Romney’s life characterized by little-told stories of generosity
By Mara Gay, Dan Hirschhorn and M.L. Nestel Sunday, May 13, 2012
One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas.
Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man’s surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition — loans he forgave when she graduated.
And in 1997, when a fellow church member’s teenage son fell seriously ill, Romney sprinted to the hospital in the dead of night, where he kept vigil with his terrified parents.
Stories like these — tales of long hours spent with grieving families, financial assistance to those in need and timely help given to strangers whether asked for or not — abound in the adult life of the Republican presidential candidate. Many of them, though not all, are connected to his work as a Mormon bishop.
And yet these stories are largely absent on the campaign trail.
Some supporters believe he isn’t touting them because it’s impossible to separate the good works he’s done from a Mormon faith that demands them — a faith that has by all accounts been a defining influence in his life, yet which the campaign has been determined to keep out of the political conversation.
But taken together, the stories point to a central contradiction between Romney the candidate and Romney the person. In short, a man weighed down by the image of a heartless corporate raider who can’t relate to people actually has a history of doing remarkably kind things for those in need.
Many people close to Romney find the contradiction maddening.
“The people that know him — the picture the media paints is not the Mitt that I know,” Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, told The Daily. “And I wish I could do something about it. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that.”
Democrats would scoff that whatever good Romney has done in his personal life doesn’t mean his policies would be any less destructive for those same struggling people.
“No one is questioning whether or not Mitt Romney has a nice family or has lived a life of success in which he’s tried to give something back,” said Jen Psaki, a Democratic strategist and former communications staffer in the Obama White House. “But that doesn’t matter to people who are still struggling, families that are trying to pay for college, people trying to pay for health insurance, middle class families who are trying to make ends meet. [Romney] hasn’t shown a plan to help them. That’s what voters are looking for, and he leaves a lot to be desired on that front.”
But as his campaign tries to humanize the often-stiff candidate, who was forced to apologize last week for bullying a prep school classmate, friends and supporters see an opportunity in these stories and others like them. Some are being reported for the first time here; others have slowly emerged in reports over the years. Even some Romney insiders are unfamiliar with the tales, underscoring the extent to which Romney himself has kept them out of his political narrative.
“I do think they should [tell these stories] because it rounds out who he is,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist who’s not affiliated with the campaign. “It also shows people that here’s a guy who lives his personal values — he’s not just a politician. The fact that they never made a big deal out of this stuff says something itself.”
Many can’t escape the nagging feeling that it’s a fear of highlighting his Mormonism that keeps these tales out of the political bloodstream.
“I wish Mitt could find a way to just tell the story of his life,” said Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon academic at Columbia University who has known Romney for years. “He’s a Mormon through and through. We all know that. And he’s lived the Mormon way his whole life.”
Top Romney strategists would not comment for this article, nor would the campaign make Romney available for an interview. But a well-placed source familiar with their thinking said a reluctance of bringing up his religion does indeed factor into why these stories aren’t often told. Also, the source said, the campaign prefers not to engage in an argument over likability against a personally popular president at the expense of fostering Romney’s image as a fix-it man for the economy.
Good works are a fundamental part of membership in the Mormon church. “If a Latter-Day Saint isn’t doing a whole lot of service, especially for other members of the church but also beyond, they’re not being a Latter-Day Saint. That’s just what we do,” says Robert Millet, dean emeritus of religious education at Brigham Young University.
It is also a matter of salvation, Millet said. “There’s a passage in the book of Mormon that’s particularly important. ‘When you are in the service of your fellow beings you are only in the service of God.’ That’s an important idea for Mormons,” he said. “We can’t really serve God directly. We can only serve God by helping his children.”
Talking about those teachings publicly, however, could be risky for Romney, who is the presumptive nominee of a Republican Party with an evangelical base that is often suspicious of or even hostile toward Mormonism — a tension many supporters were feeling ahead of the candidate’s speech over the weekend at evangelical Liberty University, where the Latter-Day Saints church has been openly regarded as a “cult.” There’s also the fact that some of these good deeds are made possible by a vast personal fortune Romney has often worn uncomfortably on the campaign trail.
Either way, there’s no escaping the fact that Romney’s many kind acts — some of which were first reported in the recent book “The Real Romney” — are sharply at odds with his persona on the campaign trail.
Take the story of Ellen Hummel, whose father died of a heart attack when she was 5. Ellen turned to the Romneys to learn more about her dad, a close family friend who worked with him at Boston Consulting Group and later, the private equity firm Bain Capital. Later, she also asked Romney for a loan to help her pay tuition at Columbia Medical School.
“I went to him asking him for help and he freely gave it,” said Dr. Ellen K. Hummel, today a general practitioner at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Just before graduation, she received a note from Romney, forgiving the loan. “It was a Christmas letter,” she said. “It was something caring and it was something saying ‘This is a gift.’ ”
Then there’s Kim Clark, the president of Brigham Young University-Idaho. When an adverse reaction to medication landed his 16-year-old son Michael in the hospital in 1997, Clark turned to Romney.
“I called Mitt because I wanted to give Michael a blessing,” Clark told The Daily. “Whenever in our family we had situations arise we always called Mitt because we knew he would always come.” Even after it was clear the teenager would recover, Romney remained at the hospital with the family through the night.
One story surrounded by considerable lore and unknown to most advisers — Romney seems to only have alluded to it once publicly, in 2007 — concerns a cold December Sunday in the 1980s. Romney got a phone call from a Mormon bishop in Utah who said the adult daughter of one of his members — a single mother who did not belong to the church — needed help. The woman’s heating oil had been turned off in the dead of winter.
Enlisting his young sons to help, Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and drove the car from the family’s generous house in the leafy Boston suburb of Belmont to the woman’s home in the hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood downtown.
“I remember well loading it all up,” Tagg Romney recalled. “And we drove it to her house and made a fire for her and dropped off quite a bit of firewood so [the family] would be able to keep warm.”
The Daily was unable to locate the woman, but people familiar with the story described it in similar terms.
Stories like these are legion. Romney gathering neighbors in a quick effort to clear out a burning house until firefighters arrived on the scene. Showing up unsolicited to clear a hornet’s nest near an injured church member’s house. Organizing a New York City search for a business partner’s missing daughter — a story actually told by Romney’s campaign in a 2008 ad reprised by a super PAC supporting him this year.
Religion aside, any politician who talks up his good deeds runs a risk of appearing a bit too fond of himself. But with Romney unable to shake off his buttoned-up, corporate image, some think talking about his personal experiences is crucial.
“People need to get to know a man who’s a potential president of the United States,” said Wilson, the GOP strategist. “The more you fill in the blanks the better for Romney. It mitigates the plutocrat attacks.”
An attempt to redefine the candidate may take more urgency after it emerged last week that as a high school senior, Romney directed his classmates to hold down and cut the hair of a classmate presumed to be gay.
But for now, those closest to him don’t expect a wellspring of stories of kindness to emerge from the candidate, even if that means the narrative of a wooden candidate whose gaffes about Cadillacs and firing people endures.
“He just thinks that’s the right way to go about it,” Tagg Romney said of his father’s silence on this front. “I don’t think he’s going to change.“
Mark DeMoss, an adviser who has worked to sell the candidate to evangelicals and religious conservatives, said Romney shouldn’t start telling these stories if he couldn’t do so comfortably anyway.
“I don’t think he should,” DeMoss said. “Because if by talking more about it he was doing something that he wasn’t comfortable doing, then it wouldn’t be him.”