitution of the United States is a “divinely inspired” document. He said in a recent interview that his faith had helped him govern by teaching him values.
In 1965, Mitt graduated from an all–boys private school in Bloomfield Hills, and went off to Stanford with a heavy heart, having just met Ann Davies, then a sophomore at the all–girls school affiliated with Mitt’s.
They maintained a long–distance romance as Mitt plunged into college life. After his freshman year, at age 19, he came to an early crossroads when it came time for him to do what all young Mormon men are supposed to do: go on an overseas mission for the church for at least two years.
Afraid of what being away that long would do to his budding relationship with Ann, Mitt debated taking the radical step of not going. But that would have been family heresy. Generations of Romneys had gone on their missions; his father and brother had gone to England. Ann, though not a Mormon, urged him to go. He’d always regret it otherwise, she said.
So Mitt did his duty and was sent to France for what turned out to be a 2 1/2–year tour. His first posting was in the port city of Le Havre, where he and three missionary companions lived in a seedy hotel with no flush toilet. Life was austere, and quite an adjustment for the governor’s son.
There seemed little tangible reward for doing the work of the Lord. In rudimentary French, he’d pitch this American religion, Mormonism, in a country that was overwhelmingly Catholic and not friendly to Americans, particularly as the war in Vietnam raged.
Romney said that during the entire time he was in France, he converted only 10 to 20 people. Doors were slammed in his face in what amounted to almost constant rejection and humiliation.
“You look back and say, ’What am I doing this for?’ ” Romney recalled. “You really have a sense of ’I am doing something greater than me… Whether they accept it or not, I am giving my energy, blood, sweat and tears.’ ” He called the mission a “watershed” experience in his life.
Toward the end of the mission, Romney nearly lost his life. Behind the wheel of a Citroen, he was driving the mission president and his wife, and three other passengers through the Bordeaux region in June 1968. An oncoming car swerved into Romney’s lane and struck the Citroen head–on. The wife of the mission president was killed, and others in the car were injured. Romney was thrown from the vehicle and knocked unconscious. The first policeman responding to the scene took a quick look at him and concluded he was dead, writing “Il est mort” in his passport.
That bit of misinformation triggered early news reports back in Michigan that Mitt had been killed. George Romney gathered the family, as well as Ann, and gave them the news, but he held out hope.
Romney – who had dropped out of the presidential campaign four months earlier, but was still governor – called Sargent Shriver, then the US ambassador to France and Sen. Kennedy’s brother–in–law, and asked if he could find out what had happened to his son. Shriver soon called back with news that Mitt had a broken arm and other bruises, but was alive. Skeptical of rural French medical care, Romney asked a neighbor who was a surgeon to fly over and tend to his son and the other missionaries. Eventually, they all made full recoveries.
A return to the US, and marriage to Ann
After his mission, Mitt’s first order of business was to marry Ann. By this time, March 1969, not only had Ann decided to become a Mormon, but she was enrolled as a student at the church–owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. To Mitt, BYU was a far cry from Stanford, but love was love, so he transferred, getting Ann to agree that if he didn’t like it, they would go back to Palo Alto, Calif.
Mitt enrolled in an honors program at BYU and, to his surprise, was stimulated. They stayed in Provo, renting a $ 62–a–month apartment, just big enough for them and their first son, Taggart.
Mitt graduated first in his class in 1971 and was the valedictorian. Addressing his assembled Mormon brothers and sisters, Romney invoked Scripture and suggested that for the blessed like them, much would be expected:
“I pray that this graduating class will choose a different kind of life, that we may develop an attitude of restlessness and discomfort, not self–satisfaction,” he said. “Our education should spark us to challenge ignorance and prepare to receive new truths from God.”
After BYU, Romney pondered his options. One thing he did not have to worry about was entering the military. His missionary service from June 1966 to December 1968 had gotten him a deferment from the draft at the height of the Vietnam War. Resuming college after the mission kept the deferment in place. Then, when he drew No. 300 in the first Selective Service lottery in 1970, it was ensured that Romney would never be called, especially because his draft board was in Pontiac, Mich., a predominantly minority area with high unemployment that was more than filling its quota with volunteers and draftees.
Thus unencumbered, Romney came to Boston to attend Harvard Law School. A year later he entered the combined law–business program with Harvard Business School. He graduated in 1975, cum laude from the law school, and near the top of his class at the business school.
George Romney helped Mitt and Ann get started financially. Mitt had cashed stock given him by his father to finance his education, and borrowed $ 10,000 as a down payment on a small, $ 42,500 house in Belmont. Soon, the couple had two more sons, Matthew and Joshua.
Mitt took a job with Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm, for two years, then moved on to Bain & Co., another Boston consulting firm. Romney moved up quickly at Bain, and in 1984 started a spinoff venture capital company, Bain Capital, which has made millions of dollars for its investors – and for Romney. His recent financial disclosure form showed that, in 1992 and 1993, he received $ 6.8 million in income from Bain Capital, and $ 4.6 million from stock sales and dividends.
Back in Belmont, the Romneys began to live more in a style befitting Mitt’s income bracket. They bought their current house in 1989 for $ 1.25 million. It sits on 2 1/2 acres of land with a swimming pool and tennis court. It was registered in Ann’s name to guard against Massachusetts estate tax laws, Romney said. They joined the Belmont Hill Country Club.
As Mitt’s career prospered, Ann, having given birth to two more boys – Benjamin and Craig – stayed at home and raised the couple’s five sons. The boys started in Belmont public schools, then each transferred to the private Belmont Hill School in the seventh grade. Today, they range in age from 13 to 24. The oldest three sons all went to BYU. Taggart and Matthew, like their father, went on to serve missions in France.
The Romney family had certain routines and rituals. Friday nights were always for Mitt and Ann to go out together. Saturdays were for doing chores at home, with Mitt trying to instill a strong work ethic in his sons. Sunday was dominated by church, and calm reflection.
Monday nights were given over to a Mormon institution called “Family Home Evening.” Mitt, or sometimes Ann, would teach lessons from the Gospels. They stressed to their children that they had been blessed with much, and should do all they could to help those less fortunate. Then there would be an “activity.” According to Ann, “this would usua part of what I do. And spending my time with my wife is overwhelmingly the most enjoyable. So every minute of time that I can spend at home, I do, and have from the very beginning of our marriage.”
Adds Ann: “If you were to ask the credo by what we live by, it would be, ’No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” That quote, well known in Mormon circles, comes from the late church president David O. McKay.
Romney says he regards Ann’s job as caregiver for the family as ultimately more important than his career. Accordingly, the question of her working outside the home was never discussed. It was assumed she would stay home and raise their sons.
“I actually think that motherhood is a profession,” he says. “It’s one which is challenging, it’s demanding. I think it requires being a psychologist, a psychoanalyst, an engineer, a teacher… I’m glad that she chose that, and that it’s been so rewarding for her. I wish we could have five or six more kids. My guess is – and she doesn’t know this – we will have foster kids… I believe that Ann’s skills at mothering are too great not to have her continue mothering, if she’d like to. That is obviously her decision.”
Romney says he realizes that, today, not many mothers can afford to stay home. “I tell my kids, ‘We won the lottery. Don’t think this is normal. Don’t think that your life will have the kind of plenty that ours has had. We won the lottery.’”
Becoming a leader in the Mormon church
Soon after settling in Belmont, Romney became a leader in the local Mormon church. First he was bishop of the Cambridge congregation, or ward, where Mormons in Belmont went to worship before moving into their own church in 1985. Then he became the bishop in Belmont, and in 1986 he was asked by a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles – a ranking governing body of the Salt Lake City–based church – to assume the presidency of the Boston–area stake, a collection of 14 wards with about 4,000 members. Romney left the stake presidency in March to run for the Senate.
Founded in 1830 and officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, Mormonism is an indigenous American religion that claims to be “God’s only true church.” From its origins as an obscure frontier sect whose members practiced polygamy, Mormonism has blossomed into one of the world’s fastest–growing, and richest, religions. It claims 8.8 million members in 150 countries and territories – 4.5 million in the United States, mostly in the West.
In 1890, church officials banned polygamy – or “plural marriage” as they called it – as part of a deal for Utah statehood. Feeling persecuted by Congress, and that their church had sold out a fundamental tenet, about 3,000 Mormons decided to move south to Chihuahua, Mexico, where many continued to practice polygamy, including some members of the extended Romney clan. George Romney was born in Chihuahua in 1907, but came back to the United States when he was 5, after Pancho Villa had expelled the American families from Mexico. George Romney’s grandfather, a polygamist who took four wives and produced 30 children, had been one of the founding members of the Mexican colony. George’s parents did not practice polygamy.
Church officials complain to this day about the lingering public relations problems that polygamy causes a decidedly puritanical religion that ranks adultery just behind murder as the gravest of sins. Mormons believe in the sanctity of marriage, and exalt the traditional, nuclear family where the men work and women are urged to stay home and raise as many children as possible. Smoking, or drinking coffee, tea or anything with caffeine is forbidden.
The church seeks to avoid involvement in politics, except when it feels moral issues are at stake. It opposes the equal rights amendment and abortion – except in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother. It regards homosexuality as sinful.
Members take care of their own, and have established, for example, an elaborate welfare system to tend to needy Mormons, so they do not have to seek public assistance. For many members, the church is also an extended family and cultural unit.
Questions, challenges for the patriarchy
Mormon tenets on who can attain the priesthood have been controversial. Until 1978, blacks were excluded; women still are, while men can be ordained at age 12.
The sexual revolution and the women’s movement, especially the latter, have caused strains within the ultra–patriarchal church, particularly among women who feel limited and relegated to second–class status. But the church does not take challenges to its authority lightly. Just last year it excommunicated two women and severely disciplined a third because they were agitating for women getting the priesthood.
For many, the notion of a Mormon feminist is an oxymoron, but more Mormon women are beginning to make their voices heard. Some in the Boston area have crossed swords with Romney on the role of women in the church, among other issues.
“We have a long tradition in our culture to never criticize the brethren,” said Judy Dushku, a member of Romney’s ward in Belmont, referring to male church leaders. She says she finds Romney to be a creature of the church patriarchy, unwilling to consider critical ideas, especially from women.
“I’m afraid Mitt’s grown up with this sense of entitlement not to be criticized, and to interpret criticism as never constructive, and as always coming from the enemy,” said Dushku, who has been an associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston for 30 years. “I think this is very dangerous for a political leader”
“He’s at heart a basically good person. But he’s never had to work for anything and learn to understand things. In this campaign, I think he felt he could get through it by listening to his high–paid consultants.”
Earlier in the campaign, Dushku, a Democrat, said she approached Romney and told him that although she did not intend to vote for him, she would be happy to talk with him about the issues.
“Basically, his attitude was, ‘What could you possibly teach me? You’re a woman.’ I said, ‘Well, Mitt, I’ve watched you for a long time. You’re going to get asked about women, about abortion, homosexuality.’”
“He said that was part of the church. I said, ‘That’s part of your life. People will be interested in that.’ He said, ‘Oh, no. I’ve talked it over with my campaign manager. We’re going to keep the religious stuff separate.’ I said, ‘You’re living in a dream world. The press is going to look at the way you’ve conducted yourself in all spheres of your life, including as a religious leader.’”
“He said, ’I haven’t mistreated women or done anything wrong.’ I said, ’It’s also an issue of what you haven’t done. You’ve never separated yourself from Mormon leaders on any issue.’ He said, ’I’d never do that.’ And I said, ’That’s part of the point.’ ”
Romney rejected Dushku’s version of their conversation, saying it would be “stupid” to suggest he didn’t think he could learn from women. “I’m getting tired of people coming from the woodwork and reporting things that I supposedly said,” he added.
More than a year ago, after repeated urging by Dushku and other local Mormon women, Romney convened a meeting to discuss women’s issues. Romney said he began the session by saying he was powerless to change doctrinal or procedural issues, but he agreed to make some other changes within his purview after being asked to do so. The changes included allowing single mothers with children to make a “family presentation” of music or a reading to the church just like two–parent families, and providing women to counsel girls on topics they would rather not discuss with male bishops or other officials.
Among the scores of local church members interviewed for this article, the views of Dushku and others critical of Romney are in the minority. The majority, especially men, spoke glowingly of him.
“He has the appearance of being too smart, too handsome, too rich,” said Kent Bowen, a Harvard Business School professor who served as a counselor to Romney when he was stake president. “The truth is, he’s an incredibly sensitive guy. He often reflects on experiences that have nothing to do with wealth and privilege, but are just human to human.”
Romney calls the rich–and–privileged rap “total baloney. You go off and live 2 1/2 years in France. You start out, as I have, at the bottom level of a business and work your way up. I haven’t inherited money from my parents… By virtue of the service that I’ve had the opportunity to give both in the church and outside it, I’ve spent time every week with people of very modest means.”
Romney, who has tried unsuccessfully to declare questions about his religious beliefs and actions “out of bounds,” is growing increasingly irritated at questions and press coverage he feels border on religious bigotry. “If you replace the word ’Jews’ for every time the word ’Mormon’ has been used, it would be a most interesting series of articles,” he said recently, after reading news accounts that he was flying off to Salt Lake City for a fund–raiser.
He often argues that religion was supposed to have been taken out of politics for good after John Kennedy removed Catholicism as an issue in 1960. But Romney was a leader in his church; Kennedy was not. And Mormonism permeates Romney’s life to a far greater extent than Catholicism did Kennedy’s.
One of the ways in which Romney has translated his faith to the campaign is in talking about morality. In his speech announcing his candidacy in February, for example, Romney said that the “overarching imperative” in America now was the need to renew the country’s “moral fiber.”
Asked to elaborate in an interview, he said: “I look at the country and feel we are operating without a moral compass… I believe we’re afraid to teach our kids that it makes sense to have a family. We have to make sure that we don’t encourage more people to have children out of wedlock. That is not helpful to our society. We need to teach that education is important and gets people further along in their lives, and that hard work is one of the values of our society. We need to teach that violence is wrong, that it is destructive to our society and destructive to the people who participate in it.”
He said he felt better qualified to offer leadership in this area than Ted Kennedy.
“I think it’s important to have people who can and will be able to challenge the country on ethics and principles… And I think that’s something I can do. That’s not been something which Ted has led in.”
A call to campaign: “You’ve got to run”
Ann Romney takes credit for being the catalyst that made her husband decide to run for the Senate. One day last year, in late spring or early summer, she broached the idea to him and said his first reaction was to “pull the covers over his head and say, ’Don’t think about it.’ ”
“I said, ’Mitt, you’ve got to run… You can gripe and gripe and gripe all you want about how upset you are about the direction the country’s going. But if you don’t stand up and do something about it, then, you know, shut up and stop bothering me.’… I really do think it came to the point where I said enough is enough.”
She said that caring for her parents who died of cancer in the last two years had focused her attention on priorities in life, and led her to urge her husband to run in a manner that was tantamount to a challenge.
“When my father was dying,” she recalled, tears welling in her eyes, “he looked at us and he said: ’You guys have so much to live for.’… And he said, ’Don’t you just want to grab on to life and hang on to it?’ And I said, ’Yes, I do!’… And I thought, ’Mitt, are we going to die someday and then say, Mitt, you never did it! You never tried?’ That’s why Mitt’s running.”
Ann said she also invoked the Romney political legacy, that running was part of who Mitt was, and that like going on the mission, he’d always regret it if he didn’t try. She also appealed to his spiritual side; that he had been blessed with much and now had to give something back.
“Ted Kennedy was also an irresistable target,” Ann said. “He represents everything that we don’t – in political philosophy. I have to be careful there… In political philosophy he is really very left, and big government, big spending, and Mitt is very opposite of that philosophy.”
Mitt began to consider these arguments and take soundings. He met with Gov. Weld, who encouraged him s revealed he had inflated his resume.
Still, Romney was cautious. He had watched Kennedy devour one Republican sacrificial lamb after another over the years. He did not want to be embarrassed. He conducted a poll that found that Kennedy’s negatives were high; a credible Republican might have a chance, the poll suggested. Romney said the poll also included a question on Mormonism that found his religion would not be a liability.
Since settling in the Boston area 23 years ago, he said, the thought of running for office had occasionally popped into his mind, but he had dismissed it just as quickly. What chance did he have in an overwhelmingly Democratic state? Not that he was a dyed–in–the–wool Republican. Like his father, he wasn’t a strong party man. He had been a registered independent all his life. He still was, as he pondered the Kennedy challenge. He had even voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary.
But he thought the election of Weld and Treasurer Joe Malone in 1990 had changed the political landscape in Massachusetts, and made it less daunting for someone like him. Parties were becoming less important, and there were now more registered independents than Democrats in the state.
He agreed with his wife that Kennedy was an irresistable target. In fact, if Sen. John Kerry had been up for reelection this year, Romney wouldn’t be running. “Because Ted, from my standpoint, is really the champion of a political philosophy for an entire country whose time has passed,” he said. “John Kerry – his political views will come and go.”
Finally, last October – the necessary research and information gathered – Ann said that she and Mitt secluded themselves to fast and pray about whether he should run.
The answer was yes.