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Mitt, We Hardly Knew Ye!

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Ben Baker/Redux
Mitt Romney at his house on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, May 2007

We’re feeling vulnerable and surly these days in western Massachusetts, as the leaves turn yellow, the Red Sox fade, and winter looms. Our corridor of New England along the Connecticut River endured, during the summer months, a ruinous tornado in Springfield, an earthquake, of all things, and Hurricane Irene, which knocked out roads and historic covered bridges in our hill towns and across neighboring Vermont, and left a lot of people homeless and adrift. It’s our Katrina moment, we sometimes think, with slightly grandiose self-pity, as Republicans in Congress demand budget cuts if FEMA is to pay for disaster relief in the blue states.

We don’t see much of Mitt Romney, our governor from 2003 to 2007, in these troubled times. Then again, we never did. Our most indelible memories are of Mitt leaving—“the sight of Mitt’s back,” as a friend of mine put it, as he went off to lay the groundwork for yet another campaign. Mitt ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, lost, and left the state to salvage the Salt Lake City Olympics. When he returned to run for governor in 2002, he had to go to court to prove that he sort of lived in Belmont, outside Boston. Then, after a couple of years in the state house, he left again to campaign for the presidency, spending two thirds of his time out of state in 2006. Mitt has sold his house in Belmont and now lives in the important primary state of New Hampshire (at his estate on Lake Winnipesaukee) or San Diego or maybe Utah—anywhere but Massachusetts.

In the Republican debates, Mitt pretends that his ties to Massachusetts are tenuous. When Rick Perry tries to Pin the Dukakis on Romney (“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt”), Romney lamely claims that George W. Bush created more jobs in Texas than Perry. Although Mitt never talks about his own years at Harvard (after graduating from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he took joint degrees from the Harvard Law School and the Business School), he accuses Obama of hanging out in the “Harvard faculty lounge.” Mitt’s greatest achievement as governor, the Massachusetts health care system (which passed with Ted Kennedy’s support and two dissenting votes in the state legislature), is now his greatest liability among Republicans, who see it as a stalking horse for “Obamacare.” Mitt now claims it was right for our quirky state but not for the nation. He has yet to explain why.

When Mitt trumpets his experience in American business, he rarely mentions that Bain & Company, the consulting and investment conglomerate in which he amassed his $200 million fortune, is a Boston firm. I was attending graduate school in the Boston area in 1977 when most of the smart graduates from Harvard Business School, including Mitt, seemed to be entering the hot new field of consulting. It wasn’t always clear what such firms did; the mystery was part of their allure. Bain was particularly cultish; according to Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, it was known as “the KGB of management consulting.” Mitt became adept at the Bain specialty of leveraged buyouts, in which large sums are borrowed to acquire a company whose assets are used as collateral. Subsequent “restructuring”—often including layoffs, as Ted Kennedy pointed out in 1994—is intended to make the company more profitable.

When I ask locals about their impressions of Mitt, I get a recurring response: Nixonian. “The overriding passion of his life seems to be to become president,” a conservative economics professor tells me. “I can’t think of a single issue over which Romney would risk reelection in order to stick to a principle.” A University of Massachusetts journalism professor puts it more positively: “He can be as cagey as Nixon, and he can be almost as smarmy, but he is also able to think strategically.”

It’s a point of pride in the college towns of Amherst and Northampton and South Hadley not to watch, or at least admit you watch, the Republican debates, which are nonetheless characterized as “scary.” Concern is voiced at local dinner parties that Mitt is a Mormon, though it quickly becomes clear, amid loose talk of magic underwear and scriptures in “reformed Egyptian,” that few of us really know much about Mormonism. One friend whispers darkly that “a disproportionately large share of the faculty of the Harvard Business School is Mormon.” A quick Google check reveals that the longtime dean, Kim Clark, is indeed a Mormon, but what number would be disproportionately large?

There’s also mild embarrassment at what might seem religious bigotry among us, a point reinforced by Mitt himself in his careful “Faith in America” speech from 2007, when he pointed out that fifty years ago “another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president.” I myself grew up in a sect (the same one that Nixon belonged to) as peculiar in its tenets as the Mormons, and with a longer history of persecution, though few people since Benjamin Franklin have feared that a cabal of Quakers is running the country.

Mitt’s favorite movie is said to be the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mitt, who majored in English at BYU, may imagine some connection between the picaresque hero of this Odyssey-inspired romp through the American South, a charming escape artist played by George Clooney, and his own shape-shifting career. When contemplating yet another change of direction with his aides, according to Ashley Parker in The New York Times, Mitt likes to quote Clooney’s line “We’re in a tight spot.”

On television, Mitt looks like someone hired to play the president in a movie that couldn’t afford Clooney. At the recent debate in Orlando, he joined a lineup of eight other candidates, all of whom seemed to be conspiring to make Mitt look and sound presidential. Pizza executive Herman (“9-9-9”) Cain was the favorite choice for vice-president, the appealing black man who proves that Republicans aren’t racists for going after Obama, whom Rick Santorum compared to George III. Perry suggested that he might take Cain and “mate him up” with Newt Gingrich for the perfect running mate. This proved an irresistible opening for Mitt to risk a joke: “There are a couple of images I’m going to have a hard time getting out of my mind.” He didn’t specify exactly what (the coupling or the offspring) made the image so disturbing.

The debate was billed as a bout between two heavyweights “com[ing] out swinging,” as the Times put it. Perry, the temporary front-runner everywhere but in New Hampshire, attacked Romney, yet again, for the health care system in Massachusetts and for flip-flopping on issues like abortion. Romney twice replied, as though wielding an exquisite rejoinder, “Nice try.” Social Security, which both men seem to have trouble pronouncing, came up again, with the usual assumption that it’s in disastrous shape and on the verge of collapse. Paul Krugman has pointed out repeatedly that there are actually sufficient funds for many years to come, and that any eventual shortfall has more to do with ill-conceived tax cuts than some deep-seated flaw. “Social Security is a government program that works,” Krugman concludes, “a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people’s lives better and more secure. And that’s why the right wants to destroy it.”

Romney and Perry agree that it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme, as Perry has said and as Romney points out in his campaign book No Apology. “The American people have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security,” Romney writes, with “money collected from payroll taxes…used to pay the benefits of current beneficiaries.” The only thing Romney and Perry might disagree about is how best to keep the “seniors” from learning the allegedly bad news about Social Security funding and being “scared.” “It is important,” Romney concludes, “to conduct the entitlement discussion without scaring our senior citizens.” Everyone knows why it is important. Seniors vote, especially in Florida.

Mitt had many opportunities in Orlando to portray himself as more compassionate than the other, thuggish- seeming candidates in the race. He remained silent, however, while Santorum told a gay American soldier serving in Iraq, “Any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.” Although in 1994 Romney portrayed himself as a more reliable champion of gay rights than Ted Kennedy, he’s long been distancing himself from gay issues. He was governor when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, but he was already backpedaling on his moderate views of the 1990s. He did what he could to limit the reach of the ruling, invoking a 1913 antimiscegenation law to prevent out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts.

At the previous debate, Perry had elicited cheers for having authorized the execution of more than two hundred Texans. This time it was Perry who, like the Tin Woodman, had suddenly acquired a heart, for allowing children of illegal aliens to attend public schools in Texas. Romney feigned incredulity that such children—themselves innocent of crime—are allowed to attend public universities in Texas at in-state tuition rates. Mitt might have remembered that his own father, George, was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico during a period when many Mormons, after the federal crackdown on polygamy, sought refuge there.

Is Romney more moderate on educational policy than the other candidates? It’s hard to say. Everyone at the Orlando debate ritually bashed the Department of Education. Romney was accused, again by Perry, of supporting Obama’s Race to the Top, a program announced in July 2009 that gives awards to states whose students improve their test scores. Romney, who had praised Race to the Top the day before in Miami, claimed that he had no idea what program Perry was referring to, but conceded that he didn’t mind some of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s views about how to improve schools through better teaching.

In general, Romney’s views of education, despite the obligatory kowtowing to local and parental control of school systems (meaning, presumably, more school prayer and less evolution), concentrate on the choice of teachers. While Mitt was governor, Bain did a study of Boston education. “Classroom size, school-building quality, community income levels, access to computers, and the ethnicity of the students—all these factors paled in comparison with the individual capabilities of the teacher,” Mitt writes in No Apology. This view has been directly challenged in these pages and elsewhere by Diane Ravitch, who observed that “every testing program shows a tight correlation between family income and test scores.”*

Romney remembers his own tenth-grade English teacher, Mr. Wonnberger, at the elite and private Cranbrook School in an upscale Detroit suburb, with particular fondness. “He tore our papers apart paragraph by paragraph and line by line with critiques that sharpened our skills without crushing our confidence.” It’s fun to imagine Mr. Wonnberger scrutinizing the transcript of the dispiriting Orlando performance, as the Republicans wrestled with the difficulty of landing a verbal punch. Flustered Santorum could barely get the words out as he envisioned a sex-free military: “We would move forward in—in conformity with what was happening in the past, which was, sex is not an issue. It is—it should not be an issue. Leave it alone, keep it—keep it to yourself.”

Perry showed even more ingenuity in mangling the English language. He was trying again to remind everyone that Romney is from Massachusetts, this time by aligning him with John Kerry as a “flip-flopper.” Of course, anyone who is aware of his record in Massachusetts knows Romney is a flip-flopper. As Steve Kornacki wrote in Salon, Romney has “changed his tune on abortion multiple times”—always in a way that suited his political needs. Supporting abortion rights in a debate with Ted Kennedy in 1994, he told the story of a relative who died from an illegal abortion, and said, “You will not see me wavering on this.” By 2005, as governor, he had switched, vetoing a contraception bill and saying he was pro-life.

The only hope for Democrats contemplating a possible Romney presidency is for more flip-flopping, not less, as when, having been elected governor, he tried to close corporate tax loopholes in Massachusetts, only to be reprimanded by the powerful antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist. Perry’s accusation against Romney on the abortion issue—so little time to memorize, so little time to speak before his time was up—came out something like this: “Was it—was before—he was before the social programs from the standpoint of—he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first—Roe v. Wade?”

In No Apology, Romney calls for “a national rededication to the practice of writing.” It is refreshing to have a presidential candidate point out that Idylls of the King, which Romney’s mother read aloud to him as a child, is in “iambic pentameter blank verse,” though Mr. Wonnberger might have added that blank verse is always in iambic pentameter.

What Mitt calls for, specifically, is “An American Education.” Like the other Republican candidates, he has an aversion to Europe (and a professed love for Israel, a fervent cause for evangelicals, who worry about his Mormonism). Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe and from the socialist democrats in Europe,” he said in Orlando. Romney spent two years in France during the late 1960s, peddling Mormonism door to door, as is expected of young members of the church, while disapproving of the student uprisings in May 1968. Not only is Europe bankrupt financially, Romney likes to argue, it’s bankrupt spiritually. “I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe,” he said in his faith speech. “They are so inspired, so grand, so empty.” In a debate devoted to the economy held at Dartmouth on October 11, Mitt dismissed as “hypothetical” a question about what he’d do if the European financial contagion spread to the US, implying that no one should expect a bailout from a tough businessman like him. Religion didn’t come up at Dartmouth (except for Michele Bachmann’s joke about turning 9-9-9 upside down), and Mitt was free to portray himself as a “job- creator” who knows how to turn a country around.

One often hears that Mitt could be the first “CEO president.” But a CEO of what, exactly? Mitt, whose first big success at Bain was investing in the Staples office supply store—“We started Staples,” he told the Dartmouth audience—likes to draw an analogy between running a country and running a big-box store. Romney loves big-box stores, especially low-end ones that make him seem an ordinary guy. No Apology opens with a comparison of Walmart and Target. “It was a few days before the Christmas of 2008. I was standing in the checkout line at a Walmart, waiting to purchase the Tonka trucks and Buzz Lightyear action figures I had selected for my grandsons.” Sounding the Emersonian theme of how institutions reflect their founders, he notes approvingly how the store, with its “helter-skelter” and “entertaining” organization, reflects the mind of Sam Walton and his “near maniacal passion about low prices.” And for keeping out unions, he might have added.

Gradually, Mitt weaves his way from Sam Walton to Jefferson and John Adams, who are also said to exemplify the “spirit of invention, creativity, derring-do.” But not all big-box stores are created equal. Some are tonier and, well, maybe even a little un-American. “At Target, for example, aisles are wider and shelves are stocked and segregated like the Swiss might have done it.”

The Swiss! He’ll resist their influence, we can be sure.

—October 13, 2011

  1. *

    School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade,” The New York Review, September 29, 2011. 

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