Politics & Policy

Matinee Mitt

The governor of Massachusetts may soon be appearing in a (political) theater near you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the June 20, 2005, issue of National Review.

One evening two summers ago, as the sun set and darkness spread over Lake Winnipesaukee, Mitt Romney noticed the lights from a boat drifting by. The governor of Massachusetts was vacationing at his home in New Hampshire. Suddenly, he heard screams coming from the water. Romney rushed to the shoreline, where one of his grown sons was squinting into the distance. “I think something’s going on out there,” he told his father. They hopped on WaveRunners and zipped to the scene of a sinking. “About a quarter of a mile out, we found maybe half a dozen people treading water,” says Romney. The governor ferried them in, two by two. When the story hit the Boston papers, Democrats jeered. “Mitt Romney only chooses to run for office from Massachusetts–he doesn’t vacation here,” grumbled a spokeswoman for the state party. Apparently the official position of Massachusetts Democrats is to oppose water rescues.

Whatever the case, the incident highlighted a brutal fact about Romney’s governorship: The man simply can’t catch a break from Democrats, who occupy virtually every statewide office except his own and control roughly 85 percent of the Massachusetts legislature. They have made his tenure in this bluest of blue states a frustrating one, but one that nevertheless has attracted the attention of Republicans thinking about 2008. Romney is clearly interested in running for president. He won’t say so, but Mike Murphy, a senior adviser to the governor, admits that Romney is “testing the waters.” Looking ahead, the question is no longer whether Romney can catch a break from Democrats, but whether he can catch one from conservatives who possess an instinctive wariness of anything emanating from the land of Kennedy, Dukakis, and Kerry. Their skepticism is well warranted–but Romney also deserves a fair hearing from them as they search for a successor to President Bush. They may come to like the guy.

Willard Mitt Romney, 58 years old, was born into a prominent political family. His late father, George Romney, was the governor of Michigan in the 1960s–a Rockefeller Republican whose own presidential ambitions evaporated after a gaffe over the Vietnam War. (He described himself as a victim of “brainwashing.”) The son got his first name from J. Willard Marriott, the hotel magnate and a friend of his father’s. The middle name–the catchy one–comes from a relative who played for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s.

Romney looks like he could play quarterback–he’s tall and trim–except that he’s not nearly mean enough for the gridiron. The man exudes niceness, which is one of the qualities that make him an unusually good retail politician. He doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, smoke cigarettes, or swear–the closest thing to a curse word he’ll ever utter is the adjective “bloomin’,” as in, “Can you believe those bloomin’ Democrats?” But he has to be really worked up before he’ll say it. His one vice appears to be wolfing down a bowl of sugar-coated cereal just before bedtime. He calls this his “Jethro bowl.”

That’s a reference to a voracious character in The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet Romney’s no rube. His standard stump speech–the one he delivers to Republican audiences outside Massachusetts–takes a swipe at liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith and makes a reference to The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a thick book by David S. Landes, a Harvard historian. Many governors don’t have time for books, but when I ask Romney whether he has read any good ones lately, he pulls a copy of Reagan: Man of Principle, by John Harmer, from his bag. “I get driven everywhere now,” he says. “That gives me a lot of time to read.” Romney is also a fan of David McCullough’s recent biography of John Adams. “He and Abigail Adams were the original Republicans,” says the governor. “I respect them enormously, and I’m not just saying that because they’re from Massachusetts.”

Before becoming president, Adams lived in France as a diplomat. Romney also has spent time in France, on a foreign mission that is a rite of passage for Mormons. For two and a half years, he tried to spread his faith. He had a lot of doors slammed in his face. At one point, he was involved in a head-on car collision–the driver in the other vehicle was drunk–and French authorities said that he had been killed. Fortunately, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Romney returned home and married Ann, his high-school sweetheart, when he was 22 and she was 19. Though he attended Stanford for two semesters, he transferred to Brigham Young University and became the valedictorian. The young couple then moved to Massachusetts, where Mitt earned degrees from Harvard’s business and law schools. A successful career in venture capital followed, as Romney helped provide some of the financing for Domino’s Pizza and Staples, the office-supply chain. He and Ann now have five grown children, all boys, as well as eight grandkids.

There’s a storybook quality to all this, and Romney’s own chiseled handsomeness only adds to the tale. “He has a lot of presence on television–a real gift for the tube,” says Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos. “Politics is all about communications these days, so that’s really important.” The next time the casting director of a prime-time show needs to pick an actor to play the president, in fact, he could do a lot worse than Romney (especially if Fred Thompson isn’t available). The governor certainly would pass a voice test. Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, tells of going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park with Romney last fall. “He has season tickets along the third-base line, and all through the game people were coming up and telling him that he was doing a great job,” says Gillespie. During the seventh-inning stretch, Romney and the rest of the crowd stood to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “The man has a great singing voice, and it started to tick me off,” jokes Gillespie. “I began to wonder whether there’s anything he does badly.”..


John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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