In fact, perhaps one of the reasons Mitt Romney has had difficulties in his national campaigns so far is that he doesn’t make a natural underdog. Because the public barely knows his personal biography, Romney is not perceived as a man who overcame adversity, who has taken on powerful opponents, who has been unjustly demonized for fighting for a just cause, and who triumphed because he fought on when everyone else would have given up. He needs that, I would argue.
Just thinking about the stories in this blog post from a few weeks ago, one can picture that heroic narrative taking shape something like this…
We meet young Mitt Romney, of the Michigan Romneys: A picture-perfect childhood in a lot of ways… but his road to adulthood would bring its share of challenges, stumbles, and dark hours.
George Romney, who young Mitt idolizes, is being mentioned as a potential president: A successful auto executive and two-term governor who supports the Civil Rights movement, marching with the NAACP in the streets of Detroit.
And then, when Romney is 20, his father makes a comment about why he’s growing more skeptical about the wisdom of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam: “When I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get – not only by the generals, but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”
It’s an ordinary metaphor about one-sided assessment from U.S. personnel, but the Nixon crowd demonizes the elder Romney over it, casting him as a dangerous lunatic. Romney sees his father ridiculed, mocked, derided and painted as a madman – an early lesson about the power of lies and the fickleness of public opinion.
About this time, he travels to France, on missionary work. There he has doors slammed in his face, and realizes that something that seemed so normal and intrinsically good and noble to him – his faith – is considered strange and alien and worthy of scorn elsewhere. He sees little difference between the values of his fellow Mormons and the French Catholics around him – but some see him as an outsider, a freak, an alien.
Then one night, he sees the danger of prejudice and demonizing those who are different up close:
Romney was in his apartment when a woman burst in to say some Frenchmen were beating up one of his fellow Mormons down the street. The barefoot Romney joined his roommates in rushing into the snowy night. They found a team of rugby players, drowning their sorrows after a lost match, hassling two female missionaries… The male missionary who leaped to their defense had been punched out. Romney ended up with a badly bruised jaw.
There’s a lot of anger in young Romney, figuring out his way in an unjust world.
He turns to his studies, enrolling in a joint Juris Doctor/MBA program coordinated between Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. In the early 70s, other students are experimenting with radical politics; the focused, driven Romney, already married to Ann and with a young son, graduates cum laude.
A few years later, ready to begin his career, Romney hears the whispers: George Romney’s kid. Silver spoon in his mouth. Cruising on his family name.
So no jumping into the auto industry for him – he goes to Bain & Company, a consulting firm specializing in the tougher cases of business: turning around failing industries. After demonstrating he can generate great results, founder Bill Bain picks him to head up a new venture: Bain Capital. Despite the prestigious name, it’s an endeavor that must overcome great skepticism – ten employees, a bare-bones office. The new firm struggles along until it comes across a company that thinks there’s big business in office supplies: Staples. Romney’s only convinced of the market for their products when he starts checking the receipts of companies to see how much they spend on the products. Diligence, attention to detail, focus – all the traits his peers mocked suddenly become the strengths of an increasingly successful man.
So successful, in fact, that when George Romney dies, Mitt gives away his inheritance to Brigham Young University. Picture adult Mitt writing the check to some BYU official, and saying, “Dad gave me everything I really needed a long time ago.”
As Romney grows into full adulthood, he finds his anger over injustice focused and directed towards action, and getting results.
When the Salt Lake City games are on the verge of disaster, he starts cutting everything that isn’t needed – $6 million in unneeded decorations, free meals for the organizing committee, wetlands restoration, a youth camp. Picture him saying, “There’s need to have, and nice to have. If we had all the money we needed, none of this would be cut. But we don’t. So it’s time to focus on what matters most.”
When a Massachusetts state official skips a meeting to deal with a fatal accident at a massive tunnel project, Romney finds him and a flash of that anger returns: “You’re too big for the governor?” he asks in a public confrontation. The state legislature agrees to toss that official.
And still a bit of that man of action – one dark night in 2003, Romney and his sons encountering a sinking boat on a New Hampshire lake, a family treading water. The fifty-something Mitt heaves two women onto his jetski and ferrying them to shore, and comes back for the rest of the family – and their dog, too.
Many years and many miles after that idyllic childhood, with the father who might have been president, but for a nefarious smear… Mitt Romney stands on the precipice of his greatest challenge yet. The turnaround artist aims for one final turnaround as the capstone of his career, to the country that has given him so much, and needs it so badly today.