Romney's No-Lose Life

I was pleased to see Michael Barbaro's big New York Times story yesterday about Romney's record at Bain -- because I've been looking for an excuse to trot out one of my favorite Mitt anecdotes, which remains sadly overlooked.

The story comes from the Boston Globe's seven-part 2007 series on the life of Romney. In Part 3, William Bain tells Romney that he and the Bain partners have chosen him to head a new spinoff company, Bain Capital:

In early spring of 1983, with the sun pouring into his office in the Faneuil Hall marketplace, Bain offered Romney the job that would make his career. Romney balked, catching Bain off guard.

Romney explained that he didn't want to risk his position, earnings, and reputation on an experiment in investing. The offer was appealing, Romney recalled in a recent interview, but he wasn't going to make such a decision in a "light or flippant manner."

So Bain sweetened the offer. He guaranteed that if the experiment failed, Romney would get his old job and salary back, plus any raises handed out during his absence.

Romney had one more concern: the impact on his reputation should he prove unable to do the job. In the end, Bain agreed to craft a cover story if necessary, promising to bring Romney back to the consulting firm and explain Romney's return as a matter of his being more valuable to Bain as a consultant.

"So," Bain says, "there was no professional or financial risk."

To me, this vignette perfectly gets to the core of Mitt Romney (not to mention the whole rigged game of American wealth and finance). Romney always leverages his considerable assets -- his business and managerial skills, his personal access and influence, his wealth -- to manipulate circumstances to avoid personal risk. And while that includes risk to his personal finances and professional career, the number-one goal is to protect, at all costs, the Mitt Romney brand. (In another example, from the Winter Olympics chapter of the 2007 Globe series, Romney is depicted asking John Hancock president David D'Alessandro to buy a sponsorship as a personal favor because "his political future hung on the fate of the Games.")

Most striking about this Bain anecdote is the pre-arranged dishonesty -- a conspiracy before the fact, so to speak, to lie and cover up for failure. He was already adept at the tactic back then, in his 30s, when his leverage and power was still relatively weak. I would argue that he has made similar arrangements at almost every step along his path. Of course, it's very hard to tell whether people have agreed to lie on someone's behalf or not. But it certainly seems that Romney has always been able to seize credit for successes, and avoid blame for problems. 

You can see that in the Barbaro story, which concentrates on the Dade saga. But it really runs throughout his Bain history. As I've told before, Romney and his Staples pal Tom Stemberg tell a largely fictitious version of Romney's role in that company's success. Other supposed successes don't stand up well to scrutiny. And Romney never, never, admits fault in the many Bain tales of failure or bad behavior, whether regarding AmPad, DDi, Damon, Wesley Jessen, KB Toys, FTD, Stage Stores, etc.

His success in the Salt Lake Olympic Games is likewise difficult to analyze. Among various obstacles, Romney excluded  sponsorship agreements and negotiations from his pledge for transparency -- so those deals have never been disclosed.

He's also had a more general habit of back-filling his own life story, which is really at the essence of that 1983 arrangement with Bain. Some of those stories we know are untrue -- such as the "dad marched with MLK Jr." tale that I exposed four years ago. Others are highly dubious, or appear at odds with other actions or statements of his.

Don't get me wrong: this kind of dishonest brand-protection behavior is certainly not unique among politicians. But Romney -- as that Bain anecdote reveals -- has been at it with such calculated efficiency, for so long, that it's hard to ever know what about him to give credence to.

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