Column: Mitt Romney, Family Man
M itt, the documentary about Willard Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, is not so much a campaign movie as it is a home movie. You can tell it’s not a campaign movie because in the 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes private moments, none of the main characters utters a single swear word. If it were a political documentary, you’d have to send the kids to the other room. Instead, you should save a space on the couch for them to watch this story of a loving father and his family weathering the abuse of the modern political campaign with faith, good humor and love.
Another worthy audience for this film would be anyone thinking about running for office. This movie offers a glimpse of what it’s like to endure the process, which has the appeal of a terminal illness and many of the similarities. Stress is a constant. Your sons, daughters and spouse feel the abuse heaped on you more than you do. There’s a lot of time spent in waiting rooms, and if you’re the one with flagging health — in this case the candidate — you have to stomach everyone around you constantly trying to make you feel better. At the end, if you lose, it’s like attending your own funeral, as Romney explains, where you have to walk the long line of people breaking down in front of you as they mourn your loss. If you are a prospective candidate, this film might help you test whether you have that elusive “fire in the belly” that candidates are supposed to have before they put in the order for the hats and the bunting.
We hardly thought Mitt Romney was a brute at home, so the view of him as a good father and husband is not revelatory. You won’t be surprised to see that he responds to moments of intense stress by tidying up — cleaning the trash from the hotel balcony before a debate or clearing the stray papers on election night. But the movie is intimate, which is never a word associated with the Romney campaign — or any modern campaign, for that matter. The filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, takes us into the inner sanctum, or the inner Radisson, as the case may be, since so much of campaign life happens on the generic couches of cookie-cutter hotels.
So it’s a little bracing when the candidate who tiptoed around his religion blurts out that voters know him as the “flipping Mormon.” Or, when Romney, who like all candidates, spent his days pitching himself as the unique solution to America’s problems and who never seemed ruffled, shows moments of doubt, suggesting at one point that he was a “flawed candidate.” We’ve read about Barack Obama having these kinds of moments, but we’ve never had this kind of sustained up-close look at the most covered president in history.
It’s also one thing to hear a son say he believes in his dad, as all the Romney boys did in their media interviews, but it’s another to watch Tagg Romney tear up as he tries to persuade his father to run for president in the movie’s opening scene. “If you don’t win, we’ll still love you,” he says. “The country may think of you as a laughingstock, and we’ll know the truth, and that’s OK. But I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it.” Or, to watch Romney explain to his sons why his own father was the “real deal,” while he merely achieved what he did because he was given a good start. When Romney realizes he has lost, his first questions are to his sons: He wants to know whether his loss will mess up their lives in any way.
We all knew about Romney’s faith, but seeing the family praying on their knees feels almost like an intrusion. The scenes between the candidate and his wife also ratify what we were told about their relationship during the campaign, but when she sits on his lap or gives him last-minute advice before a debate, the sweetness of their union fills out. This is a pretty all-boys movie — Mitt Romney, the ghost of George Romney, and the Romney sons create a special male dynamic — but Ann Romney is no smiling ornament. She is, in a way, the emotional center of this private world.
Seeing Romney’s faith — perhaps the most guarded aspect of the man — reminds us just how thick the nonsense was from people like Pastor Robert Jeffress who claimed that Romney wasn’t a “real Christian.” The candidate ends his prayers with a special appeal “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and before a debate he draws a sun on his cheat sheet to remind him of a New Testament passage. For any Christian, this portrait is perhaps the best model of sustained, private faith from a politician we’ve ever seen — distinct from the showy speeches and empty moralizing to interest groups we’ve grown accustomed to. This is a view of a man and a family where faith is as much a part of their lives as the strong chins and resilient hair.
To give us this personal view, the filmmaker leaves out a lot. We see Romney sleeping on the floor of his plane, but we don’t see much about Romney’s inner policy convictions, except for a few brief moments where he talks about the burdens of regulations — a private monologue not that different from his stump speech.
There’s no rebalancing scene aimed at rebutting Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent who don’t support him. Huge portions of the campaign go uncovered — the entire 2012 nominating process, for example — and the larger campaign operation — the aides, the strategy maps, the tactics — is almost entirely absent.
And as appealing a family movie as this may be, there are no fights, squabbles, or inner-family tension that must have occurred at some point. For this to be a complete portrait, it could have used some moments of grist. Surely the Romney clan had spats, which would have made all that hugging and love even more impressive. Since we never see those moments, the family sometimes appears like a living room in a Restoration Hardware catalog — too perfect for any actual human interaction.
The film does not make the case for a Romney presidency either. Just because he’s a great family man doesn’t mean he should be president. Otherwise, those qualities would be enough to get Romney’s fans to like President Obama, who is, by all accounts, just as devoted to his family. If these vignettes had come out during the campaign, perhaps in an effort to make the candidate more “likeable,” it would not have changed the outcome — indeed, it probably would have only opened the candidate and his family to the witless ridicule that is a part of the modern campaign. That Romney protected his family space as much as he did is a testament to him as a father, something we now understand better after seeing this film.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail.