His foes describe him as cold, robotic, inauthentic and entirely lacking in empathy for the less fortunate. His supporters say that he’s cool, calm, unflappable and focused. His family clearly adores him. His close associates say that he’s a man of sterling character, a man who looks and is presidential. Other acquaintances say that he’s an ambitious chameleon, a slippery character who will say and do whatever it takes to win.
So who’s the real Mitt Romney?
Most accounts put Romney’s fortune at around $250 million. That’s real money – a sum that’s literally unimaginable to most of us.
Thirty years ago, a friend bent my ear about retirement.
“Do you realize how much money you’ll have to have saved up for retirement?’ he asked. “I’ll tell you: $1 million! Can you believe that?”
It seemed an unimaginable sum, so much so that I paid him no attention.
Thirty years ago, I suspect that Mitt Romney already thought of $1 million as chump change, a marker no more significant than buying your first house, or paying off your student loans.
Thanks to his own considerable abilities, good career choices and a little bit of luck, he rose from the ranks of the merely wealthy to those of the super-rich, a tribe whose members are, as Fitzgerald wrote, “very different from you and I.”
How so? They may live in bigger houses, drive better cars, have better seats at NFL games, and be free of money worries – but does that make them different?
Nope. What makes them different is money.
Centimillionaires and billionaires live strange lives. Almost all of their interactions are with servants (nannies, cooks, gardeners, bodyguards and chauffeurs) and employees (e.g., senior managers of companies they own or control). Their only real friends are peers, fellow members of the tribe. Consciously or not, they avoid everyone else.
They have good reason to so. Just as presidents have few friends (Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in this town, get a dog.”), the super-rich don’t pal around with the middle class. They’ve learned that strangers aren’t potential friends, but potential moochers. Strangers all want something: a loan, a job, proximity to power. Why bother with them? They’re just flies buzzing around the honey pot of success.
Romney’s been a rich celebrity/politician for nearly 20 years. He knows that every stranger has a story, and that he doesn’t need to hear it.
Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, he’s stiff as a board. Romney may actually like people, but he’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with – especially since he’s a teetotaler.
And even though George, Bill and Ronnie ended up with plenty of dough, they didn’t work very hard to get it. All three were notorious party boys before settling down in midlife and getting into politics. They were less focused, more easily distracted, and less interested in worldly success than Romney – and also more accessible, more open, and less wedded to the Republican nominee’s “command and control” philosophy.
Wealth becomes Romney. It shields and protects him and his family from the distasteful hurly-burly of politics, and allows him to play the game without consequence. If he wins, he’s president. If he loses, he’s a centimillionaire. He won’t have to give speeches for money or become a lobbyist for Wall Street. He can just hire a ghostwriter to do his autobiography, and take it easy.
Romney’s not running against the now-revered Bill Clinton (where’s Monica, now that we need her?). Like Romney, President Obama is a private person. As one intimate told a reporter a few weeks ago, the president is a guy “who doesn’t like many people.” Why should he? They all want something.
As for getting close to Mitt, you’d better be good and rich. Want to make an impression?
Drop a couple of million into a right-leaning super PAC … oops, the election’s not even a week away! There went your window of opportunity. You should have considered your options a lot earlier in the game – how did you make all that money, anyway? Inheritance, I’ll bet…
And governor – should you lose, let me be the first to apply for the ghostwriting job! You won’t be sorry – in fact, I already have the opening sentence.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”