Deconstructing Romney: Nicholas Lemann on the man behind the candidate in The New Yorker

Brendan James
The Ticket

The shock waves of Mitt Romney's "47 percent" faux pas have thrown his campaign on the defensive once again—a place he's become quite familiar with since the beginning of the race. Nicholas Lemann's new profile of Romney in The New Yorker attempts to chisel away at the Republican candidate's awkward and gaffe-prone exterior and give us a glimpse of the man behind the politician.

Piecing together Romney's tiny worlds, from the Mormon church to private equity, Lemann tries to explain how a man campaigning to lead a nation might come to say something so dismissive of nearly half its population.

Two key things become clear in Lemann's rich profile: Romney's attitude toward business is inseparable from his understanding of life; and he seems to have trouble explaining the values and lessons of his business, private equity, to the American electorate.

"One could see Romney simply as a rich person who thinks the way many rich people must think," writes Lemann, "or one could see him simply as somebody who can't connect to outsiders in any natural way, who goes through life trying one somewhat forced and awkward technique after another, because he thinks he has to keep his real self private."

Beginning with perhaps the most formative institution of Romney's life, the Mormon church, Lemann explains the intense connection between the teachings of the church and the pathway to business. According to prominent Mormons—including former Dean of Harvard Business School Kim Clark—the church's teachings place a high value on leadership, casting self-sufficiency and enterprise as a duty to God.

This fusion of faith and entrepreneurship seems to explain Romney's strong inclination to join the business world, particularly private equity—or "business on steroids." In the '70s, as Romney attended Harvard Business School, a revolution raged in the corporate realm with the decline of the big corporation and the rise of the consulting firm.

Romney stepped out of Harvard into this unfamiliar and buzzing world of business emphasizing consultancy work, where he was soon scooped up into the small and highly secretive team of Bain & Co. Through Romney's leadership, Bain begot Bain Capital, thus changing the face of American business.

And then we have the next clarifying moment of Romney's identity: It was during his tenure as CEO at Bain, Lemann writes, that he reached an understanding of who he was and what he did. "In his own mind, he is a master chief executive who started a very successful business that brought a particular approach to problems—not a guy who used debt to buy and resell businesses."

What's more, the basic tasks of private equity firms—squeezing value out of struggling organizations—hardly coincide with the egalitarian vocabulary politicians like to adopt. And unfortunately for Romney, one buzzword cropping up a lot in this election is "jobs," a word that isn't exactly embraced by those working to streamline, improve and overhaul business in private equity.

Mentioning the cultural touchstones of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" and the film "Pretty Woman"—where Richard Gere's Edward Lewis chooses love over his nasty industry of private equity—Lemann underscores the brute fact that Romney seems unable to address the considerable role this occupation has played in his life; his attempts to channel small government populism have wreaked havoc on his communication and sabotaged his message.

"Because Mitt Romney is incapable of explaining his career in a way that makes it sound admirable to people who aren't in business, the country, for now, is directing at him its very mixed feelings about the financialization of the American economy," Lemann writes.

In closing, Lemann reiterates that the two most seminal aspects of Romney's life are the two that arouse the most suspicion in many Americans: his church and his work. With the presidential debates on the horizon, the GOP nominee may have a chance to finally drop all this baggage and take a new approach toward presenting himself and his experiences.

But if he intends to shatter this caricature in time to make a comeback, Romney will have to shake off his Gordon Gekko routine and channel a bit more of his inner-Edward Lewis.