The Making of Willard "Mitt" Romney

Recently disgraced conservative tent-pole Dinesh D’Souza has devoted the last three years of his public life to establishing a sort of determinism in Barack Obama’s administration. Obama’s father, as D’Souza argues in print and film, has wielded incalculable influence on his son’s career as an anticolonial activist, community organizer, academic, and politician. In a Forbes article from 2010, D’Souza writes: “Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist… is now setting the nation’s agenda through the incarnation of his dreams in his son.”

Setting aside the hypocrisy of the mention of “philandering” from a man who resigned his college presidency for alleged sexual impropriety, D’Souza’s insight into the cause-effect relationship of one’s culture to one’s career is perhaps better applied to Mitt Romney. Romney and the Romneys, to a much greater extent than Obama and the Obamas, are the fruits of their culture: Mormonism, capitalism, and the confluence thereof.

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We begin near the end of this campaign. Amidst the largely perfunctory world of political endorsements, perhaps the only endorsement worth speaking of this year is the Salt Lake Tribune’s. On October 19, the largest newspaper in Utah disavowed the candidate who spent his formative university and Olympic years in the state, calling him “the Mitt Romney we knew, or thought we knew, as one of us.” The paper endorsed Obama and spurned the popular Mormon, widely expected to win the approval of Latter-Day Saints in most every circumstance. It was a surprise to almost everyone.

Neither the Salt Lake Tribune nor Willard Mitt Romney is reducible to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the making of Mitt Romney, if it is to be understood, must be understood theologically. Reading between the lines, the Tribune did not object to Romney’s Mormonism, but rather his failure in this campaign to be the Mormon he always had been.

Mitt is the son of many Saints. Two of his great-great-grandfathers joined the LDS movement within ten years of its founding; one of them, Miles Romney, emigrated from England to Illinois to live with the Mormons, and the other, Parley Pratt, was part of the original Quorum of the Twelve, a central component of LDS leadership. Pratt’s son Helaman helped found the Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico. In Mexico such a society could legally feature polygamy (a practice which was never legal in the US), though apparently, of Mitt’s ancestors, only Miles was a polygamist.

George Romney was born from a faithful marriage. His parents retained his American citizenship and, at five years of age, George and his family fled the growing unrest of the Mexican Revolution in 1912. He grew up humble, often dependent on government welfare, and always within the veil of the LDS church and its deeply integrated culture. Inside that churchly circle, George would live and move and give his being to four children, the youngest of whom is Mitt.

Mormons stick together in lean times. George depended on church and government aid to succeed, and succeed he did. He became a powerful lobbyist partly through the connections of his politically appointed, deeply Mormon father-in-law. He lobbied first for the aluminum and then the auto industry, leading to his inheritance of the American Motors Corporation when its president died suddenly.

A hard worker and innovative leader, George led AMC into unforeseen success and transitioned ably into politics. He was moderate in most every way, charismatic, deeply involved in the church, willing to cooperate, and sensible. As Republican governor of Michigan he partnered with unions and marched with the NAACP. He embodied everything that is good in Mormon life—temperance, hard work, sensitivity, service to neighbor, piety—and rejected elements of the church’s politics as misunderstandings of LDS theology. In 1964 a high church leader in Salt Lake City criticized George’s policy of integration writing that, “the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro.” George only increased his support for civil rights after that.

He ran for President in 1967-8 on a strongly moralistic platform, which included civil rights advocacy and ethical opposition to war in Vietnam. When he idly commented that he’d experienced “brainwashing” while on tour in Vietnam, his armor was breached and the Nixon campaign stamped him out. George was given the new Cabinet post of Housing and Urban Development as a concession to the liberals of the party.

Mitt was in France on mission during the campaign. Disappointed by his father’s defeat, Mitt steeled himself against a world of doors that could, after all, close as readily as they could open.

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Mitt Romney, 22 years old in 1969, had had opportunities to lead. Mormons are good about giving their children endless chances to speak a wise word in the congregation, lead a charitable project or edifying activity, and demonstrate their skills in scouting or debate or sports. Latter-day Saints are constitutionally proud of their families, sealed in temples for eternity to their spouses, dedicated in life to the idea that God is present when generations meet one another. They take their kids with them to the workplace and in their adult dealings; Mitt was a likeable adolescent in a TV spot for AMC and got to see his father’s administration of Michigan largely firsthand. Mormons are a family of families.

Mitt, like his father, was not a star in school. He was intelligent enough and charismatic enough, but no one accounted him destined for greatness in his youth. George and Mitt are not Andrew Jacksons, having risen to power out of spite to those who said they could not. They are Romneys, which means little else than that they are Mormons; their people have always said that they can do anything as long as they keep their eyes on God.

The difference between young George and young Mitt was how much they stood to lose. Romney the father fled a revolution and had no choice but to work. Romney the son returned from church work in France with the world at his feet. How would he leverage his considerable talent, considerable privilege, and yet more considerable spirit of Latter-day Sainthood?

He genuinely loved Ann Davies and they were wedded in Mormon fashion—which is to say, at a young age. Mitt enrolled at Brigham Young, redoubled his studies, graduated with highest honors, and matriculated at Harvard to study law (at his father’s insistence) and business (his passion).

Mitt began to show signs of true individual quality in Cambridge, fathering his first two sons and graduating cum laude in 1975. The bourgeoning financial and consulting firms that were beginning to exert the first bits of significant power over the American economic landscape aggressively recruited him. He took a job across the Charles with Boston Consulting Group and began learning the tricks of the trade.

The trade had tricks enough to learn. The financial sector of the seventies was busy laying the groundwork for Reaganomics: deregulation, ceasing discussion of “quality products” in favor of “upward cash flow dynamics,” erecting a financial-industrial-governmental complex to fast-track transactions at the pace new technologies were making possible. Mitt Romney applied his considerable talent to this brave new sector of the economy.

Like his father, who began his public life as a lobbyist for Alcoa, Mitt perceived the intimate relationships between law, government policy, financial firms, value-creating businesses, and the bottom line. He was as morally scrupulous as George in his personal life and business relationships—indeed, possessed of greater tact than his dad, if anything.

But the nature of his work was radically different. Mitt’s move to BCG spin-off Bain Capital in 1977 brought to fullness the nature of his work. He would painstakingly analyze data, shrewdly (yet earnestly) forge bonds of trust with others, stick to his guns, make the pitch on the merits of his homework and personal gravitas, and maximize the profits. He made a fortune.

Like his father, Mitt aspired to public service both as a realization of his ambition and his ever-present Mormon duty to the betterment of the chosen country, America, the land of revelation. He ran a respectable campaign against Ted Kennedy for Senate in 1994, in which his personal character was pitted against the progressive acumen of the otherwise damnably indiscreet incumbent. In the end Kennedy’s record in the Senate trumped his awful personal image, and Romney’s personal character could not overcome the albatross of his two decades in the financial sector that typified eighties excess and hypocrisy. He was downtrodden at the loss.

Mitt’s move to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 1999 was a return of many kinds. It was a return to Utah, the seat of Mormon life; a return to a meaningful project that needed decisive leadership; and a return to a project that excited him. He relished the chance to rescue the games and, in light of the problems his private capital career presented against Kennedy, clearly saw its success as his springboard into politics. He poured himself into the project, and, as is typical of his work, used a combination of personal verve, technical prowess, and hard work to guide the Games to success. The Salt Lake Tribune praised him endlessly.

Upon his return to Boston in 2002 Mitt immediately began campaigning for the governorship. He took advantage of incumbent Jane Swift’s vulnerability and forced her off the Republican ticket. He won a fairly close race against Shannon O’Brien, partly from his record personal contribution of $6 million to his own campaign. He ran and governed as a moderate, attempting détente with the Democratic supermajority at every turn.

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Mitt Romney’s career since his departure from Boston has been the story of national attention in his twin bids for the White House and the correlate rightward march he has performed. This dynamic, fairly plain to see, is less an evacuation of his backbone and more a pragmatic, carefully considered reaction to the larger movements in which Mitt has found himself.

For after all, Mitt Romney is a man after his father—dyed in the wool as a Mormon, called to the vocation of capitalism, and forced to compromise when the integrity and community of the former collides with the vacuity and soullessness of the latter. In George’s time, American industry could accommodate the familial ideals and moral rigor of the LDS faith. It seems less possible that American capital of our time will allow Mitt the same luxury—though luxuries of other kinds are his.

Mitt Romney has demonstrated his backbone. In unity with his father’s rebuke of the Mormon party line vis-à-vis persons of color, Mitt had the sense to transgress LDS doctrine on abortion and queer rights when he governed here in Massachusetts. The rightward march of the Republican Party may constitute a proper tragedy for George Romney and the Salt Lake Tribune; for those of us outside the circle of Saints, it must remain a machine for producing irony. There is irony in the fact that Mitt Romney refused, until he reached the point of great political risk, to release his damningly bourgeois tax returns. George Romney instigated the practice of making financial records public in a campaign—and he did so voluntarily, out of pride in his charitable (largely religious) giving, out of a sense of duty to his constituents and to his God to whom he rendered an account. There is a crueler irony in the fact that the Republican Party of Mitt Romney made a mockery of public discourse when it questioned Obama’s birth records in 2010 and 2011. George Romney was the subject of the first such constitutional speculation, having been born in Mexico, and his credentials were uncritically touted by the right.

Finally, there is the irony that Dinesh D’Souza can claim Barack Obama’s governance is the epiphenomenal puppetry of a dead socialist from Africa. Obama’s story must be Obama’s. Mitt Romney’s story must be the story of the Mormon faithful, sojourners in a world tinged by estrangement from God. The Latter-day Saints may yet reconcile the world to Heavenly Father, if they can untangle the knots of capital and business and politics that are woven into their golden tapestry. Mitt Romney will be worthy of wide praise when he finds his father’s way to do so.

-Samuel Needham

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