Just Like Me

The Unzipping of Mitt Romney: an Effort to Show His Softer Side

The humanizing of Romney has begun in the press—no candidate could need it more, writes Howard Kurtz. Plus Michael Tomasky on Mitt the magician.

M. Spencer Green / AP Photo

The story about a 35-year friendship between Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu was striking for reasons that had nothing to do with international diplomacy.

To be sure, it was interesting to learn that the future presidential candidate and future prime minister met in 1976 when both worked for the Boston Consulting Group. But the real head-snapper in the New York Times piece last weekend came in the seventh paragraph.

“We can almost speak in shorthand," Mr. Romney said in an interview. "We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”

Mr. Romney said in an interview?

The inescapable conclusion: The humanizing of Mitt Romney is now under way. Can the People cover story be far behind?

The candidate is famous for keeping the press at arm’s length. He wouldn’t talk for cover stories in the Times Magazine or in Time (which hit him with the headline, “Why Don’t They Like Me?”). He still hasn’t been on a Sunday talk show in this campaign cycle other than Fox News Sunday.

But there he was, cooperating with the newspaper for a colorful story that couldn’t have been done without the campaign’s help. The portrait of a young business consultant included passages reporting, for example, that Romney “still recalls the sense of envy he felt watching Mr. Netanyahu effortlessly hold court during the firm’s Monday morning meetings, when consultants presented their work and fielded questions from their colleagues.” And that won’t hurt with Jewish voters.

The effort goes well beyond candidate accessibility. A couple of days earlier, the Times carried a textured piece on Romney’s “body man,” Garrett Jackson, that mainly served as a window on the former governor’s personal preferences. We learned that Mitt likes peanut butter and honey sandwiches, McDonald’s pancakes (usually eaten in the car), Cherry Coke Zero, chocolate milk, and peanut M&Ms. He hates being late. “He’s just a normal guy,” says Jackson, who offers to do the gov’s laundry but finds that Romney would rather wash his own shirts in the sink. And iron them too.

This is, of course, a time-honored tradition when a candidate closes in on a presidential nomination. In fact the same Times reporter, Ashley Parker, did a story four years ago on Barack Obama’s body man, Reggie Love, who confided that the candidate “eats pretty much anything, from chicken wings and barbecue and ribs to grilled fish and steamed broccoli,” but has a particular predilection for protein bars and Black Forest Berry Honest Tea. Obama revealed that Love had gotten him into Jay-Z.

During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush went on Oprah to talk about his past struggles with alcohol.

When Bill Clinton was heading for the 1992 convention, campaign research showed that most people didn’t know he had a daughter. So he, Hillary, and Chelsea wound up on the cover of People.

While a soft-focus rollout is par for the political course, it’s hard to think of a modern presidential contender who needs it more than Romney. His reserved, sometimes awkward manner (he once feared getting pink slips, likes firing people, and so on) has left many people wondering just who this guy is. He is clearly not comfortable talking about himself—or his faith—and that can be a major drawback in the Dr. Phil age. So the campaign booked him on Leno a couple of weeks back and armed him with some scripted jokes (he’d do Jay a favor by picking David Letterman as his running mate, ha ha).

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Ann Romney, by far the looser of the two, is playing a key role here. She famously told a Baltimore radio host who questioned whether the candidate is too stiff, “We better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out.” The bawdy jokes that followed may have helped a politician who looks like he was born in a suit.

The unzipping takes many forms. Ann Romney has been posting endearing family pictures, some from their dating days, on Pinterest, the hugely popular photo-sharing site whose users are more than 90 percent female. There’s even a Happy-Anniversary video in which she rhapsodizes about their relationship from “the beginning of our romance.”

Expect to see the five Romney boys adopting a higher profile, perhaps on such programs as The View or Ellen DeGeneres.

None of these efforts will miraculously transform the candidate’s image overnight. But piece by piece, they may fill in some of blank spaces in the puzzle that is Mitt Romney.