We Should All Want to Be Mitt Romney
What is the point of F U money if you never say F U?
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It seems obvious, but if you want to be happy, the key is to believe in God, love your spouse, and make a shit-ton of money. This is true even if the majority of the world doesn’t like you.
I’m speaking, of course, about Mitt Romney. Even within the state of Utah, a land where he once could do no wrong, he only has a 50% approval rating. Republicans in the U.S. government consider him a traitor to the cause of Trump. Democrats despise him for supporting conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Like any person who has achieved power in this world, there is much to criticize. But if I gave you the stats of Mitt Romney on a game-of-life baseball card, you would think this dude was a Hall of Famer. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars (great), he has wielded vast political powers for over a decade (fine), and, most importantly, he has done so while remaining beloved by his children, devoted to his high-school sweetheart, and fulfilled by his faith (very great).
In all my study of powerful people, out of all the billionaires I’ve met and the biographies I’ve read, Romney may hold the title of “man who has achieved the best life.” And I say this as someone who disagrees with the majority of his politics. I think he is someone worth emulating.
For his entire life he has maintained a consultant-controlled public image. We were never really sure what he actually thought. Thankfully, he is the subject of the new book Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins. Coppins, a journalist for The Atlantic, had unusual access. Not only did he conduct over 50 interviews with him, Romney also gave Coppins years of his journals. These are not edited, censored records. They are honest reckonings with the depression and doubt that accompanied Romney’s failed presidential bid. There is page after page of insults about many of his current Senate colleagues. While Coppins suffers from some of the bias that all access journalism-type books have, he does a remarkable job of cutting to the heart of Romney’s character and success. This book is one of the most honest, insightful political biographies I have ever read. It is a remarkable achievement.
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But before we discuss why I think Romney is a walking W, I need to acknowledge that I am hopelessly biased on this topic. Romney, Coppins, and I are all Mormons and went to Brigham Young University. I’ve partied at Romney’s political rivals’ houses. My friends have been on dates with his grandchildren. Shoot, I’ve eaten BBQ with some of his neighbors. However, you can’t really understand Romney’s success if you don’t get Mormonism. Our shared faith is central to understanding his life and his achievements. Even though I am not a particularly exemplary Mormon, I am a pretty good writer and, therefore, have insights to offer here.
My goal with this review is to figure out how Romney was able to accomplish so much while not destroying his personal life—which is an outcome that all ambitious people want.
Some terrible advice
In a hint of what was to come, Romney grew up watching his father also fail to be president. George Romney was a successful automotive CEO and then a liberal Republican governor of Michigan. In his first State of the State address, he argued, “Michigan’s most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination—in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment.” Which is, like, a pretty cool thing to say in 1963. He spent time with the Black Panthers and decried the Vietnam War (an opinion that eventually sunk his presidential campaign). It is very hard to imagine a Republican today doing that much to alleviate racial inequality. Well, except one: Mitt Romney was the first Republican senator to walk in a Black Lives Matter march.
If your dad were a millionaire and a governor and popular, you are scientifically predetermined to grow up a shithead. It is rare for a child of privilege to not fall prey to the “my dad is cool and therefore so am I” trope. Mitt Romney had some early symptoms of this illness. He was a prankster, with memories of jokes that sometimes went too far haunting him to this day. He cruised through multiple girlfriends and was popular at school (it helped that he had a car). All across America there are children like this—rich kids getting away with more than they should. However, most of them do not take second place in a presidential race. So, what was the difference for Romney?
The first and most important was that he met Ann Davies his senior year of high school. She was a 15-year-old sophmore and was distinctly unimpressed with Romney’s act. When Ann went on a date with another boy, she showcased the independence that made Romney crazy for her. “When Mitt confronted her, expecting a sheepish apology, Ann was defiant. ‘Do you think you own me or something?’ she demanded. ‘I’ve gone out with you a few times, that means I can’t go out with someone else? I’m supposed to clear that with you?’ Mitt was in love.” At prom that year, he told her he wanted to marry her one day.
That high-school romance ignited a fire that never left Romney. Throughout his life he remained obsessed with winning and keeping his wife’s respect. In the book it is obvious that she is everything to him. Humiliating defeat and painful public embarrassments are always a politician's lot, and Romney’s career had such sour grapes in spades. But over and over again, Ann has been there for him. She grounds him in reality and is never all that impressed with the trappings of wealth and success. She just wants him to be a good man.
He was so committed to her and his family that when management consulting firm Bain & Company offered him a job, he laid out multiple conditions: “He would not work on Sundays, which were reserved for Church; he would not work on Wednesday nights, which were reserved for volunteer ministry duties; and with few exceptions, he would be unreachable on weekends so he could spend time with his family.” This is not what you expect from the hot-shot business man he would later become.
I called Coppins and asked him about Romney’s marriage. How did he do it? How did he have such success at home? Coppins told me that Romney gets this question relatively frequently, and, surprisingly, he feels frustrated by it. When Coppins himself asked about it, Romney gave some version of, “I’m not great at giving marriage advice because I’m obsessed with courting my wife’s respect and approval. Being wildly and hopelessly in love with your wife is the way to have a good marriage. That’s all the advice I really have to offer.”
As I’ve reflected on this advice (and even as I type this sentence), I can’t help but sniffle. This is the way I have always felt about my own wife—a woman intelligent and caring to a degree that I can never hope to match or deserve—so seeing my love reflected in Romney’s feelings was touching. My spouse is far and away the greatest thing to ever happen to me, and if it’s possible, I’m more in love with her now than I was when we got married. Learning that Romney’s entire life was grounded in an ever-increasing love for Ann makes me excited for the future of my own marriage.
I know this is not particularly actionable advice. “Marry your soulmate and don’t screw it up” is a little grandiose for a to-do list. But I have seen a number of marriages that start with similar levels of obsession fall apart. People fall in love, get married, and five years later revert to their same old selfish ways—and the whole thing blows up in their face.
To my mind, what kept Mitt focused was his faith.
The Mormon mafia
For Romney and me, our faith tradition teaches that the afterlife consists primarily of “eternal families,” where the familial ties that we make in this life will last for eternity. Most other sects in the Christian tradition de-emphasize the role of family in the afterlife, but the entire Mormon doctrine is based upon it. The roles of spouse and parent are literally divine. There is no higher calling than that of the family. I learned this lesson as a zitty 12-year-old when a teacher earnestly wrote on the chalkboard, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This is a funny thing to teach someone who could still sing the female part in choir, but it made an impression on me.
Some of my earliest memories of my dad are seeing him cry at church. In the Mormon tradition, there are no regular speakers. Each Sunday’s sermon is delivered by randomly assigned members of the congregation. So my dad, an HR manager in the midwest, would get up when it was his turn and share what he believed like he was Joel Osteen. I can still remember being too small, my neck itchy from wearing a shirt and tie, my feet swinging and unable to touch the floor, watching my dad express how much his family meant to him, slowly weeping.
When Romney told Ann at that prom that he wanted to marry her someday, Ann told him no. He had to go on his Mormon mission first. Romney acquiesced and ended up spending 30 months in France preaching the good word. Here, the riches and privileges of his upbringing were stripped away. His paltry food budget was only able to swing him two meals a day. He spent months being rejected without a single convert to show for his labors. His apartments had fleas, and another’s toilet was just a hole in the ground. It was a far cry from the governor’s mansion in Michigan.
But something was happening to him on those cobbled streets of France. He was growing. In serving others, in believing in a cause higher than himself, he was finding a renewed meaning in life. Despite the suffering, he wrote home in a letter to his parents, “Getting up at 6:00—cold, tired, allergic, broke, but without a worry in the world; living for others, dependent only upon God; joy when you hear of others’ successes—where would I have ever known these things if it weren’t for a mission?”
I experienced the same thing on my mission to New Zealand. It is a transformative thing to go to a foreign land, be broke and harassed, fail miserably at the job of being a missionary, and somehow become a better person for it. Spending two years in the service of others makes you understand what actually matters. For the rest of his life Romney was devoted to his faith, serving in numerous leadership positions in the Boston area.
Romney was not perfect at being a family man or a devoted worshiper. The book includes examples of him failing to understand Mormon feminists, and he often worked too much, but all in all, he held true to the lessons of his youth.
I am not arguing for the superiority of the Mormon faith because, for one, there is almost certainly a 19-year-old in a white shirt and tie already in your neighborhood who would love to do that for me and, second, like I mentioned, I’m not a particularly good Mormon. However, the data on religious adherence is clear: people who are frequent churchgoers are happier and more civically engaged. This effect holds true regardless of religious tradition and across most nationalities.
The career and the choice
After Romney returned from his mission, he did the thing that all white guys with a part in their hair as crisp as a dollar bill do: get a Harvard JD/MBA and join a consulting group. From there on out, his career was a rocketship. After some time on the management consulting side of Bain, he led the newly formed Bain Capital, a private equity group. The deals included being some of the initial investors in office supply chain store Staples, and the first $37M fund posted an annualized return of 50%. For those not in finance, this is very good.
From there came the politics: a failed run for Senate, a successful run for governor of Massachusetts, one presidential bid where he didn’t make it past the primaries, the failed 2012 run against Obama, and now his final stage as Utah’s junior senator. During it all the lodestones of his life, church and family, were carefully cultivated.
But you cannot ascend this high and go this far without cutting corners. It simply isn’t possible. Romney’s most consistent sin is his ability to rationalize his decisions. For example, in his private equity career, he sometimes generated returns by outsourcing American jobs to overseas labor. It’s an established playbook to make money, but also shitty for all those guys in Indiana who have mortgages and whose plant Romney shut down.
As Coppins writes, “Romney discovered, during these episodes, a remarkable ability to justify his choices to himself. It’s not that he was without a moral compass; his conscience was well developed and frankly rather pushy. But he found it could sometimes be appeased with sufficient effort. ‘I have learned through my life experience…that it’s human to rationalize what’s in our best interest.’”
This same ability to deceive himself happened over and over again in his political career. As governor of Massachusetts he passed a universal healthcare law that served as the archetype of Obamacare—and he later criticized the national version. He said he was a hunter (he’s only been a few times) to appeal to the far right. In the 2012 presidential race, he accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement because he figured it was better that he was the nominee than someone like Newt Gingrich. In his pursuit of power, of becoming president, he made decisions that, while intellectually defensible, struck me as morally dicey.
Through it all his family held firm, helping him campaign, and he prayed before nearly every event.
F U money
During the 2012 campaign, Romney frequently said some variation of something his father told him: “He said never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage.” Romney the elder was mostly right. The only caveat I would add is that you shouldn’t get involved if you want to win.
When Romney won the Utah senatorial seat, the book makes it seem like he (mostly) had finally settled into his role as the counterpart to those espousing far-right politics within the Republican party. Maybe deep down, he knew he held a modicum of blame for Trump’s rise. After all, Trump owed his success in part to Romney's simultaneous embrace of his endorsement in 2012 and acceptance of the Tea Party.
Once he got to Washington, he found something strange: many of his colleagues agreed with him. In private conversations, they would express jealousy that he could speak his mind about Trump. Then, in public, they would publicly praise Trump and vote in line with his policies. Why this was happening is obvious and sadly predictable. They wanted to be re-elected. Even in the case of those who were independently wealthy, a Senate seat represented power.
For example, after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas resulted in the death of 19 children and two adults, a bi-partisan bill was put forward with a variety of policies such as increasing the amount of background checks. The majority of the complaints from his Senate colleagues was that the bill was a “lose-lose” for their campaigns, or they were in tight races and would prefer not to take a “bad vote.” To be clear, these politicians are disgusting.
Romney matched my moral repulsion. He told Coppins, “I have come to recognize that the overwhelming consideration in how people vote is whether it will help or hurt their reelection prospects. Amazing that a democracy can function like this.” I can understand how you get to the point of thinking that. If you run for a Congressional seat, some part of you actually believes that you are special, and can make a difference, and are better than anyone else. If you truly believe that, you’ll make moral compromises all along the way to get there. This is true of Romney, too! When other people make choices that he disagrees with, he is quick to cast moral blame on them; when he does it, it’s the rational thing to do so he can be the man in the arena.
Still, because Romney has the money, the family, and the faith, he exhibits far more willingness to go his own way now. He was the first-ever politician to vote to impeach a member of his own party, he walked with BLM protestors, and he continues to be extremely Covid conscious. He (delightfully) hates Trump enough that he will continue to speak out against him no matter the personal cost.
How to do the Romney
This is, in some ways, a rather disappointing article. Being told that the key to happiness is hard work, having over $200M in personal net worth, and meeting your soulmate when you are in high school doesn’t give you a neat or easy path to follow. But in some ways, that it is such bad advice is what makes me feel like it is true. If you told me, “Evan, I have a 30-step plan to make your life better,” I would assume you are selling me an essential oils subscription. If you told me instead that the key to a happy life is working hard and loving your family, I would nod my head in agreement.
I had hoped in reading the book that I would discover a secret, some clandestine method that allowed Romney to live such an incredible life. That there is no secret, that it was just consistent dedication to the things that matter, is what Romney will ultimately leave as his legacy.
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