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Review: 'The Real Romney' by Michael Kranish, Scott Helman a comprehensive look at an elusive man

When The Real Romney was published in January, it was just one of a shelf's worth of new books by or about contenders in the Republican presidential primaries, including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee, this thoroughly researched, clearly written and balanced biography provides a thoughtful look at the candidate — and at some of the paradoxes of his political career. It's a book with something to offer for Romney supporters and opponents, and for those who haven't made up their minds.

Authors Michael Kranish and Scott Helman are longtime political reporters and editors for the Boston Globe, for which they covered Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. To cover Romney's entire life in this biography, they put in five years of reporting, including hundreds of interviews with people who have known him.

The result is a detail-packed look at the life of a successful businessman, religious leader, family man and politician: more than 300 pages of commentary on and stories about Romney, both positive and negative — although it still doesn't quite get at what its title promises.

The book covers Romney's life in chronological order: his childhood, prep school and college, missionary work in France, marriage, law school and business school at Harvard, success as a venture capitalist practicing what he called "creative destruction," leadership as a Mormon bishop, Massachusetts political career, management of the 2002 Olympics and first presidential campaign in 2008. One theme that resonates is the strongest influences on him: his religion, his father and his wife.

The Mormon religion brought Romney's Welsh great-great-grandparents to the United States in 1841, and subsequent generations became pillars of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His great-grandfather, Miles P. Romney, who had five wives and 30 children, helped found a Mormon colony in Mexico in 1885, when the United States was putting pressure on the religion for its practice of polygamy (which the church repudiated in 1890). Romney's father, George, was born there, at Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, in 1907. The family moved back across the border when George was 5, and he grew up to be a classic self-made success.

Willard Mitt Romney, born in Detroit in 1947, was George and Lenore Romney's fourth child, a "miracle baby" after doctors told her she shouldn't try to have another. He was especially close to his father and admired him greatly, and their lives have many parallels: George was a devoted husband and father; he was a business whiz who rescued American Motors (although he liked to point out that Mitt "made a lot more money than I ever did"); he was a leader in the church; he was governor of Michigan; he ran for president. (A measure of how little bitter partisan divide there was in George Romney's day: When his desire to be a public servant led him to run for governor in 1962, he asked his family whether they thought he should run as a Democrat or a Republican.)

George Romney's campaign for the 1968 presidential nomination, though, was undone by something that would affect his son's political career as well: changing his mind. At first a supporter of the Vietnam War, he told an interviewer in 1967 that he had been "brainwashed" by U.S. generals. Richard Nixon crushed him in the first primary; he never ran for office again.

Changing one's mind can be a great strength in business, as the fascinating chapters of The Real Romney that deal with Mitt Romney's phenomenally lucrative business career make clear. (Some estimates put his assets as high as $1 billion.) In the high-stakes game of leveraged buyouts and corporate raiding that Romney made his fortune from, adapting to changing conditions was essential.

But what might seem admirable flexibility in finance can become fatal flip-flopping in politics. In his Massachusetts political campaigns — he lost his attempt to oust Edward Kennedy from his Senate seat in 1994 but won the governorship in 2002 — Romney ran as a moderate, embracing abortion rights and gay rights. Those views helped get him elected then but now garner severe criticism from social conservatives, despite his reversals of opinion.

And, of course, his signature achievement, the Massachusetts universal health care plan and its individual mandate — in 2005 he called it "the ultimate conservative idea . . . don't look to government to take care of them if they can afford to take care of themselves" — is now his albatross in his own party.

When Romney's formal portrait as governor was painted, he insisted two things be in the picture: a copy of the health care law and a photo of his wife, Ann. The Real Romney depicts their relationship as central to his life. High school sweethearts, they were separated for 2 1/2 years when he was sent on his mission to France. While he was gone, she converted to Mormonism, but Mitt was still so worried another man might win her that, when he returned, he proposed to her in the car on the way back from the airport.

A stay-at-home mom to their five sons (now grown), Ann is depicted as having an active voice in her husband's various careers; she was the one who persuaded him to run for office the first time. He described the day she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as the worst day of his life.

Theirs is, by all accounts, a close, stable and mutually supportive marriage that has produced successful adult children. For any other politician, that family values portrait would be golden, but like so many parts of Romney's life, it's tinged by the fact that, for many voters, the religion he has been so active in is an enigma or worse. The book recounts Romney ringing in, during a debate with Kennedy in 1994, the words of Kennedy's brother John on his Catholicism: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

The Real Romney gathers a variety of views of the man, some of them contradictory. Some stories underline his intense sense of entitlement, others his generosity to near-strangers. The book documents both his epic work ethic and his lack of interest in people outside his own circles, his current emphasis on job creation and the 1 percent net gain in jobs during his term as governor, his stiffly polished public persona and his boyish enthusiasm for his family.

Some stories show his sense of humor, like this crack about trying to convert the French to Mormonism (which forbids alcohol): "As you can imagine, it's quite an experience to go to Bordeaux and say, 'Give up your wine! I have a great religion for you!' " Others reveal a temper or a willingness to intimidate, like the story told by a Mormon woman who was pregnant out of wedlock in 1983 and says Romney, in his capacity as a Mormon bishop, threatened to excommunicate her if she didn't give the baby up for adoption.

And many people, even some of his longtime business and political associates, said they admire him but find it impossible to get close to him, to know what makes him tick. He is unquestionably a man who guards his privacy — and yet has put himself, more than once, under the most intense spotlight imaginable.

The Real Romney doesn't take us deep inside, but it paints a full portrait of the public man.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Real Romney

By Michael Kranish and Scott Helman

Harper,

401 pages, $27.99

Review: 'The Real Romney' by Michael Kranish, Scott Helman a comprehensive look at an elusive man 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 5:30am]

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