Mighty Mitt Romney

Article excerpt

If a Mormon Republican chief executive could survive and even thrive in Massachusetts, who's to say he can't become President?

Boston

DURING LAST YEAR'S ST. PATRICK'S DAY BREAKFAST in South Boston, Democratic Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi abandoned the good-natured roasting typical of the event to acidly kid about the airline tickets he saw sticking out of Governor Willard Mitt Romney's pocket. "I don't want to keep you too long. You can leave any time you want," he said, to which the ever-unflappable Romney shot back, "I'll be here until you get funny." It was enough cool to make DiMasi lose his for a moment. "You being President of the United States... That's a joke," he sneered. A short time later, perhaps knowing somewhere deep down that he would still receive the biggest laugh of the breakfast, Romney chose to defuse rather than escalate the tension with his opening lines: "It's great to be here in Iowa this morning... Oops, wrong speech. Sorry about that."

Is DiMasi right? Is President Romney a joke? Now that Romney-who first burst onto the political scene with a kamikaze run at Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in 1994 before winning the governorship in 2002-has opted to become a one-term governor presumably in search of becoming a two-term president, the answer will surely become manifest in due time. As his short reign in Massachusetts enters its twilight hours and the chattering classes begin debating his charisma, photogenic properties, and electability-in other words, all the things that have little bearing on the kind of leader he would actually be-it seems as worthwhile a time as any to take a look at the highs and lows of his leadership here in this bluest of blue states even as he sets his sights on something higher.

"I have to admit I did not think I was going to be in politics," Romney said during a recent interview, leaning back into the couch of his State House office. Perhaps it was the setting or media conditioning, but sitting with the well-spoken, erudite governor it occurs to one that if presidential candidates could be manufactured like cars, The Romney-politically savvy, morally unchallenged (so far as we know now, but it's not as if Ted Kennedy doesn't have a good dirt-digging team), bank account flush with the fortune he made heading up the Bain Capital investment firm in the 1980s and '90s (helping catapult such national chains as Staples, Domino's, and The Sports Authority into the general consciousness), yet still able to pull the "Aw, shucks" routine off flawlessly-would likely be a popular model.

"My dream was to be the head of a big automobile company," he continued. "I hoped to be head of Ford or American Motors or General Motors, and that was what I thought my future would hold. When I moved to Massachusetts I got involved in the private sector. It was very exciting and I presumed I would always be in the private sector. Had I thought politics was in my future, I would not have chosen Massachusetts as the state of my residence. I would have stayed in Michigan where my Dad's name was golden."

MITT'S FATHER, OF COURSE, was George Romney, legendary head of the American Motor Corporation, a much-beloved three-term Michigan governor and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Nixon's first term. For a brief moment in 1967 he was also a presidential candidate; a moderate Republican candidate whom a 16-year-old Mitt had watched walk out of the Republican National Convention four years earlier to protest Barry Goldwater's promise to be "extreme" in his "defense of liberty." The national spotlight, however, did not befit George Romney, and an unfortunate slip of the tongue on the Lou Gordon show-he offhandedly claimed generals and diplomats in Vietnam had "brainwashed" him on a fact-finding mission-saw his aspirations immolated in a most unkind political firestorm. In The Making of the President 1968 Theodore White described the Michigan governor as "a missionary abandoned to the cannibals," while recording for posterity Ohio Governor James Rhodes's comment that Romney's campaign was somewhat akin to "watching a duck try to make love to a football. …