WASHINGTON >> Mitt Romney was, uncharacteristically, terrified.
It was the fall of 1998, the height of Romney’s high-flying career as a private equity executive. But his wife, Ann, was not well. She was exhausted, and having difficulty walking; her right foot was dragging. When a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital arrived at a diagnosis — multiple sclerosis — “they just held each other in their arms,” their son Josh said, “and just cried.”
Thirty years earlier, in the spring of 1968, Romney, then a Mormon missionary in France, had a scare of a different sort. He was at the wheel of a tiny Citroen, cruising along a country road, when a Mercedes rounded a curve and crashed into his car, head on. One of his passengers — the wife of the French mission president — was killed. Romney, by all accounts not at fault, was knocked unconscious and mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene.
Next week, Romney will go to Tampa, Fla., to accept the Republican nomination for president, after months on the campaign trail casting himself as Mr. Fix-it, a turnaround specialist whose business experience can revive a struggling economy. There, his advisers will seek to humanize Romney, who has had trouble connecting with ordinary voters. But what his campaign has not offered, to date, is a crisis narrative, the kind of biographical story of overcoming hardship that other politicians have used to define themselves and inspire other Americans.
The French car crash and Ann Romney’s illness provide such a narrative; they are dark moments — bookends of sorts — in what otherwise has seemed a charmed existence. Both offer clues into Romney’s character, and the way he reacts to challenges. He is both forward-looking and inward-looking, practical and deeply private, with a consultant’s instinct for identifying solutions even in the most personally trying times.
After the shock of Ann Romney’s diagnosis, he immersed himself in research about multiple sclerosis, becoming “a mini-expert,” said Laraine Wright, a close friend of Ann Romney. He read scientific papers and called medical experts. And he began focusing on practical ways he might make his wife’s life easier. He contemplated installing an elevator in their home and moved the master bedroom downstairs.
“Mitt is always calm, deliberate, he’s a planner,” Wright said. “It was like, ‘Now we have the diagnosis; this is the plan.”’
After the car crash in France, Romney returned to his mission duties with a broken arm and renewed zeal; along with another 21-year-old, he was left in charge of the mission. In an early hint of his executive abilities, he concentrated on motivating his peers to win more converts.
“Mitt was deeply enmeshed in thinking about leadership,” said Douglas D. Anderson, a friend who is dean of the business school at Utah State University. “He developed a very early set of core beliefs and values that had to do with being cool under pressure, that had to do with looking for opportunities where others saw threats, that had to do with being analytical and somewhat detached in order to look at reality the way it is, rather than how it is being perceived by people who are driven by the hysteria of the moment.
“And out of that,” Anderson went on, “came a pattern of living that was reinforced by events like that critical accident in France.”
AN INTENSELY PRIVATE MAN
The crisis narrative is standard fare for modern politicians. Barack Obama had his search for identity, born of his mixed-race heritage and of the father who abandoned him when he was 2. George W. Bush quit drinking at 40, and turned his life around. John McCain endured harrowing abuse as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Bill Clinton fought off his alcoholic stepfather. Romney’s vice-presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan, was 16 when his father died, and was forced to become more self-reliant.
But the broad outlines of Romney’s biography — the son of an auto executive and former Michigan governor who married his high school sweetheart and went off to Harvard before making his private equity fortune — do not make for the kind of story most voters can identify with. Indeed, a recent poll showed that Obama has an empathy edge over Romney.
“It’s not easy,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, “for any human being to reveal moments when they were not 100 percent on top of things, and every presidential candidate is especially reluctant to show weaknesses, but this is one of the most crucial ways we come to comprehend and bond with a possible president, and when voters don’t have it, they wonder.”
Romney is, by nature, intensely private, not given to talking about himself, even with friends. One who has known him for 30 years said the accident in France had come up only a handful of times. His own children did not learn some of the details until Romney’s Senate race in 1994, when The Boston Globe published an article. (However, Craig Romney, the youngest of the five sons, said he learned as a boy that his father had suffered nerve damage on the tip of his nose during the accident. “I knew whenever I was wrestling with my dad, you don’t want to touch his nose.”)
At their Mormon church in Belmont, Mass., Mitt and Ann Romney were known as a couple who often pitched in to help others, always ready with a home-cooked meal for someone who was sick, or quiet financial help for a family in need. After Ann Romney became ill, church friends came forth with offers of assistance — cooking meals, running errands, whatever was needed. And while the couple did accept some help, they soon turned inward, telling friends they had family they could rely on, said Grant Bennett, a friend and fellow church member.
“Their close friends helped out and provided meals, but it was fairly short term,” Bennett said. “Once they got over the initial shock it was, ‘Well, let’s figure out what changes we can make that will allow us to return to normalcy.”’
For Mitt Romney, that meant spending more time at home and picking up some of the chores.
“He was the one bringing meals home,” Craig Romney said. “He would stop by the grocery store on the way home and grab a roast chicken. They moved their bedroom to the ground floor so she didn’t have to deal with walking upstairs. Basically, he took over doing the dishes, doing laundry, doing all that stuff that my mom would have done.”
At Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded, Romney at first kept his wife’s diagnosis to himself. Geoffrey S. Rehnert, a former Bain partner, said Romney shared the news with him at a breakfast in January 1999.
“It was probably the most pained and afraid I had ever seen him,” Rehnert said.
Shortly thereafter, Romney told the partners that he and Ann would be moving to Utah so that he could run the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Anderson, the Utah State business school dean, said he had lunch with Romney several times after the couple moved to Utah. But they never spoke of Ann Romney’s illness. Romney, he said, is not one to share his feelings — or prompt others to share theirs.
“I think in a very real way he is not so much the un-Barack Obama as he is the un-Bill Clinton,” said Anderson, who once ran for Senate as a Democrat from Utah, but supports Romney for president. “Bill Clinton was an enormously empathetic person who in a crowded room could lock onto you and make you feel like you were the only one there. But he was a totally undisciplined person in his own personal life.
“Mitt Romney will never disgrace the office. He will set an example of moral rectitude. But don’t expect him to sit down and feel your pain.”
The move to Utah was a time for Romney to reset and refocus his priorities; after years in the grinding world of business, he was now concentrating on just two things: the Olympics, and caring for his wife. Ann Romney had persuaded him to accept the offer, but had second thoughts once they arrived.
“She was really sick when they got to Utah, really depressed, and wasn’t sure they had done the right thing,” Craig Romney said.
But the move proved beneficial to Ann Romney’s health. While there, she found an expert in reflexology who helped her; Romney accompanied her to treatments and learned the technique, Wright said. Ann Romney also rekindled her childhood interest in horseback riding; Romney, not much of a fan of horses, took up the sport.
“I don’t know how much he enjoyed horseback riding,” said Robert H. Garff, a Salt Lake businessman who recruited Romney for the Olympics job, and often invited the couple to ride at his ranch outside Park City. “He went as a loyal and faithful companion with her, knowing that this was important to her.”
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
There are some reasons Romney may not want to talk to voters about the vulnerable moments in his life. Ann Romney, whose story has inspired patients all over the country, undoubtedly has access to the finest medical care, at a time when many Americans are struggling for lack of health insurance.
And the car accident shines a spotlight on Romney’s Mormon faith, something that until recently he has mostly tried to avoid.
Because he was not to blame for the accident, Romney has never been tormented by guilt, people who know him say, but rather felt that he had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. In their book, “The Real Romney,” the authors Michael Kranish and Scott Helman quote him as saying the accident gave him a sense of purpose — one of the rare times he has made any public comment about it.
“This made me painfully aware that life is fragile,” Romney said, “that we’re only here for a short time and that life is important, and that what we do with our time is not for frivolity but for meaning.”
The crash occurred just after Romney had been given a prestigious new assignment: assistant to the mission president, H. Duane Anderson. On a trip to a Mormon congregation in southern France, President Anderson, as he was known, and his wife, Leola, who was called Sister Anderson, took Romney as their driver, and another young missionary, David L. Wood.
The drive there was uneventful. But on the way back, according to published accounts and interviews, a Mercedes being driven by a Catholic priest missed a curve on a winding road and hit the car Romney was driving. Romney, who suffered a broken arm, was knocked unconscious, as was Wood. Sister Anderson died in the hospital; her husband, also seriously injured, later returned to the United States to bury her, leaving the mission without a leader.
Romney, who recovered quickly, and another young missionary, Joel H. McKinnon, took charge, supervising some 200 young people and running the mission’s financial and administrative affairs. McKinnon, who now lives in Florida, said it was an early hint of Romney’s smarts and creativity.
“While I worried about whether two missionaries in some small town were going to get along, he would say, for example, ‘We haven’t had missionaries there for 10 years, why don’t we send two back into this town?”’ McKinnon said. “My response would be, ‘Well, let’s leave things as they are, batten down the hatches and when the mission president gets back, he can handle that stuff.’ I was uncomfortable, but Mitt was not. The confidence he had in himself and his ability to reason things out was pretty astounding.”
But if he was deeply troubled by his role in the death of Sister Anderson, Romney kept his emotions in check.
“I’m sure he was saddened,” said Wood, who now teaches French at a high school for gifted children in Louisiana, “but he had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he threw himself into his work, and maybe dealt with his sorrow in that way, staying focused and staying busy.”
Later, he did tell his children about the accident. Craig Romney said his father was exceedingly careful in teaching him how to drive, though he is not sure if the accident was the reason. Josh Romney said his father spoke often of the reaction of his own parents, George and Lenore, who had been told their son might be dead. Lenore Romney refused to believe it.
“He often recalls that she just didn’t blink an eye and said, ‘Well, I know he’s not dead,”’ Josh Romney said. “His mother’s response, I think, had an impact on him,” reinforcing “the family connection, the bond that exists between parents and children.”
Romney does not share that kind of intimate reflection with voters or the news media. Ronald B. Scott, a Romney biographer and distant relation, said Romney’s impulse to stay busy after the crash, without dwelling on his inner feelings, was typical.
“There’s a certain expediency about how he deals with crisis,” Scott said. “He deals with it, he ties up the loose ends and he moves forward.”