Dreams from His Mother

31 minute read
Barton Gellman

Square jaw set, white mane swept back, George Romney stormed into the Lansing Civic Center one day in November 1970, spoiling for a fight. His wife Lenore had just lost an ill-advised campaign for the U.S. Senate. Her husband blamed disloyal Republicans–Michigan Governor William Milliken most of all. George said privately that Milliken had “weaseled and, frankly, destroyed my wife as a candidate.” Now he grabbed a microphone and denounced the room at large, where GOP leaders had gathered in Milliken’s honor.

Silence fell. George set his eyes on Joyce Braithwaite, a 30-something party activist and an intimate of Lenore’s. He leaned in, pushed a thick forefinger toward her and demanded that she admit he was right. Braithwaite demurred. George raised his voice and insisted.

Lenore, standing alongside him, burst into tears. The campaign had drained her, body and spirit, and “she was horrified that George was behaving that way in public,” a witness recalls. About the same time, she sent a letter to her friend Elly Peterson. “‘Total Forget’ is the only prescription to keep from total dissolvement,” Lenore wrote of her campaign travails. “But my subconsciousness isn’t obedient. I still waken after a nightmare of seeing myself in print as distorted by our ‘friends.'”

Thus fell the Romneys from political grace. One, charismatic and headstrong, was a powerful three-term governor who self-destructed in the 1968 presidential campaign. The other, a widely admired state first lady, began her Senate race two years later as a “love affair between me and the people of Michigan” and ended it with the lament that “it’s the most humiliating thing I know of to run for office.”

Mitt Romney, the youngest of four children, was deeply engaged in his mother’s campaign, far more than the ones his father ran when Mitt was young. He accompanied her on hundreds of campaign stops, driving together across all 83 Michigan counties in a blue truck festooned with lenore signs. When reporters asked about his future, Mitt mapped it precisely. First he would seek his fortune, then “I might consider politics,” he told the Saginaw News that summer, his standard reply. “I just wouldn’t want to have to feed my family from money made as a politician.”

No presidential nominee until now has grown up with two parents who ran for high office or so much early exposure to the craft. Their public ruin seared him and schooled him. The lessons he drew have shaped his ambitions, his calculations of risk and his strategy for achieving what his mother and father could not. Bluntly put, Mitt learned from each of his parents how to lose an election. He found much to emulate as well, but longtime associates and family members say it became his prime concern to avoid their mistakes. As he constructed a political persona, they say, his father’s career loomed large–but his choices owed more to Lenore than to George.

Outwardly, Mitt followed his father’s arc from business to politics. George bequeathed him ambition and stamina, and Mitt knew what kind of punishment to expect. “I don’t look forward to a political career, because it’s a shame the way the people slander someone who has chosen to enter public life,” young Mitt told reporters on a 1970 campaign stop in Saginaw. He had little of George’s appetite for war.

It was Lenore who gave Mitt a model for engaging in public life. She was poised, articulate, strikingly good-looking and able to deflect unpleasant questions with a reproachful “Good grief!” She lived in an age when women in politics still released their glove and shoe sizes (6 and 7AAA), but she valued her privacy, holding the public at arm’s length behind an unruffled facade. Whereas her husband relished a good fight, she sidestepped and looked for common ground with her critics. Mitt displayed much the same temperament as he grew up–cautious and increasingly self-controlled. In politics he adopted his mother’s practice of melting away from battle whenever possible. He had learned to take a punch but seldom threw one.

Mitt’s “mother was more the diplomat,” says a close relative who asked for anonymity because the Romney 2012 campaign staff admonishes family members not to give unauthorized interviews. “Mitt’s more like his mom in that. She would just smooth things over, try to make things right.”

“She led a valiant campaign with energy and enthusiasm and won a tough primary,” Mitt tells TIME. “I watched my mom and dad not participate in the game of politics as politicians … They had a vision for what they wanted to do. They expressed that. If they won, they were pleased. If they didn’t, they were also pleased.”

Keith Molin, who joined the Romney entourage in 1962 and rose to senior posts in Michigan government, sees Mitt in different terms. As a teenager, Mitt “would wince when there would be criticism of his father,” he says, while “his father would salivate. For George Romney, the sale starts when the customer says no. I never felt that Mitt was really comfortable there.” Instead, Mitt learned his mother’s finesse with hostile questions, looking for an answer “where you had essentially the same purpose and point,” Molin says. “In 1970, he saw his mother subjected to just a brutal campaign, where she got as much opposition from the far-right wing of her own party as Mitt is getting this time from the Tea Party and the hardcore conservatives 42 years later. He’s trying to avoid confrontation, much the way she did.”

Lenore and George

Stories about Mitt Romney’s mother most often begin with the man who courted her. George Romney fell for Lenore LaFount on a shared car ride to Salt Lake City while she played ukulele in the backseat. She was 15 years old. He was two years older, a fellow student at Latter-day Saints High School and, even so, an unlikely prospect for a lively, lovely, book-smart girl from a prosperous Utah family. George was skinny and poor and a lackluster student, but he had a matchless force of will. He commenced a pursuit akin to a military campaign, infiltrating notes into her locker and bombarding her with slippers full of candy. He carried her bodily off the high school dance floor “when he thought she had danced too long with another boy,” says George Weeks, who knew the Romneys well and wrote a chapter about George in a book about Michigan’s governors.

Through his early 20s, George chased his quarry from Salt Lake City to Washington, where she earned a degree in English at George Washington University, and then to Hollywood, where Lenore in her early 20s began to win small parts alongside movie stars like Greta Garbo. Subdued at last after seven years, she turned down a $50,000 contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–$750,000 in today’s dollars–to be sealed in the Mormon Temple for “time and all eternity” to a salesman earning $125 a month. They were married in 1931.

For the next 64 years, they had “truly one of the world’s great love affairs,” says Peter Fletcher, who entered Michigan politics as George’s advance man. George serenaded Lenore with “Moonlight and Roses” and scattered love notes like petals under her pillow. A maid on Mackinac Island, where the couple spent summers, found a typical one: “Darling, have gone to the grocery store. I will love you eternally. George.” One day Lenore showed off a bedroom closet full of “beautiful negligees of all colors and descriptions, and she said, ‘George always gives me those,'” recalls her friend, now named Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley.

George moved his family to Detroit in 1939, joined the auto industry and made a fast climb to chief executive of American Motors, where he saved the company with an audacious bet that drivers would trade their “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” for a compact Rambler. Lenore, meanwhile, bore three children before a doctor warned that “her condition would not permit her to have another child,” George wrote to family members and close friends. Against the odds, Lenore became pregnant again and delivered Willard Mitt Romney on March 12, 1947.

Immediately afterward, George wrote, she required a “major operation” that could have killed her. The details of that surgery have never been made public.

Lenore was a strong-willed woman, better educated than her husband and uncommonly independent for her time. But George was a tsunami, washing over all obstacles. They squabbled often, despite the romance. “It was a quiet, intense exchange,” recalls Fred Grasman, who lived with them for a time as George’s driver. “She would, having said her piece, accept what he wanted. I don’t think it could have been any other way. George was not a person who would willingly abandon a position.”

There was more to it than that. Lenore acquiesced by choice, believing it her duty in a temple marriage that looked toward exaltation, the Mormon term for eternal life with her mate and children. “If he depended upon me for the greatest thing of all–happiness–he was going to get it,” she wrote in an unpublished manuscript in the summer of 1972, the year of Ms. magazine and the Equal Rights Amendment. “A wife is a vital part of her husband’s development–his self-esteem and self-image … One might ask, ‘What about her happiness?’ Certainly it is realized in … being capable enough and loving enough to be able to respond to the needs of her mate and children.”

Scott, the oldest son, chafed under his father’s near total authority; Mitt took his mother’s lead and maneuvered around it. “In my experience with him, Mitt would never directly confront his father,” Grasman says. “He would use a sense of humor to deflect that tempest blowing his way.” Braithwaite-Brickley describes a car ride she took in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with Mitt, then 15, holding the map. He chose a route that crossed a lake, and his mother chided him that they couldn’t drive that way without a bridge. “Oh, that’s right,” he said, alluding facetiously to Jesus’ walking on water, “Dad isn’t here!” “It was cute and funny, acknowledging how people saw George Romney and maybe how he saw himself,” says Braithwaite-Brickley.

That was in 1962, the year George committed himself fully to politics. It was far less common then for wives to campaign separately, but Peterson, an experienced Michigan politician, began describing Lenore as George’s “secret weapon.” Lenore was witty and warm, with an incandescent smile. It did not hurt that she was “a very, very beautiful woman,” Fletcher recalls, with the stage presence to “walk into many situations and have the crowd eating out of her hand.” In one of her earliest speeches, that June, she deftly placed herself alongside her husband when a famous columnist predicted a grisly fate. “The reporters–Stewart Alsop, different ones–have said to me, ‘You’re going to be torn into shreds,'” she told a women’s group in Lansing. “‘They’re going to cut your husband up into little pieces.’ I don’t believe it. If we’re that kind of people that can be torn and cut to shreds, then we shouldn’t be here. If we don’t feel that there’s something greater than us at stake, then we shouldn’t be here.”

Alsop was mistaken–that year.

The Challenges She Faced

George won his first race for Governor, and Lenore performed the role of first lady with panache. Her calendar filled with ceremonial visits to schools and clubs and women’s teas–but never on Sunday, “the day we reserve for our church activities and family.” Lenore did not hesitate to take sides in the signal controversies of the 1960s. Race relations, civil rights and urban blight consume hundreds of pages in her private papers, archived at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, and many of her views were to the left of her party. She called publicly for desegregated housing, expansion of welfare and new investment in inner-city schools. She emphasized rehabilitation alongside punishment for criminals. Privately, though not yet in public, she expressed doubts about the Vietnam War. Invited to give testimony at Brigham Young University in January 1964, “Sister Romney” used the prophecy of Joel 2: 28 (“Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”) as a bridge from religious to temporal affairs. “We have seen bombings in Alabama, little girls blown up in Sunday school,” she said, describing a litany of ills from juvenile delinquency to the Berlin Wall. “We pay $20 billion a year for crime and we do not bat an eyelash. We spend $10 billion for education and we scream to high heaven.”

On March 9, 1966, as the FBI’s Detroit field office prepared daily surveillance reports on Martin Luther King Jr., Lenore joined him onstage before 2,000 people at Michigan State University. They chatted earnestly in view of photographers after he called for the racial integration of suburbs, which would become an explosive issue four years later in Lenore’s Senate campaign.

No subject consumed her more than women’s liberation, a term she disliked for its link to “burning bras and railing against male-chauvinistic pigs.” She was, if not a pioneer, an early female participant in public life, but she fought looser sexual mores and glamour trends in which “sex is displayed as never before.” Girls, she said, “rely too much on what I call ting-a-ling, and sure as I’m born, someone else always has more than you do … so you’re going to be done on that score.” On May 3, 1968, Lenore wrote a four-page letter to Hugh Downs, the host of NBC’s Today show, about the prior morning’s segment on extramarital sex. “‘Experts’ talk about the New Morality–the morality they discuss is the barnyard morality and it is as old as the hills,” she wrote.

“I know I could not have been fulfilled in my womanhood had my father said as did your guest on May 2nd that he would not hesitate to give ‘the pill’ to his teenage daughter,” she wrote. “I cannot but weep for the child, and for others whose parents may be influenced by this ‘expert’ … He forgot to tell us that sex has great emotional repercussions–that it is the most powerful and magnificent force on earth. We wouldn’t permit our children to experiment with dynamite!”

Lenore struggled with her health and struggled equally to keep it out of the public eye. The details of her condition remain undisclosed even now. “She would be suddenly hospitalized,” says one close relative. George “took her all over the country to major medical centers, and nobody could figure it out.” Scott, then a first-year law student at Harvard, let slip to Look magazine in 1967 that his mother “has an illness few know about.” At about that time, according to Fletcher, Lenore was injured outside her garage in circumstances that remain a closely guarded family secret. The following year, she fell into a bathtub and dislocated her shoulder, an injury that never fully healed. Women who read about that accident wrote to tell their own stories, and Lenore opened up to them as she seldom did to anyone. “Dear Ella,” she wrote on May 9, 1968, “I am heartsick that you are in such pain. I know too well the suffering of bursitis–the months and even years that are required for the full use of the stricken arm and shoulder, and for the many hours of gripping pain all the way down to one’s finger tips.”

The same year, Lenore abruptly canceled her October schedule and checked in at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, where she saw a specialist in bone and mineral disease. “I felt fortunate to be in the intensive care unit and to be aware of all the modern equipment,” she wrote afterward to her physician, Louis Avioli. “I never did get the specifics on it,” says Fred Grasman, who sometimes accompanied her to political events. “She was very guarded about her health, and we were told on the campaign trail to be very solicitous if she said she needed some rest.”

‘A Self-Inflicted Wound’

George Romney, meanwhile, charged ahead. He awoke at dawn and often earlier, first to procure his daily rose for Lenore and then, rain or shine, to race through a regimen that he called compact golf. Depending on the light, he would play three to six balls at once, clutching only a 2-iron and running from hole to hole. When it snowed, he used red balls. “I can do six holes with four balls in an hour,” he told Life magazine in 1967.

George’s politics were equally brawny and improvised. For most of the 1960s, he reigned over Michigan with a buoyant charm and an exuberance for combat that bordered on physical. When state-senate majority leader Emil Lockwood told the governor in 1967 that his tax proposals were dead, recalls former state senator Bill Ballenger, George seized Lockwood’s jacket with such force that he “literally ripped the lapels off.” A contemporary news account said George growled, “They’re not dead!” Michigan passed its first income tax that year.

Donald Riegle Jr., then a 28-year-old Republican wunderkind making his first bid for Congress, watched in amazement on Labor Day 1966 as George crashed the annual picnic of the United Auto Workers in Flint. The union’s election-year motto was “Make it emphatic, vote straight Democratic.” Unwelcome at the gate, George climbed a six-foot fence from a farmer’s adjacent field and “went right on in to the picnic,” Riegle says. “George, he could be like a bull in a china shop. If he decided he was going to go over that fence, it wouldn’t matter if it was 12 feet high.”

George won a third term that year, by his biggest margin ever, and soon began to look like a serious prospect for President. A Gallup poll showed him as the front runner for the GOP nomination–8 points ahead of Richard Nixon, his nearest rival–and a Harris poll had him beating Lyndon Johnson in the general election. But his penchant for speaking off the cuff caught up with him on Aug. 31, 1967. George had changed his mind about the Vietnam War, well ahead of the public. Lou Gordon, host of WKBD television’s Hot Seat, asked George to reconcile his previous declaration that the war was “morally right and necessary.”

“When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” George replied, speaking of a fact-finding trip with fellow governors in 1965 for briefings that touted progress in the war. “Not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there. And they do a very thorough job.” The word brainwashing made him a laughingstock. “A light rinse would have been sufficient,” remarked Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy. George dropped 10 points in the next Gallup poll, and then the bottom fell out. By the time he withdrew from the race on Feb. 28, Nixon had pulled ahead by 42 points. “It was a fatal, self-inflicted wound,” Riegle says. “And of course, he thought that was terribly unfair. It made him, I think, quite an angry man. He never got over that, and I don’t think Mitt ever got over it.”

At the Republican Convention in Miami Beach that summer, George refused to release his delegates to Nixon. Lenore wrote to her friend Marilyn Siebert on Aug. 14 with sardonic understatement, “I will admit, privately, the ticket does not stir me to wildest enthusiasm.”

More indignities awaited. Nixon needed a moderate in his Cabinet, and “put Romney into a meaningless department, never to be noticed again,” John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s counsel, wrote in his memoir. Lenore, perhaps unaware of the animus, wrote Ehrlichman to complain of “demoralizing” slights, adding that “loyalty works both ways.” George served four miserable years as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, with “no effective voice” in his department, he complained to Nixon in a recorded Oval Office meeting.

An Ill-Conceived Race

No one was more surprised by her 1970 run for Senate than Lenore. For public consumption, the Romneys insisted that it was then House minority leader Gerald Ford who came up with the idea, that the Michigan GOP fell in behind her and that the family together decided to answer the call. “My husband was the last to get on the bandwagon,” Lenore told Detroit magazine in April.

None of that, except possibly the nudge from Ford, was true. George was used to running things, and Nixon had him caged. From Washington, George turned his full attention back to his home state, steamrolling Lenore onto the GOP ticket. But a new guard was rising in the party, and the backlash doomed Lenore’s campaign before it began. Lenore later acknowledged that her husband had ambushed her, calling the family together over Christmas 1969 without telling her why. “He said, ‘What would you think if your mother decided to run for the United States Senate?’ and the children all shouted, ‘Go for it, Mom!’ and I almost fell off my chair,” she recalled. A relative tells TIME that there were always “family councils whenever there was a big decision,” but George was not looking for advice. “The whole family had to stop what they were doing, pull together” for the effort.

Milliken, elevated from lieutenant governor after George’s Cabinet appointment, resisted at first. He was trying to take the party reins and did not need another Romney dominating the news. Milliken maneuvered to stave off a consensus for Lenore when party leaders met on Feb. 21, 1970. Two days later, George borrowed a telephone at an Ann Arbor gas station and phoned his successor at home, threatening to denounce him at that night’s Lincoln Day dinner if he failed to endorse Lenore. Milliken succumbed, but the endorsement backfired for both of them when a gas-station employee recounted the conversation to his brother, a political correspondent for the Detroit News. “Romney’s reassertion of power was quick and brutal,” the correspondent, Robert Pisor, wrote in a story stripped atop the next day’s front page.

Lenore’s chaotic launch encouraged state senator Robert Huber, a hard-right maverick from Troy, to mount a challenge for the Republican nomination. Huber criticized Lenore as a creature of bossism. He printed lurleen romney for the u.s. senate bumper stickers, alluding to a maneuver in which Alabama Governor George Wallace kept control of the state in 1966 by arranging for his wife Lurleen to succeed him. Huber slammed Lenore, too, for a secret agenda of forced integration after news accounts suggested that George Romney’s HUD planned a pilot program in Warren, a blue collar Michigan suburb.

Huber’s insurgent campaign nearly toppled Lenore, who eked out a 52%-48% victory in the August primary. “She never really recovered from that,” says Ballenger, also the longtime editor of Inside Michigan Politics. Recalled Peterson: “Those who had promised to help Lenore Romney in the beginning suddenly were very busy elsewhere.”

On the stump, Lenore acknowledged that her political identity was a work in progress. “I’m trying to become Lenore, the individual, and not Lenore, the wife of George Romney,” she told the Grand Rapids Press for a July 15, 1970, story. But she had all her old strengths as a campaigner, shaking hands with a chimpanzee at the Ottawa County Fair, playing Ping-Pong at the Salvation Army in Detroit and gamely venturing, as a teetotaling Mormon, into Zehnder’s Hofbruhaus in Frankenmuth. Burned by the bossism charge, her campaign pushed George offstage. The political buttons and banners said simply lenore.

She also developed a more confident voice on policy. “Let’s get out of Vietnam as soon as we can,” she said at the Michigan Republican convention in Detroit on Aug. 29. On crime, she said, “We can see that people who should be taken away from society are put away from society for a while, but then we must help rehabilitate them.” She spoke in dire terms about threats to the environment, blaming Michigan’s most powerful employers–and the voters themselves. “Yes, the automobile industry is at fault,” she said. “Yes, the paper industry. Yes, the atomic testing and all the rest of it. But we’ve dumped our beer cans. We have bought the detergents that can’t be dissolved. We have been part of the problem and still are.”

Lenore had her own version of Romneycare, calling for a national health plan in the long term and an interim insurance program for “all Americans who wish or need to participate.” Compared with other industrial nations, she noted, “we rank 13th in deaths of infants in the first year of life, seventh in percentage of mothers who die in childbirth, 18th in the life expectancy of males, 11th in the life expectancy of females.” All the countries with better records, she added, “have some form of a national health plan.”

On abortion, her unpublished position paper read, “The ultimate decision is left to the woman” because it is “more important to lessen the physical and mental dangers … and remove the criminal element, than it is to attempt legislated morality.” Look quoted her saying categorically, in October 1970, “I’m for legalized abortions,” but she also told the Detroit Free Press that year, “I don’t think abortion should be used as a birth control measure. We should prevent pregnancies rather than abort them.”

A campaign film embraced traditional views of womanhood (“She’s not only bright, but she is very attractive,” said Bob Hope in one of many such celebrity endorsements) but subverted them enough to justify an independent run for the Senate. In her first appearance onscreen, sitting demurely on a flowered couch, she asked, “Why would a woman like me want to get into politics?”

On the stump, Lenore used the tropes of old-fashioned feminine virtue to fend off association with what one reporter said she called the “‘wild’ women’s-lib supporters on the streets wearing no bras.” In southern Monroe County, she explained her political vocation to a group of nuns by saying, “If you don’t like what’s being served for dinner, the only thing you can do is get in there and do the cooking yourself.” She published recipes for homemade chicken salad with grapes and olives and for “baked beans Lenore” from ingredients supplied by the Michigan Bean Shippers. She explained her concern about inflation by saying, “I know what it means to the housewife.”

At the same time, she challenged housewives to do more. They had “tended to be lazy intellectually,” but “there just is no excuse today for women to be uneducated and uninformed,” she said. Her speeches, Ballenger recalls, “were an early incarnation of feminism from the Republican side”–not Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem but “pretty forceful in articulating the idea that women were more than just the power behind the throne.”

Mitt, campaigning alongside her, reinforced the message. Posing for photographs at a tractor pull in Greenville that summer, he told a reporter, “My mother is not what you’d call a woman’s liberator, but she does believe women have a contribution to make.” He watched and learned as she deflected challenges with humor and nimble changes of subject or by finding something to agree with in a challenger’s remarks. When men asked why she was not home with her family, she replied with lines like “Well, I’ve already churned the butter for today.”

But Mitt also saw the damage done by verbal assaults that life had not prepared his mother for. “She was called names that somebody would have to explain to her when she got home that night,” Molin says. “In factories I encountered men standing in small groups, laughing, shouting, ‘Get back in the kitchen. George needs you there. What do you know about politics?'” she wrote after the election. “I tried to explain that I had always been in politics, living and working with human beings and trying to understand them.”

One day in Clare, a farmer stood up and declared, “Ma’am, we don’t vote for women or niggers in this county.” Lenore had no answer for that. In a manuscript, she called it “the rawest example of the prejudice” she faced from the “many people–men and women–[who] openly resented the fact that a woman would even try to unseat a man.” Aides and friends say the cumulative impact on Lenore was hard for Mitt to watch. On days like that, she would turn to her small entourage, one member recalls, with a lament: “Why did you put me in that situation? Couldn’t you move me out of there gracefully?” Her liberal Democratic opponent, Phil Hart, who was so far ahead that he never felt the need to attack her, could be painfully condescending behind the scenes. “He would bring me a flower or a little bottle of perfume or something and say, ‘I wish I could see you in a drawing room,'” Lenore told her former daughter-in-law Ronna Romney for a book on women in politics.

If she ever had a chance against the popular incumbent, Lenore was undone by her party’s divisions, her growing pains as a novice candidate and the long shadow of her husband. On Election Day, Hart routed her, 67% to 33%.

George blamed everyone but himself, lashing out at “inaccurate press reports” that he had dragged her into the race. “The disappointing aspect of it,” he said, “was to have her drafted by the party leaders and then to have the people told day after day that I had forced her on the party.” Bill Goldbeck, an aide, urged him to give up the fight. “You will never convince the public that you were not the force behind Lenore’s candidacy,” he wrote on Feb. 2, 1971. “I did not meet or talk with a single Republican during the entire campaign who felt otherwise.”

Lenore blamed no one but told one of her children, “I wish I hadn’t run.” To her friend Elly Peterson she wrote, “The body wounds are deep–I believe I’ve ‘had it’–but maybe someday I’ll rise again to campaign for someone I believe in … He will have to be awfully good.”

The Lessons

In the teeth of her own experience, Lenore encouraged Mitt to be that someone. Her private papers, replete with belief in a Mormon’s earthly obligations, help explain why. “We as Latter-day Saint women know our vocation–know that the blessing given Abraham is ours–that our seed is indeed to be a blessing to mankind,” she wrote in an unpublished manuscript in the summer of 1972. A variation on that theme made it into a speech at Mount Union College: “Each son should be able to accomplish more than his father did.” George, too, touted his son as Mitt ran for the Senate in 1994, hinting at ambitions beyond. “He’s better than the chip off the old block because he’s had better preparation than I,” he told USA Today. Neither parent lived to see Mitt win his first election as Massachusetts governor in 2002. George died at age 88 the year after Mitt lost his Senate race, and Lenore died three years after that at 89.

For Mitt, a relative says, “there was a sense of carrying the torch.” With it came an understanding that he would need more strength than his mother had. “I would never run for office, that’s for sure,” the family member says. “It’s brutal. But Mitt bounces back. He’s got a resiliency that I don’t have.”

The purest distillate of Mitt’s political education was fear of error. Mistakes invited ridicule, opened his parents to avoidable blows, fomented opposition and cost them friends. Words, a politician’s most basic tools, were fraught with career-ending risk. Because Mitt in his campaigns “was the target of everybody and he couldn’t blow his nose without someone taking offense, he could not make a mistake at all,” says the Romney family member. “That makes you a little bit careful. And [George’s] being completely obliterated in the campaign because of his brainwashing statement–that makes you go, Whoa, what is that about?”

George had the gaffe to end all gaffes, but Lenore made enough of them to reinforce the lesson. Misstatements about South Africa and Martin Luther King hurt her badly with black voters she had counted on peeling away from Hart. Mitt, meanwhile, learned that politics is truly rough and tumble. In July 1970, a man with a cream pie in his hand made a run at Mitt at the Imlay City Centennial. The man missed, but a photograph in that week’s Lapeer County Press caught Mitt, with a large LENORE button on his shirt, in mid-dive across the lap of a local notable. “Mitt Romney does not want a pie in the face,” the caption read.

About the same time, Mitt began to make subtle remarks about the risks of choosing sides, appearing to speak as much for himself as for his mother. “So many of our Senators sometimes become so caught up in the political situation that their answer is made politically before the issue is even brought up,” he said, standing under a tree in a button-down striped shirt and cream-colored jacket, in the summer of 1970. “But she isn’t so allied to a political ideology or a political side of the spectrum.”

With the Republican nomination now in hand, Mitt has far surpassed both parents in electoral success. In polls he is running even with or ahead of the President. “I think it’s quite clear that he marches to his own drum,” says the relative, who has known Mitt all his life. “He stays on track and keeps pressing forward.” And yet some of the people who knew the elder Romneys best and who have not voiced their qualms in public before say Mitt paid too high a price. In part, the first-generation cohort is mourning the sharp rightward turn of the Republican Party, which would not find room today for Lenore or George. But it is not so much the GOP platform that disturbs them as its leader’s mutability–the much debated adjustments on abortion, stem-cell research, the assault-weapons ban, climate change, gay civil unions and state-sponsored health care. Their main concern is not that he tells voters what they want to hear but that he backs away so readily from what they do not.

When he resigned from Nixon’s Cabinet, George denounced the timidity of politicians who “avoid specific positions … for fear of offending uninformed voters.” Lenore once told an interviewer that “to live and not be committed to our ideals is worse than dying.” In Mitt’s determination to avoid their mistakes, contemporaries of George and Lenore see a betrayal. “I can’t warm to him,” says Richard McLellan, an old hand in Michigan politics who knew the Romneys well. “I get beat up by his campaign people for saying that, but he’s not at all like his father.”

Molin, who came to work for the Romneys early and stayed for the duration, does not usually allow himself to speak openly of his dismay. But after most of an hour of lukewarm praise for the boss’s son, he quits holding back. “If you’re going to be President, you have to be a leader, and you can’t worry about whether everybody agrees with you,” he says. “I don’t know that Mitt doesn’t know who Mitt is, but Mitt really doesn’t want to say anything that would alienate you.” After a moment of silence, he adds, “Hell, I might as well get in trouble. I think there’s a difference between leadership and managerial skills, O.K.? I think George Romney had leadership skills. Mitt Romney has managerial talents.”

If his father was a combatant and his mother collateral damage, Mitt Romney emerged from this year’s primaries as a survivor. “He’s proving to be pretty durable, and if I were Barack Obama I would not take comfort in Mitt Romney’s durability,” says Riegle. “But he hasn’t knocked out anybody who’s really a big-time player. Lenore was not cut out to be a gladiator, and George was. Mitt, we’re about to find out.”

—With Reporting By Elizabeth Dias / Ann Arbor

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