The Real Romney, A Questionable Political Drama

Boston Globe Insider Series At The Boston Athenaeum

By: - Mar 06, 2012

The Real Romney

By Scott Helman and Michael Kranish

If politics is the art of the possible and its making as Irish writer and statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien argued a drama, what better place to rehearse the many roles of the current Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney than arguably the historical political stage of American politics, Boston?

What better time than the eve of Republican Super Tuesday? What better actors and chorus than Governor Romney’s former Lt. Governor Kerry Healy and his hovering scribes, Boston Globe reporters and commentators? And what better place than the historic and scholarly space of the Boston Athenaeum’s great hall — only a few minutes’ walk from former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s State House office?

Hosted by The Globe’s Insider Series, billed as an urbane and informed search interrogation and anchored by the lauded co-author of The Real Romney, a satisfying performance played for the predictably sold out event. A lively panel of four bookended between Washington’s bust and John Adams’ oil portrait traded wit, wisdom, insider dope, differing versions of history, and (often) sharp judgments. Herein were echoes of Edwin O’Connor’s memorable account of The Last Hurrah’s “old politics” in the wings even as iPhones recorded and iPads clicked amongst the middle aged and older audience.

If his South Side Chicago community organizing experience was President Obama’s turning point, asked Globe editorial page director Peter Canellos of Scott Helman, “What was Mitt Romney’s?”

“An earlier, younger moment than either George Bush or Obama's,” said Scott Helman. “His two and one half years in France as a Mormon missionary were eye opening. Prior to that time," Helman said, "Romney had been connected to his faith by a thin tissue. As an evangelist in a very Catholic country not predisposed to his message, Romney was changed."

“From that time,” Helman said, “he determined to live a life of purpose.”

Without pause, the Globe’s long time State House bureau chief Frank Phillips was asked to weigh in on the “evolution” of Romney’s political skills.  Warming to the question and sans jacket or tie, Phillips characterized Romney’s skills as more a-political and managerial than Boston’s traditional hands-on working the crowd approach.

One got the sense that in his time in Massachusetts and especially the State House, Romney wanted to “avoid State House dust” and “remain above the fray,” Phillips said. "He wanted to appear competent and a pragmatist," Phillips said, "but always with an eye to the future, which apparently did not include wading into the every day give-and-take of state and local politics."

What Phillips and Scot Lehigh, The Globe OpEd columnist saw as more of the tin man liability, Romney’s former colleague and current promoter Kerry Healy regarded as a decided advantage.

“His skills are those of an economist, as governor he understood jobs and markets,” Healy said. “Mitt’s misunderstood,” she countered, reframing the issue. “Being principled, not greasing the wheels he saw as breaking from the Massachusetts norm which has resulted in corruption and criminality.” Healy added, “It was a culture that would not survive sunshine.” Romney sought the qualified and as an example of that value Healy said, “Mitt [even] purged people who worked for the Republican State Committee. He would not swap out any favors."

Phillips asked Healy whether enormously principled or not, Romney did not at points as governor horse-trade? Healy shot back, “He negotiated!” As the Athenaeum audience laughed as one, a voice could be heard, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney!”

Ambivalence about Romney’s business identity was much in the air. Business resuscitator and shrewd industrial innovator or heartless plant closer and job killing vulture capitalist? Landing in his biographer’s lap, Helman responded by coming down uneasily on both sides. “How many jobs did Mitt cut or create?” Helman asked rhetorically. “It’s impossible to say. Romney made money for investors and himself closing this here, laying off there.”

Staples was often given as an example of this kind of category killer. The author said. “It put Mom and Pop stores out of business but at the same time Staples brought down prices for consumers, and Staples hired people too.”

Left hanging was whether or not those jobs created were good ones, and Helman added, “That’s how it [the free market system] is supposed to work.” How this will play with the unemployed now, or during the general election Helman acknowledged would remain an issue.

Romney’s chief problem, according to Helman, was about how to talk about his wealth and achievement. Whether his gaffe about enjoying having people he can fire or his wife Ann’s two Cadillacs will be quickly forgotten, or whether, like driving across Ontario with the family dog on the car roof they remain are troubling questions. “The [contradiction] between the rational economic pragmatist and the rapacious businessman,” Helman said, “remains something he has to fix as long as the issue of inequality is a voter’s concern.”

Sparks died to embers when Moderator Canellos and Scot Lehigh moved the questions to foreign policy, observing that Romney’s current advisors in that loaded area are the same people who created [many] of the problems before us. Healy quickly countered that they were there because they have the experience, vast experience.

Although giving as good as she got, holding high her team’s flag, the answer carried little weight. Ms. Healy was holding up a bag with the sand running out. "Alongside those white heads," she added, "were younger advisors and stressed that Romney’s foreign policy advice was not undifferentiated."

“There are different camps,” Healy said. “There are NeoCons but also there are Realists; Mitt enjoys people arguing it out, having a debate. We don’t try to stifle an opinion.” And she also said, "In the end, he gets to choose.”

The measured, often detailed exchanges produced more than entertainment yet as ideas and words flew, the Athenaeum’s audience was obviously ready for its own half hour. A non-stop barrage of questions followed ranging from Romney using the shopworn mantra no new taxes to his assertion of D.C. Outsider status.

Unpacking Mitt’s stump gaffes such as “self-deportation” prompted a spirited exchange between Healy and Lehigh on Romney’s potential VP choice, with Lehigh telling Healy, "Santorum was an impossibility, he would almost bet her $10,000!"

While Phillips had raised the issue of Romney’s avoidance of social issues such as the civil rights upheaval in the 1960s alongside the Mormon Church’s strictures against black involvement (which George Romney strongly supported), perhaps the most immediate question left unasked was whether Romney’s tepid rebuke of Rush Limbaugh was more deft choosing of battles, or an outright repudiation of his progressive mother, Lenore?

And, given his father’s own desperate, near poverty existence through childhood and late teens, unasked but murmured in the audience was why Mitt could remain so aloof and uninvolved in the plight of American society’s most vulnerable?

As the event closed and while lively small conversations continued with traditional wine and cheese, to the delight of Paula Mathews, the Athenaeum’s director and librarian, a large crowd gathered around a table piled high by Zimmara Books with Helman’s book re-enacting another tradition. “Much to be said for them,” said Mathews, "but here’s something you can’t do with ebooks, the author signing it for you.”