RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live

Privilege, tragedy, and a young leader

By Neil Swidey and Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 24, 2007

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

BERNOS-BEAULAC, France—By the time he saw the black Mercedes barreling into his lane, there was nothing Mitt Romney could do.

He was 21, buoyed by a recent promotion, a young man finally on his way. Two years of getting doors slammed in his face as a Mormon missionary in France had tested him like nothing before in his privileged life, revealing a drive and seriousness that had been absent during his breezy childhood. Now he was the assistant to the president, a top job in the French mission, and behind the wheel of a luxury silver Citroen packed with church officials visiting congregations in southern France.

He knew these roads were dangerous. That very afternoon in June of 1968, on the way from Pau to Bordeaux, he had pulled over to remove a roof rack lying in the middle of the road, a remnant of an earlier accident.

His own crash was swift and brutal. The Mercedes, driven southbound by a Catholic priest, passed a truck, missed a curve, and shot into the northbound lane at a high rate of speed.

    ''It happened so quickly that, as I recall, there was no braking and no honking, it was like immediate,'' Romney said in a recent interview. ''I remember sort of being hood-to-hood. And then pretty much the next thing I recall was waking up in the hospital.''
Trapped between the steering column and the driver's-side door, Romney lost consciousness. The mission president, Duane Anderson, was seriously injured on the other side. Anderson's wife, Leola, who had been sandwiched between them, bore the brunt of the impact. Crushed in the wreckage, she survived long enough to speak her dying words in an ambulance to a Frenchwoman who couldn't understand what she was saying.
Sister Anderson, as she was called within the small world of Mormons in France, was a beloved den mother to the 200 missionaries. Her husband was physically and emotionally broken, and returned to the United States to bury his wife and salve his wounds.

Romney responded differently. Since birth, his parents had invested great ambition in their youngest child. Yet his sheltered life had given him few opportunities to show himself worthy of such expectations. Now, with tragedy in the French mission, and chaos in the late 1960s air, Romney emerged as a leader. In President Anderson's absence, the 21-year-old helped direct the mission.

He launched an effort to accelerate the conversions of French people, complete with more ambitious numerical goals. And he kept his anguish to himself.

''There's nothing like hard work and time to heal the pain and sorrow of a tragic loss,'' Romney said. ''What we do with our time is not for frivolity, but for meaning.''

A 'miracle' birth

For Mitt Romney, life began with high drama.

On March 13, 1947, George Romney, a rising star in the auto industry who was often described as a man in a hurry, took time out to write to the relatives and colleagues he'd missed during the previous day's blizzard of telegrams and phone calls. ''Dear Folks,'' Romney wrote on the letterhead of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, where he served as general manager, ''Well, by now most of you have had the really big news, but for those who haven't, Willard Mitt Romney arrived at Ten AM March 12.'' The new baby was not the first, but rather the fourth, born to Romney and his wife, Lenore. Yet as the paragraphs flowed, and Romney detailed how precarious his wife's pregnancy had been, it became clear there was a special level of wonderment embedded in this announcement, in this birth.

''A couple of years ago, the Doctor told Lenore that her condition would not permit her to have another child and that she would have to undergo a major operation,'' Romney wrote. ''However, she had a lot of faith.''

After delivery, he wrote, the doctor examined Lenore and announced in amazement, ''I don't see how she became pregnant, or how she carried the child.'' Romney summed it up this way: ''We consider it a blessing for which we must thank the Creator of all.'' From then on, Lenore referred to Mitt as ''my miracle baby.''

His sisters were nearly 12 and 9 at the time, his brother almost 6, and they didn't wait long to begin the debate over whether to call the baby ''Bill'' or ''Mitt.'' The Willard was in honor of J. Willard Marriott, a family friend and future hotel magnate, and the Mitt was a nod to Milton ''Mitt'' Romney, a cousin of George's and former Chicago Bears quarterback. By the time Mitt settled on his preferred name in kindergarten, the family had moved from Detroit to the affluent suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

Mitt lived the all-American suburban family experience of the 1950s, with an important exception. The Romneys were one of the Mormon faith's leading families. In fact, the clan's journey from the fringes to the mainstream symbolized the transformation of the church itself. For nearly a century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the most vilified religion in America, its dusty, bearded adherents derided as polygamous outlaws. Born in a Mexican colony that his grandfather had co-founded to preserve polygamy, George Romney was a product of that outsider status. But by the turn of the century, George's father, like the Mormon Church itself, had broken with that past in exchange for acceptance.

George's father struggled to find his foothold in middle-class America, going broke several times, and George carried some of that baggage, laboring as a plasterer rather than earning a college degree. Still, George was determined to go far. He ''married up,'' pairing off with his classy high school sweetheart, Lenore LaFount, who came from a Mormon family several rungs higher on the ladder of assimilation. President Calvin Coolidge had appointed her father to serve on the Federal Radio Commission.

By the middle of the 20th century, the LDS Church had buried its pioneer past of beards and Mormon-centric businesses, pushing instead a clean-shaven embrace of the Chamber of Commerce and the American Dream. And George Romney, refined by his cultured wife, had finally arrived.

He briskly advanced in the business world, moving from salesman to lobbyist to executive, while taking on leadership roles with the church. In 1954, he became president and chairman of American Motors. It was a promotion loaded with peril, since the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.

At a time when Detroit was bent on turning out ever-bigger cars, George bet the future of American Motors on the compact, unflashy Rambler. He called it the antidote to the ''gas-guzzling dinosaurs'' coming from the Big Three automakers.

The gamble paid off handsomely, delivering record profits for American Motors and turning George Romney into a rich man and a national figure.

On his father's lap

By the time Mitt was 12 years old, he had seen his father's square-jawed face grace the cover of Time Magazine. Despite his celebrity, George managed to make more time for Mitt than he had for his older children. ''Dad was more settled by then,'' says Mitt's sister Jane.

From birth, Mitt had enjoyed a starring role in the ''family bulletins'' George mailed out. When Mitt was not yet 2 and making his first visit to see Santa Claus, George wrote with pride, ''he walked right up like a man and shook hands!'' In the same letter, he noted that Mitt was ''bold and inclined to be a bit reckless - loves to climb up on high chairs and say, 'Careful, careful, careful!'.'' Throughout his childhood, Mitt logged lots of time sitting on his father's lap, watching him read the paper. As George flipped through the pages, the passing headlines prompted him to share with his son his insights about the wider world.

Cars were George's focus, so naturally they were Mitt's as well. Mitt was quite close with his mother, and he inherited her tact and even temper - qualities that were often absent in her blunt, intense husband. Still, Mitt idolized his force-of-nature father, and their relationship would form the central axis in his life.

Other kids wanted to grow up to be a professional athlete or even president, but Mitt aspired to run a car company. On weekends in the summer, when George would join the rest of the family at their cottage on Lake Huron in Ontario, Mitt and his best friend, Tom McCaffrey, would sneak into his father's briefcase for a first look at photos of the cars planned for the new model year.

On the paddle tennis court in front of the cottage, George would compete with his children in matches played to the death. Mitt's older brother, Scott, was the fiercest challenger, sharing their father's competitive streak and athletic ability.

Mitt was never much of an athlete, but even that seemed to work in his favor. Although Scott went through the common adolescent phase of occasionally competing with his father, Mitt always maintained an easy rapport. Scott would marvel at his little brother's confidence in talking with their father almost as a peer. When George would hold ''family councils'' to discuss big decisions he was contemplating, Scott and his sisters would say, ''Gee that sounds fabulous,'' while Mitt would pipe up with, ''Well, have you thought about this?'.''

A face in the crowd

In the seventh grade, Mitt enrolled at Cranbrook School, an elite boys school with world-class sculptures sprinkled across its Bloomfield Hills campus. Surrounded by other sons of privilege, many of whom came from greater wealth and more established families, Mitt wasn't a standout.

''He was in many ways the antithesis of what he's portrayed as today,'' says classmate Jim Bailey. ''He was tall, skinny, gawky, had a bad complexion.'' His report cards tell the story of a bright boy who had yet to feel the urge to apply himself fully. (''He can do a lot better ..... He wastes much time in class.'') In six years at Cranbrook, he never showed himself to be a leader - Bailey went on to be president of their class, not Mitt. Instead, Mitt was known as a kinetic kid who loved to laugh and pull off pranks, once staging an elaborate formal dinner in the median strip of a busy thoroughfare.

Despite the school's rarefied air, it was still a high school, so the jocks tended to be the most popular. Mitt's singular distinction as an athlete was an embarrassing one, classmates recall. He competed in a 2.5-mile race held during a football game, setting off with the rest of the runners at the start of halftime.

Everyone returned before the second half of the football game began, except Mitt. He didn't resurface until about 10 minutes after the last runner. He staggered around the oval for the final lap, collapsing twice in the last 15 yards but drawing cheers from the crowd when he finally crossed the finish line. ''It had to be one of those moments that made you feel good, but inadequate,'' Bailey says. ''But those kinds of things didn't bother him.''

During Mitt's sophomore year, his father leveraged his popularity as a business-turnaround artist to get elected governor of Michigan. George Romney would revive and moderate a moribund Republican Party, impose the state's first income tax, and emerge more popular than ever.

On campus, Mitt downplayed his father's fame, though others showed less restraint. The Detroit News report on a small fire at Cranbrook carried this headline: ''Romney Son Helps Fight School Fire.'' Deep in the article, one learned that Mitt's heroism consisted of opening the building's front door and directing the firefighters toward the small blaze.

More important to Mitt was sharing his father's front-row seat on government, first as a campaign aide and then as an intern in the governor's office.

Dick Milliman, who served as Romney's press secretary, was struck by how much the governor delighted in having his teenage son around. ''They would hug upon meeting, and not just any hug,'' he recalls. ''He would give Mitt a big bear hug and a kiss.''

To Milliman, it was clearly not just a father-son bond but almost a ''partner relationship.'' Around the office, just like around the family home, Mitt seldom held back. ''He would chime in, 'Have you thought about this?'.'' Milliman says, admitting, ''Sometimes you'd think, 'That kid oughta shut up!' But he was always nice to be around.''

All of Romney's success in Michigan prompted talk of him as a presidential candidate in 1964. That didn't happen, but he arrived at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco that summer as a star, inviting Mitt to come orbit around him.

George Romney made headlines by walking out on nominee Barry Goldwater because of his opposition to civil rights. In a subsequent letter to Goldwater, Romney wrote, ''The rights of some must not be enjoyed by denying the rights of others.''

Romney's progressive views on race earned him critics not only in the right wing of his party but at the highest levels of his church. In 1964, a top Mormon official wrote to Romney, calling a civil rights bill ''vicious legislation'' and warning Romney that it was not man's job to remove what he termed the Lord's ''curse upon the Negro.'' Romney refused to back down.

Mitt's primary exposure to black people had been his family's beloved housekeeper, Birdie Nailing, and an acquaintance named Sid Barthwell who was the lone black in his Cranbrook senior class. Still, he returned from San Francisco extolling his father's courage in standing up to the Republican right wing.

In his final years at Cranbrook, Mitt emerged a more serious student and a good-looking teen. Adding to the package was his great head of hair. Mitt had grown up hearing people comment on his father's sweep of slicked-back black hair, white at the temples. But since his early teens, Mitt had patterned his own hairstyle after a man named Edwin Jones, who served as his father's top aide in running the Detroit operations of the Mormon Church.

''He sat up front, to the side at a desk, keeping records,'' Mitt would recall years later. ''I remember that he had very dark hair, that it was quite shiny, and that you could see it in distinct comb lines from front to back. Have you looked at my hair? Yep, it's just like his was some 40 years ago.''

When graduation arrived, the speaker was none other than George Romney. He hit upon a surprising theme. Girlfriends, the governor told the 76 graduating boys, ''will have more to do with shaping your life than probably anybody else ..... If the girl you're interested in doesn't inspire you to greater effort than you would undertake without knowing her, then you'd better look around and get another.''

George knew from experience the importance of choosing a mate wisely. He often told family members that convincing his high school sweetheart to marry him was ''the best sales job of my life.'' As he looked into the crowd, he knew his youngest son had a sophomore sweetheart he'd fallen for. What he didn't know was that a few days earlier, during a break from the prom, Mitt had taken aside his 16-year-old girlfriend of only a few months and asked her to marry him.

And Ann Davies had said yes.

A question before a kiss

On one of their earliest dates, Mitt leaned in for a kiss, but Ann had other ideas.

''What do Mormons believe?'' she asked him.

Mitt was floored, and frightened. He'd grown up knowing his mysterious faith made him something of an outsider. Now here he was on a date with one of the prettiest girls on campus, someone he knew came from mainline Protestant stock, and she was asking for a tutorial on the Mormon Church?

''I was not in the mood to talk about religion,'' he would say later. ''I was much more interested in physical expressions of love.''

They had first gotten to know each other at a mutual friend's birthday party in the late winter of 1965, when he spotted the wholesome beauty with light brown hair from across the room. Mitt had just turned 18, Ann was 15 - almost exactly the same ages his parents had been when they met. Ann attended Cranbrook's sister school, called Kingswood, on the other side of campus.

Cranbrook in the 1960s still adhered to a strict separation of the sexes. The girls were allowed to see the boys for athletic events, dance lessons, and a weekly movie night in the gym. Beyond that, their interaction was largely confined to letters, which the Kingswood girls lined up to receive daily. Mitt gave Ann a ride home from the birthday party, and that led to a first date going to see ''The Sound of Music.''

Now, she wanted to know about Mormonism. So he turned to the ''Articles of Faith,'' the 13 tenets church founder Joseph Smith had once used to explain his religion to a Chicago reporter.

Mitt looked Ann in the eyes and began with the first article. ''We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.'' When he finished, he noticed that Ann had started to cry.

What Mitt didn't know was that Ann had been brought up in a home with a father who had absolutely no use for religion and she had been on a spiritual search since a young age. Her father had grown up in a coal-mining family in Wales, and Ann's brothers say he associated the religion of his childhood - a Welsh Congregational church he found as dreary as the climate of Wales - with drudgery and hogwash. Before their dad married their mom, he insisted she give up organized religion. ''Dad,'' says Ann's older brother, Roderick Davies, ''considered people who were religious to be weak in the knees.''

But like Mitt, Ann had a special relationship with her father. So he occasionally indulged his only daughter's requests that the family attend services at one Protestant church or another. He remained unswayed by the pulpit and believed his daughter would eventually come to her senses. As for her romance, Ann's father knew Mitt was heading to California for college while Ann still had two years left of high school. So how serious could they be?

Sheltered from a storm

In the fall of 1965, Mitt Romney left behind Cranbrook, with its varsity sweaters and hand-delivered courtship letters, and moved across the country to San Francisco's Bay Area, which was fast becoming the capital of the counter-culture movement. By the time he settled into his freshman dorm at Stanford University, the nearby campus of the University of California-Berkeley had been fully radicalized by the anti-authority Free Speech Movement. In San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury was emerging as an LSD-fueled mecca for free-loving hippies in peasant skirts and dashikis.

Into this world, Mitt showed up with his dark blazers and narrow ties, his idiom peppered with ''oh gosh'' and ''oh boy.'' Classmates remember him as the embodiment of the Young Republican the radicals would mock as a ''square,'' the earnest product of the Chamber of Commerce culture that his family, and his faith, had embraced.

He was mindful of the strict Mormon prohibitions against smoking, drinking, and premarital sex. At Stanford, there were still plenty of clean-cut, traditional kids, and Mitt bonded with a few dorm-mates who shared his world view. That view was immediately challenged by one of their resident assistants, or ''sponsors,'' a charismatic junior by the name of David Harris. A leader in the campus's small antiwar movement, Harris was determined to shake such freshmen as Mitt out of their blazer-and-tie orthodoxy.

Mitt embraced the preppy traditions that Harris saw as inane 1950s residue. Stanford usually played its Big Game against Cal-Berkeley on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and the week leading up to the game was always filled with hijinks.

The winner from the previous year took possession of an ax, which students from the losing side would try to steal. When an upperclassman cheerleader enlisted Mitt in the effort to protect the ax from Berkeley marauders, he pounced. He mapped out a schedule of patrols, cruising the campus perimeter overnight in his Rambler and then loaning his car to other freshmen for their shifts.

When Mitt heard about a rally planned at Berkeley, he figured the ax might be discussed, so he decided to go undercover. He thought his normal attire might make him a target. So he turned to the one radical he knew - Harris - and asked to borrow his clothes. Dressed in Harris's faded Levis jeans, heavy wool work jacket, and well-worn moccasins, Mitt headed over to Berkeley.

His friend Mike Roake accompanied him but opted to hang back as Mitt marched into the rally. ''It sounds silly now,'' says Roake, ''but it was the great crusade in that time of sweet innocence.''

Throughout the year, Mitt talked endlessly about Ann. He once drove nonstop from California to Michigan, showing up at Ann's home a sweaty mess, diving into her pool fully clothed. During his second semester, Ann accompanied Mitt's parents on a visit to see him.

By then, George Romney was increasingly being talked about as a top Republican prospect for reclaiming the White House in 1968. Watching Mitt interact with his parents, Roake was struck by the warmth of the relationship. ''It was especially interesting,'' he says, ''because we were freshmen and therefore in the process of divorcing ourselves from our parents.''

As the year wore on, the Stanford campus became more radicalized, but Mitt stood firm. When demonstrators staged a sit-in of the administration building to protest Stanford's decision to hold draft-status tests, Mitt protested the protesters. The local newspaper carried a front-page photo of Mitt wearing a blazer and holding a sign that read ''SPEAK OUT, DON'T SIT IN.'' The caption read: ''Governor's son pickets the pickets.''

Mitt's own draft status was secure for the next few years. Although his friends would continue to benefit from the deferment for college students, Mitt had decided to leave Stanford after his freshman year and go on a 30-month mission to spread the Mormon faith overseas. It was the same path his father, and generations of Mormon men before him, had taken upon turning 19. As a missionary, Mitt was declared ''a minister of religion'' by the church and, under an agreement with the Selective Service, granted an exemption from the draft.

As Mitt was winding down his freshman year, David Harris ran for student body president on a platform of ending the university's cooperation with the war effort, abolishing its board of trustees, and legalizing marijuana. For one rally, Harris recalls, ''We traded a lid (an ounce) of weed to the Jefferson Airplane so we could use their sound equipment.'' He won the election handily.

Over the next few years, when Mitt was in France, many of his Stanford classmates who'd come from traditional backgrounds were transformed. Even Roake, a good Irish-Catholic boy and Navy ROTC student, would go on to question organized religion and seriously consider registering as a conscientious objector.

Roake often wonders what would have happened to Mitt had he never left. ''Almost everybody I knew there changed,'' he says. ''I know that as a thoughtful person Mitt would have been altered in some way.''

Harris, who would go on to cement his counter-culture credentials by marrying Joan Baez, sums it up this way, ''There were plenty of people who started to the right of Mitt Romney who ended up as full-scale hippies.''

Campaigns, conversions

In 1966, as Mitt struggled to adapt to his grueling first year as a missionary in France, two events that would change his life were happening back in Michigan, out of his view.

First, his father made the decision to run for president in earnest. Second, when he wasn't crisscrossing the country, George Romney was guiding Ann Davies through her conversion into the Mormon faith.

With Mitt away, Ann told George she was interested in attending Mormon services. The governor headed straight for the Davies home. He asked Ann's parents for permission to send some US-based missionaries to meet with Ann. Her mother was an easy sell. But getting clearance from Ann's father, whose rejection of organized religion ran deep, would be a much tougher challenge.

Ultimately, Edward Davies and George Romney shook hands on an agreement: George could send the missionaries, provided Ann's mother sat in on the discussions. Ann's younger brother, Jim Davies, says their father relented based on the trust he had in his daughter and the admiration he had for George Romney. Besides, the governor outranked him. In addition to being a self-made businessman, Edward Davies was the part-time mayor of Bloomfield Hills.

The missionaries came for six straight sessions, sitting with Ann in the family room on the lower level of the Davies' split-level home, taking her through the Mormon conversion process. Besides her mother, Ann's friend Cindy Burton sat in on the lessons. Cindy also was the girlfriend of Ann's older brother, Rod, who was doing a study-abroad year in England. Little brother Jim wanted to sit in as well, but his parents decided he was too young. So Jim stood outside the family room window, listening in.

Before long, George Romney was picking Ann up and driving her to services at the Mormon chapel, and Ann began bringing Jim along. When she decided to be baptized, she asked Mitt's father to do the honors. Dressed in white, she followed George into the baptismal font, where she was immersed while he said the prayers. By February of 1967, Jim had also persuaded his parents to let him join the church, and again George performed the baptism.

Even Rod's girlfriend Cindy decided to become a Mormon, though her father forbade it, warning her that she would become ''a social outcast.'' When Cindy wrote to Rod to tell him of her plans, he agreed with her father, vehemently objecting.

When Mitt lamented in letters home from France that he was failing to gain converts to Mormonism in one of the world's most secular, wine-loving nations, his father tried to cheer him up.

''I was thrilled to stand in for you in connection with Jim's baptism,'' George wrote back. ''This makes two converts here that are certainly yours so don't worry about your difficulty in converting those Frenchmen! I am sure you can appreciate that Ann and Jim each are worth a dozen of them, at least to us.''

A few months later, even Rod, the family rebel who had been enjoying the pub-crawling life during his year abroad, returned home a baptized Mormon. Mitt had arranged for missionaries to contact him in England. Thanks largely to Mitt Romney, in less than one year the entire progeny of anti-religious Edward Davies had joined the Mormon faith.

Within the same period, George Romney's presidential campaign went from high-flying to free fall. Under the glare of the national political press, all the qualities that had made the moderate Republican so popular as a businessman and governor began to work against him. Instead of unguarded, he came across as gaffe-prone.

But it was his cloudy and ever-shifting position on Vietnam that caused him the most grief. After visiting Vietnam in 1965 he had given his strong support to military involvement, but he later declared it to be a tragic mistake.

In an interview before Labor Day in 1967, a Detroit broadcaster asked Romney to reconcile his opposing positions on Vietnam. Romney cited the ''brainwashing'' he'd had by US generals and diplomats during his visit there. Before long, the former Time magazine cover boy became the punch line of a national political joke.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary in February 1968, Romney dropped out of the race. One fellow Republican governor was quoted as saying, ''Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.''

Romney refused to wallow in defeat. Then, just a few months after dropping out of the presidential race, he received devastating news. Mitt, the prince of the family, had been in a horrible car wreck. There was at least one confirmed fatality in the crash along a winding road of Bordeaux, and Mitt was believed to be in critical condition. Initially, the French policeman who found his battered body had marked his passport Il est mort: He is dead.

George reached out to Ann, inviting her to the Romney home as the family waited and prayed for good news. ''I remember the call coming in,'' says Ann's brother Jim. ''I remember the shock of it.''

During Mitt's years away, a kind of father-daughter bond had developed between George and Ann, the father who was the most important figure in his youngest son's life personally preparing his girlfriend to be able one day to assume that role.

In an instant, all of their hopes for the future were tested.

Hours later, they learned that Mitt would survive his serious injuries. It would take them a lot longer to realize the degree to which he would never be the same.

Neil Swidey can be reached at Michael Paulson can be reached at Ann Silvio contributed to this report. top stories on Twitter

    waiting for twitterWaiting for Twitter to feed in the latest...