To run against a storyteller, such as the writer in the White House, you need a story to tell. Mitt Romney has one. But he’s hesitant to tell it. The most compelling part of his past — his family’s dogged journey — is rarely discussed. Instead, playing it safe, Romney highlights Bain and the Olympics. His father’s humble beginnings as a Mormon outcast in Mexico, and his own tumultuous experience as a missionary in France, have, for the most part, been kept out of the political playbook.
Romney had a horrible evening, stumbling in Minnesota and Missouri. But in otherwise flat remarks in Colorado, he hinted at a new subject for his stump speech: his father, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan. For Romney, that’s significant — a recognition of his need to illustrate his monochromatic politics with personal color. It may be strategic, nothing more than a couple lines for Great Lakes State Republicans, who’ll vote later this month. But for conservatives who are itching to learn more about Romney, they were welcome remarks.
More than anything, Romney has struggled to connect. He has won primaries and performed ably in the debates. He’s well on his way to the nomination. But there is emptiness to his success. On the trail, voters tell me that they respect him. They admire him. But they don’t know him. They don’t understand what makes him tick. They sense a decent, driven man behind the cagey speeches and awkward interviews. But they’re not sure. They don’t know his story.
That’s a shame, and a blunder on the part of Romney’s campaign. “The Rise of George” is the one story this stiff candidate seems to be great at telling — better than he is at singing patriotic songs, talking up the Sports Authority, or even praising Ann. It’s Romney at his most vulnerable, addressing uncomfortable historic elements of his faith, and at his most all-American, describing a man of grit, hard-won wealth, and total commitment to family. You can call it tricky territory, but I’ve seen up close how this tale can resonate.
A couple years ago, I interviewed Romney about his book, No Apology, which was stuffed with policy proposals. More interesting, however, were a few passages on his father, about George Romney’s excellence as an auto executive in Detroit during the 1950s and 1960s. I didn’t expect Romney to bring these relatively minor sections up, especially after he was his usual self during the first ten minutes of the interview, talking assuredly, in clipped phrases, about various reforms.
But when I brought up his dad, he lightened up and spoke naturally. For the briefest of moments, he shed the talking points. “The greatest gift that my father gave me was, frankly, his personal example,” Romney told me, gazing out the car window at the gleaming glass boxes on Park Avenue. “We all love our dads, but as time went on, I recognized just how unique and special he was. When I was a younger boy, I didn’t realize that, but as time went on, I saw that this guy really is a very unusual person, and what he did became more and more meaningful.”
“I began to study it,” he said. “When I was at business school, the case discussed on the first day of my business-policy class was the American Motors Corporation and the turnaround led by George Romney. You can’t help but think if they’re teaching that at Harvard Business School, then he really is quite a guy. I saw the things he experienced more personally, at a closer inspection point than other people enjoyed, and I wanted to share those perspectives.”
And that was it. We moved on to other topics. But it was enough. Romney’s words about his father were the heart of the interview and showcased his human side. Politicians should not have to spill their guts to win the nomination, but believe me, if I’ve heard anything from voters, it’s that beyond the policy prescriptions, a little bit of story helps. Santorum’s western-Pennsylvania roots, for example, remain a big part of his appeal. Same goes for Gingrich’s childhood stories from Harrisburg, where he grew up in a broken home, the stepson of an infantry soldier.
As David Brooks recently advised, Romney should take care to make his father’s story a framework for understanding his own values and drive. By sharing the story of his father and casting aside the bland anecdotes, Romney can delve into his past and capture the essence of the Romney ascent. It is, at times, a tough and discomforting tale, but if he keeps quiet about it, he risks becoming a tepid, anti-Obama avatar to many voters, especially those who don’t have time to read No Apology or page through the new (and very informative) biography The Real Romney.
Tonight, with words tucked away at the end of his speech, Romney showed that he is capable of giving voters more about him, more about his story. Not at an Obama level, but enough to excite conservatives, especially, to take a closer look at his life, not just the metrics of his gubernatorial achievements or his private-sector work. Santorum’s surge may have reminded Romney’s advisers that they needed to shake things up, to give life to “Believe in America.” He has shared these stories before; reporters know the narrative. But to most voters, they sound fresh.
“My father never graduated from college,” Romney said, pausing near the end. “He apprenticed, as a lath and plaster carpenter, and he was pretty good at it. He actually could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth, and spit them out, pointy end forward. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the truck of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas and the hotels.
“There were a lot of reasons my father could have given up or set his sights lower,” he continued. “But my dad believed in America. And in the America that he believed in, a lath-and-plaster guy could work up to become head of a car company. And a guy who had sold aluminum paint out of his car could end up being governor in one of the states where he sold that aluminum paint.”
As expected, the nodding heads and cheers in the audience were immediate. Romney nodded and smiled back. He may have lost in a couple states, but he clicked. Not because of some snarl line about Obama. By George, it was about something bigger, and it was a breakthrough.