Now that he’s officially the Republican nominee for president and has an excellent chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world, I feel free to admit, in the full knowledge that nobody cares, that I never liked Mitt Romney. My distaste for him isn’t merely personal or political but also petty and superficial. There’s the breathless, Eddie Attaboy delivery, that half-smile of pitying condescension in debates or interviews when someone disagrees with him, the Ken doll mannerisms, his wanton use of the word “gosh”—the whole Romney package has been nails on a blackboard to me.
Evidently not many of my fellow Republicans agreed. I assumed I was missing something and resolved to dive into the Romney literature, which I soon discovered should post a disclaimer, like a motel pool: NO DIVING. By my count the literature includes one good book, The Real Romney, by two reporters from the Boston Globe. That’s the same Globe with the leftward tilt to its axis and a legendary anti-Romney animus—which lends authority to their largely favorable portrait. The flattering details of Romney’s life were so numerous and unavoidable that the authors, dammit, had no choice but to include them.
Romney once famously called himself “severely” conservative. Other adverbs fit better: culturally, personally, instinctively. He seems to have missed out on The Sixties altogether, and wanted to. As a freshman at Stanford he protested the protesters, appearing in the quad carrying signs of his own: SPEAK OUT, DON’T SIT IN! In 1968 the May riots stranded him in Paris. “The disorder appalled him,” the authors write. He left Stanford for BYU, where long hair, rock bands, and peace symbols were banned. As a young go-getter he liked to give friends copies of Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill—a Stephen Covey for the Coolidge era, sodden with moral uplift. (Even his anachronisms are anachronistic.) “There was nothing jaded about him,” a school friend tells the authors, “nothing skeptical, nothing ironic.”
At his wedding, he declined when the photographer asked him to kiss the bride: “Not for cameras,” he said. Since that day, Ann says, they haven’t had an argument; friends believe her. And their kids—we’ve all seen their kids. The authors tick off a typical week for the young family. Sunday: “church, reflection, volunteer work, family dinners.” Monday: “family night,” when the family gathered for Bible stories and skits about animals. Tuesday was for family basketball games and cookouts. Friday was date night for Mitt and Ann. Saturday was for doing chores, and so on, in a pinwheel of wholesomeness that a -post-60s ironist can only gape at, disbelieving. The Romneys present a picture of an American family that popular culture has been trying to undo since—well, since An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that exposed the typical household as a cauldron of resentment and infidelity.
And now, here, 40 years later, it’s as though it all never happened: a happy American family, led by a baby boomer with no sense of irony! Romney is the sophisticate’s nightmare.
Almost every personal detail about Romney I found endearing. But my slowly softening opinion went instantly to goo when The Real Romney unfolded an account of his endless kindnesses—unbidden, unsung, and utterly gratuitous. “It seems that everyone who has known him has a tale of his altruism,” the authors write. I was struck by the story of a Mormon family called (unfortunately) Nixon. In the 1990s a car wreck rendered two of their boys quadriplegics. Drained financially from extraordinary expenses, Mr. Nixon got a call from Romney, whom he barely knew, asking if he could stop by on Christmas Eve. When the day came, all the Romneys arrived bearing presents, including a VCR and a new sound system the Romney boys set up. Later Romney told Nixon that he could take care of the children’s college tuition, which in the end proved unnecessary. “I knew how busy he was,” Nixon told the authors. “He was actually teaching his boys, saying, ‘This is what we do. We do this as a family.’ ”
Romney’s oldest son Tagg once made the same point to the radio host Hugh Hewitt. “He was constantly doing things like that and never telling anyone about them,” Tagg said. “He doesn’t want to tell people about them, but he wanted us to see him. He would let the kids see it because he wanted it to rub off on us.”
To this touching kindness and fatherly wisdom, The Real Romney adds other traits that will continue to grate—he’s a know-it-all and likely to remain so, and his relationship to political principle has always been tenuous. Which makes him a, uh, politician. But now I suspect he’s also something else, a creature rarely found in the highest reaches of American politics: a good guy.