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MUCH HAS BEEN made of the positive influence that George Romney, the respected auto executive and former governor of Michigan, had on his son Mitt. But what if one of George’s most powerful pieces of advice has proven fatefully misguided? That is the thought that hung over me as I read The Real Romney, this comprehensive and eminently fair-minded biography of the GOP’s fitful frontrunner.

In a chapter on Mitt’s privileged upbringing in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, both Boston Globe reporters, describe how acutely he caught the political bug after his father decided to run for governor in 1962:

Fifteen-year-old Mitt ... appeared at George’s side at the announcement speech, spoke at county fairs, and traveled throughout the state in a campaign van. He worked the campaign switchboard and set up ‘Romney for Governor’ booths. ‘I would introduce myself and shout out to people walking past, “You should vote for my father for governor. He’s truly a great person. You’ve got to support him. He’s going to make things better,”’ he wrote years later.

After his father’s victory, Romney fils became an intern in the governor’s office:

When Mitt was sixteen years old, in 1963, he joined his father late one night at the capitol in Lansing. As Governor Romney sought passage of a bill before a midnight deadline, an Associated Press reporter observed the ‘tall, slim boy’ delivering advice to his father about how to deal with recalcitrant legislators. ‘Dad, go in there and talk to them,’ Mitt told his father. ‘I don’t think that will get it done,’ George told his son. But it did, and a resolution was finally reached at 1:30 a.m.

It is not hard to imagine these experiences steering Mitt Romney into a career of public service. But George Romney told his son that the way to get into politics was to become successful in business first. To this day, Mitt cites this advice as his lodestar. When a young New Hampshire girl asked Romney late last year what he would tell kids to encourage them to enlist in the work of government, Kranish and Helman write, “he deadpans at first, saying ‘The answer is: nothing. Don’t do it. Run as far as you can.’ But when he turns serious, he invokes the advice he says his father offered years ago: ‘He said, “Don’t get into politics as your profession. … Get into the world of the real economy. And if someday you’re able to make a contribution, do it.’” Romney recounted the advice in starker form during a January debate: “I happened to see my dad run for governor when he was 54 years old. … He said, ‘Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage.’”

The debate line was criticized for its suggestion that only the wealthy should run for office, but few raised the other question that the comment prompted: what if this approach to politics is part of Romney’s problem? What if, as a young man, he had gone directly into public service? Surely the sheltered straight-arrow would have benefited from earlier exposure to politics in whatever form. For one thing, he might have learned to talk to women without chasing them down the street and unintentionally insulting them about their make-up, as Romney did during his Senate run in 1994. And he surely would have learned how to talk about his privileged background, and how to relate to people whose upbringing was less fortunate.

Instead he went into the world of the “real economy,” which wasn’t so real at all. Leaving the consulting firm Bain & Company in 1983 to start up Bain Capital, its venture-capital and private-equity arm, Romney won an assurance from Bill Bain that he would be able to return to his consulting job if the new company failed. Bain Capital, which Romney would lead for fifteen years, was as rarefied as it gets: for one thing, all of the partners whom Romney assembled for the venture were men. And then of course there were the financial rewards, which were decidedly unreal—Kranish and Helman emphasize that, in addition to Romney’s favorite success stories, such as Bain’s role in founding Staples, the firm reaped huge gains on deals that Bain itself considered lucky windfalls, such as its $51.3 million investment in an Italian yellow-pages company that later stumbled into the Internet boom, returning Bain more than $1 billion.

By the time Romney made his move into public service, to challenge Teddy Kennedy in 1994, he was an exceedingly wealthy 47-year-old. In one poignant moment, the authors describe the octogenarian George Romney traveling from Michigan to Boston to help his son’s campaign:

He would fly in to Boston’s Logan Airport from Detroit, take the bus to the subway, catch the Blue Line into the city, pick up the Red Line outbound to Cambridge, take it to the end of the line, and then walk, wheeling his bag, the mile or so to campaign headquarters. Then he’d walk upstairs and say simply, ‘Is Mitt here?’ ... Campaigning for his son one day at a nursing home in Salem, north of Boston, George was asked if Mitt wasn’t very much like himself back in the day. ‘He’s better than a chip off the old block,’ George replied. ‘No. 1, he’s got a better education. No. 2, he’s turned around dozens of companies while I turned around only one. And No. 3, he’s made a lot more money than I have.’

The last point was certainly true. As head of American Motors, George Romney earned a salary of $1.8 million in today’s dollars and turned down bonuses equal to a fifth of his pay. By contrast, his son, operating in a rather different era, amassed a fortune estimated at $250 million; he has made more than $20 million in each of the past two years simply from his investments and his stake in Bain Capital. George Romney, who had worked his way up from nothing and never graduated college, looked upon Mitt’s success with pride, but one cannot help but wonder if this was a case of the son taking the father’s advice rather too much to heart. Mitt didn’t just make enough to pay the mortgage before entering politics—he made enough to leave his five sons a $100 million trust fund and pay the mortgages on a whole bunch of houses, from Lake Winnipesaukee to Utah to La Jolla. And in the process he created a real liability for himself as a future politician. His outsized wealth only exacerbated his image as a privileged man with little understanding of average Americans. And his work in the “real economy,” unlike his father’s, raised serious moral questions, revolving around the collateral damage of Bain’s success—the workers laid off, the companies loaded up with debt while Romney and his partners pocketed their customary fees.

Romney has struggled with these questions from the very start. Kranish and Helman describe him at his first election win, claiming the GOP nomination to challenge Kennedy. “If Romney was beaming from behind the podium on primary night, the smile slipped from his face the moment he descended the stage. A TV reporter, nudged by the Kennedy camp, immediately challenged Romney on his record at Bain. Hadn’t the firm slashed some jobs? ‘You saw the flash of anger,’ said one former Kennedy aide, describing Romney’s reaction. It was something of an epiphany for the Democratic campaign: Romney seemed to have a glass jaw.” But it is not hard to understand Romney’s shock. How dare they challenge his success, when he had only been doing what dear Dad had instructed him to?

As comprehensive as their account is, Kranish and Helman all but admit that they are unable to deliver fully on their stated goal to “to plumb the many chapters of [Romney’s] life for insight into his character, his worldview, his drive, and his contradictions.” The real Romney, some have suggested, may just be too deeply hidden, perhaps bound up with his closely guarded religious beliefs. Recently a counter-argument has arisen that the search for a “real Romney” is beside the point—what matters is not what lies within the well-coiffed exterior, but rather what is on the surface: what Romney says, does, and intends to do.

After reading The Real Romney, I come down somewhere between those camps. What if it is hard to divine the deepest recesses of Romney because those recesses simply do not go all that deep?

This is, after all, a man who decided that he was going to devote at least the first half of his adult life to making an enormous pile of money. Even after the Kennedy race, which he later said had only heightened his interest in politics, Romney went right back to Bain Capital, for what would prove to be his most lucrative years of all. It is perhaps uncouth to say so, but does not Romney’s fixation on a line of work that amounted to high-stakes data-crunching and paper-shuffling suggest a rather constricted view of the world and a shallow sense of greater purpose?

Kranish and Helman quote Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime aide, saying of Romney that he is “not a very notional leader. He is more interested in data and what the data mean.” It is, they conclude, a revealing line about Romney. “What he has struggled with, in politics, is exactly who he is, with decoding his political DNA,” they write. “For years, he could just operate in his father’s shadow or avoid those hard questions in the private sector, getting by on brains and leadership alone.” His father, too, was hard to pin down politically, a fact that is often forgotten in the glowing accounts of George Romney. But surely Romney pere’s more forceful and rounded personality had something to do with the fact that the economy in which he made his money was so much more, well, real. This is partly a function of the times in which the men worked—Mitt’s rise happened in the flush of the “greed is good” years. But it’s also a matter of choice. Mitt could have chosen a line of work of which it would be easier to say what he said of his father: “Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.”

The constrictions of Romney’s sheltered life go beyond his Monopoly-money loot. His biggest filial rebellion was to sneak back from Stanford to Michigan to visit his sweetheart and eventual wife Ann. At Stanford, he turned against the incipient anti-Vietnam protests before leaving them behind for his missionary stint in France. His marriage to Ann, soon after his return, was literally sheltered—her parents were barred from the religious ceremony inside the Salt Lake temple (though George and Mitt converted not just Ann but her two brothers, to the chagrin of her proudly irreligious father.) As a married couple, the Romneys say they have never seriously argued—Mitt’s reaction against the sparring between his vivacious but querulous parents, according to Kranish and Helman. And as a business partner, Romney kept to himself and his family—no dallying for drinks after work for him. It is often said that Americans like to elect presidents they would like to have a beer with. But what to make of a candidate who has not only never had a beer, but says he has never so much as quarreled with his wife?

Romney’s sheltered existence extended to the most mundane of duties on the home front—Ann spared him having to change any of the messier diapers for their five sons because, he has admitted, “they gave me dry heaves.” Reading this, I thought back to a passage earlier in the book spoken by Romney’s charming mother Lenore, who gave up a Hollywood career to marry George, and later ran unsuccessfully for the Senate herself. “Politics is like washing diapers,” she once said. “You want the baby so much, you don’t mind washing his diapers.” Mitt Romney was spared washing the diapers. Maybe he would be a better politician if he had not spared himself some of the messier work of politics.

Alec Macgillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.