New York, New York — “He’s insane,” Ann Romney says of her husband, Mitt.
Rest assured — that means you, Iowa — she’s referring to the energy level of the former governor of Massachusetts turned Republican presidential candidate, not his mental state. And her observation makes perfect sense when you realize it cuts right to the heart of why she was in New York on Monday, promoting her new website.
In her corner of the 2008 Internet, Ann Romney focuses on what she says will be her “number one priority” if she is given the opportunity to be First Lady of the United States: multiple sclerosis, the debilitating disease she was diagnosed with in 1998. As First Lady, she says, she would “make sure that everyone knows about Multiple Sclerosis.”
Having MS means Mrs. Romney can’t do all the traveling her husband, the candidate, does — she sees him at least once a week, she says, but she can’t be on the all-day-campaigning-and-then-travel-the-night-away schedule that he’s on. But learning how to “conquer the fatigue,” she can do a lot more than she once could.
Ann Romney came to the Big Apple on Monday by way of Salt Lake (en route to some downtime at home in Boston), where, she says, she spent a weekend thinking about contrasts — how good she feels now, horseback riding and enjoying life, vs. how hard she had to fight when they were living there during the run-up to the 2002 Olympic games.
It is her hope that her turnaround story can inspire people.
Looking happy and healthy and energetic in a sharp TV-friendly charcoal gray and cream blazer, you’d never recognize Mrs. Romney is the same woman who, less than a decade ago, was bedridden. Her husband described her MS success story to Hugh Hewitt for the radio-talk-show host’s book A Mormon in the White House:
In 1998 when she was diagnosed she was quite sick. Her right leg was quite numb. She couldn’t get up and down stairs very easily. We were getting ready to put an elevator in the house and we went out to the Olympics and that turned out to be an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. She had a great doctor here who helped her enormously but then going out there she got into riding again—horseback riding. She hadn’t done this since she was a little girl and that really helped, whether it was psychologically or the physical exercise. She got a doctor — a guy that did reflexology who would press her pressure points and so forth and stimulate her nervous system—whether this is all poppycock or makes any difference, who knows?—but it’s working. And so she has rebounded and has literally no physical impact as long as she doesn’t get overly tired. If she doesn’t get in until ten or eleven or midnight, then it’s going to take her a day to recover. As long as she gets her rest and doesn’t press her travel too much, she goes riding every day. She follows a very careful diet and exercise, but she’s receiving no drugs. There’s no injections, and she’s had no physical impairment for probably three years now.
Mrs. Romney tells me she hopes the website, which links directly to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, will help other people beat the chronic ailment.The biggest struggle of the mother of five boys, she says, was accepting that she needed help and that she couldn’t beat it alone. “My first instinct was not to go for help, but when you have something like this, you need to. I really hope annRomney.com can help people get the help they need and share their stories. I posted mine.”
“Helping raise awareness” about MS, money, and helping find a cure are unsurprisingly a big part of her charity work. As First Lady, she also intends to continue her work with “at risk youth,” which includes groups like Elayne Bennett’s Best Friends Foundation, whose mission it is to help kids make “smart choices.” At-risk kids, she says “often don’t know what opportunities they have to make good choices” about sex and education. She seeks to change that.
As I talked to Mrs. Romney in a conference room across from Carnegie Hall Monday morning, sitting on the table in front of us were copies of the latest issue of Newsweek. From the front cover the face of her husband stared back at us, as did the cover lines reminding everyone, once again, that he is a Mormon.
Does the constant Mormon talk annoy this convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? “No,” she says. “For me, I’ve been there. I was curious too. Mitt was the first Mormon I ever met.” She continues though, “But, at a certain point, get over it.”
When it comes to the course that this campaign has followed, Mrs. Romney claims it’s a bit like watching the mirror image of what happened in Massachusetts when her husband ran for governor. First, he was the Mormon, running against a Catholic in a majority-Catholic Massachusetts. “Once you peel the onion” and move onto the next thing you know about him — “he saved the Olympic Games,” and then you learn “he started Bain Capital and has been successful in business.” Then folks learn “he has a great family, and the fact that he is Mormon goes down in the pecking order of things they know about him.” And when they realize the religion inspires it all and gives him integrity, “Mitt being Mormon winds up being a positive.”
Ann Romney assures me that she does not have a “perfect” but a “totally normal family,” with all the same challenges that everyone else has — not the least of which has been her battle with MS. Can they all take the criticism as they hit the campaign trail, on and offline? “We howl laughing,” she says of the criticisms. “Some of them are very funny.”
Don’t laugh, though, at the recipe section of annRomney.com. Does Ann Romney, millionaire, really cook? Recipes on index cards? Actually, a whole cookbook she’s made for her daughters-in-law, she says. She proclaims, “This is a little known fact: For about a year, I ran my own cooking school.” A French cooking school, no less.
Of course, with a household of boys, there was little interest in such froufrou. The sons wanted spaghetti. The husband’s favorite? Meatloaf.
Surely, I ask, the French connections — the future governor spent his mission year in Paris, she took French in school and cooked French — shows a prescience. Surely it was more than having a boyfriend in France. Given the opportunity, Mrs. Romney doesn’t fake it though. “Yes, it was about as strategic as saving the Olympics in Utah to run for governor of Massachusetts — a little bit of a stretch.”
Before we part she makes sure I’m going to read her new online venture, because it’s this message Romney wants to impart on MS sufferers as well as those not afflicted with the disease. Her “MS story” echoes a speech I’ve heard her give: “Everybody’s got problems of one kind or another. I think of them as bags of rocks slung over our shoulders weighing us down, and we all have a bag — even if we can’t necessarily see others’ bags and their strain isn’t apparent. I’m still living with the disease I labored to come to terms with on that day, for example, but you can’t tell it by looking.”
It is a message she hopes will rock people into reality.
–Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.