Family Matters

05.30.12

Turning Spotlight on Mitt Romney Siblings Could Help Humanize GOP Nominee

Mitt’s elder brother is thrice married and was ‘disfellowshipped’ by the LDS Church, and one sister is an actress who has dabbled in Democratic politics. Michelle Cottle on how the newly minted GOP nominee’s siblings can help him seem less stiff and perfect.

How perfect that Mitt Romney clinched the nomination thanks to the great state of Texas. Could there be a cohort of Republicans that seems less like his people? Try to picture the governor twirling a towel at an Aggie game. Go on. I dare you.

Now that Mittens is the GOP’s official standard bearer, he can start easing back toward the political center (shake, shake, shake!), flesh out his policy positions, and, trickiest of all, work on dismantling that pesky can’t-relate-to-real-people reputation—an issue stemming in part from Romney’s being too rich, too patrician, and too stiff, but also from his coming across as too perfect.

Despite his boomer status, Romney is the archetype of a particular kind of 1950s Father Knows Best uprightness: the suits, the Gillette jawline, the perky blonde wife and five gorgeous sons, the squeaky-clean image, the goofy sense of humor, the comb marks in that shiny dark mane. It’s as if Mitt had been flash-frozen circa 1952 and only recently defrosted, missing out not only on the fractious ’60s but also on the oh-so-postmodern, Seinfeldian ’90s as well. There is nothing postmodern about Mitt Romney. He is a man without irony or quirks in a land awash in them. Many voters (especially seniors) may find that comforting. For others, it may pose a barrier to Romney’s building a bridge of cultural familiarity.

You know what could help the governor dilute all that Pleasantville weirdness? His family.

Oh, not Mitt’s nuclear family. I mean, seriously, those five boys look like they were carved from the same block of cream cheese as Dad. And Mitt and Ann’s tale of teenage romance is beyond precious.

Cast an eye toward the candidate’s siblings, however, and things get more colorful. As yet, scant attention has been paid to George and Lenore Romney’s three elder offspring, mostly in connection with the late 2011 release of Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, by journalist and distant Romney relative Ronald B. Scott. But even a cursory look at the extended clan suggests there will be at least a few juicy morsels for political obsessives to savor.

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Michelle Cottle discusses how an imperfect family may help Mitt Romney connect with voters

Take older brother George Scott Romney. Six years Mitt’s senior, Scott also caught the political bug from their dad—though with considerably less success. In 1998 Scott ran a failed campaign for the Republican nomination for Michigan attorney general. Along the way, he wound up at the heart of an intraparty feud pitting then governor John Engler (who backed Romney) against longtime GOP macher Chuck Yob (who did not). The fight went all the way to the state convention, where an ugly, down-to-the-wire struggle for delegates opened a party rift that lasted more than a decade.

You know what could help the governor dilute all that Pleasantville weirdness? His family.

Scott’s personal life is even more colorful. He has been married three times. His first wedding, to Ronna Stern, was written up big in the Sept. 1, 1967, issue of Time magazine. Ronna and Scott raised five kids (including one from her previous marriage) before divorcing in 1992. Two years later, Ronna ran for the Republican Senate nomination in Michigan using the Romney name—a move that so miffed family patriarch George that he backed her primary opponent. In 1996 Ronna ran for the state’s other Senate seat and secured the nomination, going on to lose to incumbent Democrat Carl Levin.

A few years later, Scott married Ellen Rogers, who was already pregnant with his child when they got hitched. This is a no-no in the LDS church, to say the least, and as a result Scott spent a year or so “disfellowshipped” for his sins. He and Ellen divorced in 2009. In July of last year, Scott wed a third time.

Mitt’s eldest sibling, Margo Lynn, is said to have lived a quiet, modest life. Born in 1935, Lynn married a federal prosecutor (Loren Grover Keenan), raised eight children (the youngest of whom has Down syndrome), and stuck close to the neighborhood where she grew up.

By contrast, middle sister, Jane LaFont, an actress living in Los Angeles, may be the family’s most engaging character. In his book, Scott observes that “insiders have come to refer to [her] as the Billy Carter of the Romney family.”

Like her mother, Jane, born in 1938, had dreams of being an actress. Also like her mother, she put aside those dreams to start a family. At age 20, Jane wed Bruce Hinckley Robinson, nephew of the now-deceased head of the LDS Church, Gordon Hinckley. After more than two decades of marriage, the couple went through a nasty divorce in 1980 (replete with accusations that Hinckley played around), after which Jane took off for So Cal and returned to acting.

Naughtier still, sister Jane has been known to dabble in Democratic politics. She has been an enthusiastic backer of both Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Jerry Brown. Harboring an open crush on the California governor, Jane persuaded fellow church members around Bel Air to put up yard signs for his campaign.

Admittedly, these aren’t the sort of hijinks that could win the Romneys their own reality show.  But they do make the family seem a shade more like the rest of America, in all its messy, tacky, imperfect radiance.

Now if only we could find a way to get one of those Romney sons on Dancing With the Stars