One was the divorced son of an alcoholic shoe salesman; another, the stepson of an alcoholic car salesman; still another, the self-proclaimed “black sheep” of his family.
The history of the American presidency is a history of men who have suffered — and largely overcome — humble beginnings, immense family hardships, profound personal tragedies, and humiliating public failures.
To put it another way, when considering whom they want to lead them, Americans naturally gravitate toward flawed characters – people whose success is rooted in failure, and whose lives contain the familiar arc of a redemption narrative.
But Mitt Romney doesn’t fit this mold. In fact, he may be the least flawed presidential candidate in recent American history. His main flaw, it seems, is that he doesn’t really have one.
Theodore Roosevelt had bad health and the simultaneous deaths of his wife and his mother. FDR had polio and a terrible marriage.
Like Romney, John Kennedy was born rich, famous and handsome. But JFK was plagued by health problems, including Addison’s disease, a rare endocrine disorder, and chronic and severe back pain. He nearly died fighting in World War II. His sister had developmental disabilities, and he suffered through the deaths of his brother, sister and brother-in-law. His son Patrick died as an infant.
Richard Nixon was born into poverty, and two of his brothers died early in life. He gave up a grant to attend Harvard University in order to stay at home and care for his ailing brother Harold. He suffered a narrow defeat for president in 1960, and the humiliation of a lost election for Governor of California in 1962, before ascending to the presidency.
Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer of humble means who lived for a year as an adult in subsidized public housing.
Ronald Reagan — the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman — was America’s first divorced president. His second daughter, Christine, lived just one day. And it took him twelve years and three tries before he won the presidency.
Like Kennedy, George H.W. Bush was born into a prominent family. But also like Kennedy, Bush was shot down and nearly died in World War II. Many of Bush’s family members were killed in the war.
Bill Clinton’s father died when he was an infant. He was raised by an alcoholic stepfather who beat his mother and stepbrother. When Novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Clinton was the “first black president,” she wasn’t referring just to his liberal policy agenda. As she put it, “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s and junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Or as comedian Chris Rock put it in 1996:
I like Clinton… because he’s got real problems. You know, he doesn’t have President problems. He’s got real problems like you and me. That’s right, running out of money, his wife’s a pain in the ass. All his friends are going to Jail. I know Bill Clinton. I am Bill Clinton.
George W. Bush grew up as a child of privilege. But he was widely considered a failure — the family’s “black sheep.” He was arrested for disorderly conduct as a college student, and again for drunk driving at age 30. His initial forays into the oil business were a bust. Bush only turned things around at age 40, when he underwent a religious conversion, quit drinking and began to take his life seriously.
Finally there’s Barack Obama, who grew up with an absent father and an often-absent mother. In his new best-seller The Amateur, Edward Klein reveals that after Obama’s humiliating 2002 defeat for a seat in the House of Representatives, Obama “was broke and deeply in debt, and it looked as though he might be finished in public life.”
According to Klein, the Obama’s marriage was on the rocks and Obama confided in friends that he and Michelle were talking about divorce. Michelle even had divorce papers drawn up, one Obama friend told Klein. Obama’s friends said he was so depressed they feared he was suicidal.
Mitt Romney has lived a very different kind of life. He grew up semi-famous and rich as the son of a prominent governor. He graduated from all the best schools. As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write in The Real Romney, Mitt “had known a few hard moments.… But for the most part he’d had it pretty good, his golden childhood largely unimpeded.”
Romney doesn’t smoke, drink or swear. After an astonishingly successful business career, his worth is pegged at about $200 million. He and his wife, Ann, have raised five successful and seemingly well-adjusted boys.
To many voters, Romney appears a little too perfect. As one former Romney aide put it to the authors of The Real Romney, “He has lived a charmed life…. It is a big challenge that he has, connecting to folks who haven’t swum in the same rarefied waters as he has.”
This is not to suggest Romney hasn’t faced difficult times. A young Romney didn’t win many converts working as a Mormon missionary in France, where he was involved in a car accident that killed a passenger and injured him. But he quickly recovered.
Even Romney’s professional failures have bright silver linings. He lost the 1994 campaign for U.S. Senate in Massachussetts by 17 points, but it was the smallest margin of Edward Kennedy’s eight reelection campaigns. As Ron Scott writes in Mitt Romney:
More objective observers would acknowledge that the loss was, in fact, a victory for Romney. No one had really expected him to beat Kennedy in Massachusetts. That he had given Kennedy the scare of his life was good enough.…That Mitt’s performance was achieved by dint of personal determination and largely funded by his own money made his showing even more impressive. He had established himself as a Republican to be reckoned with.
Romney shrugged off the defeat with characteristic resilience: he was back at his desk at Bain Capital the next morning.
Romney’s biggest tribulation is his wife Ann’s multiple sclerosis, with which she was diagnosed in 1998. Mitt described seeing her fail a series of neurological tests taken to help detect the disease as the worst day of his life.
But Ann found an effective assortment of treatments that have allowed her to live a normal life. She appears to be thriving now and accompanies her husband to most campaign events.
Romney’s almost-perfect life may hamper not only his ability to connect with ordinary voters, but also their ability to connect with him.
President Obama has his own trouble connecting, but relates to college students with heavy student loan debt by saying, as he did recently in Ohio, “In you, I see my own life” and “Michelle and I have been there…None of us came from privileged backgrounds.”
He tries to create solidarity with the middle class by saying, as he did recently in Pittsburgh, “I remember my favorite vacation when I was a kid, traveling with my mom and my grandma and my sister, and we traveled the country on Greyhound buses, railroads. And once in a while we’d rent a car, not that often, and stay at Howard Johnsons.”
But Romney’s attempts at relating to ordinary Americans usually fall flat. His assertion that he once feared getting fired from a job was met with skepticism and more than a few eye rolls.
Voters don’t want their leaders to be dominated by their flaws. And nobody begrudges Romney his fortunate upbringing, his professional success and, especially, his exemplary personal life. All those things are a huge net benefit to Romney’s candidacy.
But a redemption story lends a candidate the air of authenticity. It humanizes him. Voters want to know that their leaders have faced adversity — times of suffering, loss and even failure — just like they have.