Searching for the real Romney

Boston Globe reporters Scott Helman and Michael Kranish have written countless articles about Mitt Romney over the past decade — ranging from his time with Bain Capital and tenure as governor of Massachusetts to his bid for the White House. Yet there is still much to be said about a man whose face most Americans could pick out of a crowd, while so few can say they know “The Real Romney.”

Scott Helman spoke with The Hill about what drove him and his co-author to compile a comprehensive biography of the presidential candidate, and shed some light on the inner workings of a complex man.

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Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the life of Mitt Romney? 

We’ve covered him in some capacity for 20 years, so we have a wealth of stories and interview materials, published and unpublished, to draw on. So the idea was to take all that material and assemble it into a biography of a guy who may well be president but that people don’t really know very well or don’t feel like they know very well. Somebody whose name, of course, a lot of people know and I think he has something of an enigmatic presence in many ways, so we set out to try and tell the full story, and we feel like we were the only ones in the position to do it.

Q: What surprised you the most about Romney’s life while you were doing research for the book?

There was a lot that we were surprised by despite how well we had known him. I found it really interesting how charitable he has been, and not just in money but in time. There were many, many stories about friends and people within his church that he had helped — in sometimes small ways but sometimes pretty big ways, and I think that reflects pretty well on him and his family.

Q: What is the biggest thing you think people will take away from the book that they didn’t know before?

We go to great lengths in the book to talk about the history of Mormonism and how his family was very involved in that; the incredible tales of his ancestors being kicked out of city after city in the 19th century and then eventually being forced out of the country. They were still holding on to polygamy at the time, and then the way that led to his father being born in a Mormon colony in Mexico and moving here when he was 5 years old and then rising to become this successful businessman and governor. I think that stuff is really fascinating. If you only know the surface or if you’re only seeing a 30-second sound bite — then obviously the point was to show everybody the full story.

Q: I know you spoke to Romney’s sons for the book, but what kind of access did you have to him and the rest of his family?

The short answer is they did not cooperate specifically for the book. They declined our many requests to talk to Mitt, and the family decided they didn’t want to talk. But again, since we have written so much about them and we did this big series on him four years ago — for which the family did talk and we did get time with Mitt — we were able to draw on that material, including a lot of the stuff that we didn’t publish before, to be able to add their perspectives to the book, even though specifically for the book they didn’t talk.

Q: You noted in the book that while in school Romney was a bit of a prankster. Was this just an adolescent phase or is he hiding his more human side?

Many people will tell you that he really is — if you get to know him well and he’s comfortable around you, that’s how he is. Some people assume that the “golly-gee-whiz” stuff is a put-on, but I actually think that’s who he is. I think his kids and friends will tell you that many of the jokes he tells will fall flat, and the kids will sort of roll their eyes and stuff like that. So I do think that’s in his nature; Ann Romney has a funny quote in an ad they shot for the governor’s race in 2002 where she says something like, “We’ve tried to civilize the boys, but with Mitt around that’s been very difficult,” you know. A lot of the pranks seem like they’re out of some 1950s sitcom, but I think that is who he is. And in terms of who he is politically, I think he’s had difficulty communicating that personal, warm side of himself to the voting public.

Q: Why do you think he has such a hard time showing his human side to a national audience?

I think part of it is he is big on control, he is big on discipline and he wants to be able to control the message very tightly. He saw where his dad got into trouble for being too blunt-spoken and shooting from the hip, and I think he really took away from that that you have to be very careful what you say. So I think part of it is just a fear of loss of control, and part of it is that Mormonism is such a part of who he is, and who he has been, and informs so much of his life, and yet he is afraid to talk about that because Mormonism is controversial, especially in the Republican primary. So I think he has kind of walled that off from view in many ways, and when you cut off such a big part of yourself, that naturally is going to lead people to question, “Who are you? What makes you tick?”

Q: So you think there actually are two different Mitt Romneys? A public Mitt Romney and a private Mitt Romney?

I think you will hear from many of the people that are close to him, they kind of marvel sometimes at the Mitt Romney they see on TV because he’s so different than the one that they know — and I think that’s true to some extent of every politician — but there seems to be a big disconnect between how he is perceived and how he acts among people he’s comfortable with and how he acts in a broader sense. And again, he’s not the first person to do that, but I do think there is a pretty stark difference. You compare him to someone like Bill Clinton, and I don’t know Bill Clinton personally, but I get the impression that he is probably pretty similar in person as he is in public. And it’s served him well; politically it’s served him well. It’s sort of Politics 101 in a lot of ways, and I think Mitt’s still learning that stuff — some of it, anyway.