ROMNEY: A Reckoning, by McKay Coppins
“For most of his life, he has nursed a morbid fascination with his own death, suspecting that it might assert itself one day suddenly and violently.” One doesn’t expect these opening words from an authorized biography of a handsome, wealthy, happily married and instinctively moderate man, but this is how McKay Coppins’s “Romney” begins. Perhaps Mitt Romney fears his severance from so many blessings, but as Coppins’s revealing new book demonstrates, this businessman-politician has often wondered if he deserved such an abundance of good fortune at all.
Coppins conducted 45 interviews with Romney over two years and had access to hundreds of pages in private journals that the now 76-year-old senator has kept since 2011. “Romney” presents a man given to cycles of rationalization and guilt, to sometimes near-O.C.D. levels of repetitive thinking and self-recrimination. The biographer pronounces his “defining trait” to be a “meld of moral obligation and personal hubris.”
Romney has, in fact, had two brushes with sudden death, the first in a terrible automobile accident in 1968 when he was a 21-year-old Mormon missionary in France. The second came a half-century later on a January afternoon in the besieged Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol, to which the better angels of Romney’s conscience had led him after a long up-and-down political life.
His father, George, was a progressive Republican governor of Michigan in the 1960s, marching with civil rights activists even as his own church banned Black members from the priesthood. His 1968 run for the presidency collapsed after he referred to the military cheerleading for the Vietnam War as “brainwashing.”
Mitt grew up with predictable comforts but nothing like a sense of direction until, during his Mormon mission, sick with diarrhea, he knocked on doors in the French port city of Le Havre that might as well have been brick walls. It eventually “struck him with the force of something divine” that, however futile they seemed, his sacrifices were accepted by God.
Once back home he was on his way, along a path both faithful and lucrative, into the expanding worlds of business consulting and private equity in the 1970s and ’80s. Straining to make time for both his church and the five sons he and his wife were raising in suburban Boston, Romney achieved big success at Bain Capital, the investment firm he helped found that guided the office-supply chain Staples toward explosive growth and cut jobs at Ampad, one of the stationery manufacturers that stocked Staples’ shelves.
Romney was moving fast, and Coppins himself is a bit headlong in the book’s early going, which includes Romney’s ill-fated 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy. Romney’s later repair of Utah’s shambolic preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics propelled him to a single term as governor of Massachusetts, during which he enacted the health-insurance plan that came to be seen as a state-level precursor of Obamacare. The governor was logical and naïve enough to believe that the program’s success might get him the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. But after running into Iowans’ suspicions of Mormonism, he limped toward an early withdrawal from the race.
Four years later, he somehow succeeded with Republican primary voters newly jazzed by tea-partying and birtherism and not particularly craving a candidate who had to spend time convincing them that Romneycare was actually quite different from Obamacare. To overcome Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and the two Ricks (Perry and Santorum), Romney needed to dial his rationalization settings high enough to endure mad conversation with the conservative provocateur Glenn Beck.
Securing the nomination proved only a prelude to what Coppins, with some justice, calls “one of the pettiest, most forgettable presidential elections in modern history” — no matter that it’s been all downhill since then. Romney was demagogued by Vice President Joe Biden, who told Black voters in one audience that the Republican candidate hoped to “put y’all back in chains,” and mocked by Obama for having observed that Russia would be our most dangerous long-term adversary. But he lost the election mostly on his own, with a gaffe worse than his father’s old brainwashing one: Romney was caught on tape dissing the “47 percent” of voters “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”
Few moments of that year’s campaign will be more cringe-inducing to a reader than Romney’s acceptance of Donald Trump’s endorsement, in Las Vegas, for the Republican nomination. Throughout Coppins’s narrative Trump, the supposed billionaire, morphs from comic relief into devouring nemesis. As late as May 2012, Romney was confiding this description of Trump to his journal: “No veneer, the real deal. Got to love him. Makes me laugh and makes me feel good, both.” Four years later, having come to his senses, Romney refused Trump his own endorsement, earning the candidate’s fury.
Romney also sent a blistering email to Chris Christie after the New Jersey governor came out for Trump: “He is unquestionably mentally unstable, and he is racist, bigoted, misogynistic, xenophobic.” Even so, after Trump’s victory, thinking he could perhaps be a force for restraint, Romney allowed himself to be humiliated by Trump’s prolonged public dangling of the secretary of state job.
It took two more years for him to arrive at his finest — and final — hours in politics. In 2018, as a handful of anti-Trump Republicans like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake left Congress, Romney jumped in. His becoming a freshman senator from Utah was made possible by his own humility and the Mormon state’s temperamental aversion to the president’s personality, which had helped depress Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the state.
Setting up shop in a lousy basement office, Romney abandoned his plan “to fight Trumpism while ignoring Trump,” at last realizing he had to face the man head-on. While should-have-known-better Republican colleagues waffled (Ben Sasse) or submissively swooned (Lindsey Graham), Romney kept his head above the fetid waters, eventually developing a particular contempt for J.D. Vance, the once anti-Trump hillbilly elegist who reached the Senate via what Romney’s father might have called self-brainwashing. Resistance to Trump’s election-fraud claims left Romney to be jeered by fellow passengers on a flight from Salt Lake City to Washington on Jan. 5, 2021. Even before his vote to convict Trump in a second impeachment, private security for his large family was costing him $5,000 a day.
“Romney: A Reckoning” is in many ways a straightforward biography, but it has the intimacy of a small subgenre of political confessions: One remembers Monica Crowley’s “Nixon Off the Record” (1996) and Thomas M. DeFrank’s “Write It When I’m Gone” (2007), a collection of opinions that Gerald Ford wanted to make public, though not too soon.
Romney has not waited until he’s dead to unleash his candor and surrender his journals, but he has announced his retirement from electoral politics, on the sensible grounds that it is already too geriatric an arena. Even so, a second Senate term was hardly guaranteed to him. Whatever remains of Mormon distaste for Trump’s vulgarity and meanness, 2024 will be a meaner year than 2018; in a poll taken in the spring, more than half of Utah’s Republicans did not want Romney to run again.
Coppins, a fellow Mormon, is generally as polite as his subject, though the characterization of Romney’s “late-in-life attempt at political repentance” seems a bit stark. As this able book shows, Romney almost certainly has less to repent of than the average politician. Indeed, one believes Coppins when he says that “watching Trump complete his conquest of the G.O.P. was even more devastating to Romney than losing his own election in 2012.”
The depicted “reckoning” is actually lifelong and, more important, something that has always been made from within. Romney’s moral vitality, for all its fitfulness and ambivalence, has kept him a free man. Only a morally dead one, whose self-worth comes entirely from without, will find that stone walls do indeed a prison make.
ROMNEY: A Reckoning | By McKay Coppins | 403 pp. | Scribner | $32.50