Any taxonomy of first friends includes a few familiar types. There’s the amiable glad-hander destined for the outer Cabinet, like George W. Bush crony Don Evans. There’s the scheming, scandal-prone loyalist, like the Clinton hanger-on Harry Thomason, of Travelgate infamy. And then there’s the discreet consigliere who serves alternatively as fixer, sounding board, chief surrogate, and all-around defender of the faith.
Personal friends with such outsize influence are actually quite rare in presidential politics. Within recent administrations, only Valerie Jarrett really fits the profile. But, as it happens, Jarrett won’t be the only Valerie Jarrett–figure advising a presidential candidate this year. Mitt Romney has his own longtime-pal-cum-alter-ego, a 56-year-old ex-Bain Capital partner named Bob White.
White, who is trim with graying brown hair, was one of Romney’s original hires when launching the private-equity firm back in the 1980s. He has been at Romney’s side in every major endeavor he’s undertaken since, from the Olympics to the campaign trail. Over the course of Romney’s career, White has served as debate prepper, personnel vetter, designated gut-checker, in-house historian, and diplomatic envoy. It was White who found Romney a campaign manager for his run for governor, White who headed his transition to the Massachusetts statehouse, White who has chaired his campaigns for president.
Since the start of the Republican primaries, White has served as the chief advice-broker within the campaign. “Are we a family that has internal squabbles? Absolutely,” says Ron Kaufman, a top Romney adviser. “One reason it works is Bob. People go to Bob all the time and say, ‘You’ve got to tell Mitt this.’ ... Knowing how to do it, when to do it, is his huge talent.” White has also weighed in personally at key moments. When pressure built on Romney to release his tax returns, White helped persuade the candidate to take his time, arguing, as another adviser puts it, that “you never release something that’s five hundred pages long or more till you understand it.” And he has helped formulate retorts to attacks on Romney’s wealth. When Newt Gingrich badgered Romney for investing in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, White observed that Romney didn’t own stock in the disgraced mortgage giants; his blind trust owned bonds through a mutual fund—a less direct investment than Gingrich’s own Fannie and Freddie holdings. Romney made the point in a Florida debate to devastating effect.
White’s status in Romneyworld is all the more remarkable given that the former Massachusetts governor is often described as essentially friendless—the one contemporary pol who is even more of a loner than Barack Obama himself. But Romney’s affection for White is such that he refers to him simply as “TQ”—short for “The Quail,” an old Bain nickname. (The “bobwhite” is a species of quail, the joke being that there is nothing remotely skittish or meek about the actual Bob White.) Which, in the end, is what makes White such an intriguing figure. For a politician often viewed as maddeningly opaque—whose persona even the most charitable observers concede has shifted over time—there may be nothing so revealing as his choice of trusty wingman.
PERHAPS THE EASIEST WAY to explain the attraction of the consigliere-pal is that he or she brings qualities the aspiring pol lacks. Obama was a nobody in Chicago when he met Jarrett, a consummate insider with deep ties to the city’s establishment. Romney, by contrast, has pedigree to spare. In White—who was the first in his family to attend college—Romney befriended the self-made success he sometimes romanticizes on the campaign trail.
Whereas Romney often appears stiff and reserved and struggles to make small talk, White, a former college hockey player, is preternaturally comfortable in his own skin. As Peter Flaherty, a senior campaign adviser, puts it, “He is just as at ease whether he’s talking with the person selling him a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts or the person selling him Dunkin’ Donuts.” (In 2006, Bain Capital actually acquired a share of the company.)
This quality has been paying dividends for Romney since he and White were colleagues at Bain. In 1991, Bain & Company, the corporate parent of Bain Capital, was drowning in red ink and enlisted Romney to save it. Romney realized the only way to ward off bankruptcy was to ask anyone with a claim on the parent company to make do with less: bankers, suppliers, even Bain’s founding partners, who had run up $200 million in debt so they could cash out their stakes. White was the lieutenant Romney dispatched to sweet-talk the holdouts. “They’d say, ‘Bill Bain is more at fault than I am. He should have to give more.’ Or someone would say, ‘My founding stake came later, I’m less at fault,’” recalls one person involved. “Bob’s the guy ... who said, ‘We’re going to talk about this till we get it done.’” In the end, White persuaded the company’s bankers to roll over their loans, its suppliers to take discounts, and the founders to return half the $200 million they’d awarded themselves.
White’s skills transferred easily to the political arena. Several days after Romney entered the race for governor in 2002, White paid a visit to Jim Rappaport, a Massachusetts businessman running for the state’s number-two job. Rappaport was the favorite to win the lieutenant governor nomination and Romney had told him he’d stay out of the primary. But White and Mike Murphy, the candidate’s chief consultant, decided that a ticket of two wealthy suits was a sure loser. White’s delegation informed Rappaport they were backing Kerry Healey, a failed legislative candidate who had just become party chairwoman. “I thought we were going to get nunchucked—there were people yelling at us,” says Ben Coes, the Romney campaign manager who was present for the encounter. “But Bob’s the kind of guy who could be urinating on your shoes while talking to you, and you’d thank him afterward.” (For the record, White’s charms were partially lost on Rappaport, who says his “Thank you” was more along the lines of “Just get the bleep out of my office.” But he did support Romney in the fall.)
White has also countered Romney’s natural tendency toward caution. When Bill Bain first tapped him to run Bain Capital in the 1980s, Romney passed, worrying that failure would blot his sterling CV and cost him financially. According to biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, he only accepted once Bain offered to give him his old job back if the venture folded, along with any raises he would have accrued and a cover story to protect his reputation.
But, as a politician, Romney has sometimes taken audacious risks—like the decision to tackle health care reform as governor. More often than not, it’s White who has bucked up his resolve. Just over a month out from Election Day in 2002, Romney’s top aides convened at his Belmont home to hash out their debate strategy. The consensus was that the format had not been kind to Romney in the past, and so there was concern about drawing attention to it. But Romney’s press aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, proposed doubling down: asking NBC poohbah Tim Russert to moderate a debate the week before Election Day. The benefit was “getting a national figure ... who was more likely to ask [Romney’s Democratic opponent Shannon O’Brien] the tough questions that the local papers were unlikely to ask her,” recalls Brian Shortsleeve, a deputy campaign manager at the time.*
Initially there was skepticism. But White liked the idea and persuaded Romney that the reward was worth the risk. “Bob and Eric Fehrnstrom are the guys who made that happen,” says Shortsleeve. It worked. Russert put O’Brien on the defensive over taxes, the death penalty, and abortion. Romney’s poll numbers surged after the debate.
AS A CANDIDATE in 2008, Barack Obama spoke often about bringing once-in-a-generation change, but it was hard to know how serious he was. In retrospect, though, there was one foolproof indication that he’d swing for the fences: Valerie Jarrett. Within Obamaland, Jarrett’s role was making sure Obama fulfilled his historical destiny. “Valerie considers herself the protector of Barack’s immortal soul,” says Jim Cauley, Obama’s Senate campaign manager. “She thinks she has to protect him from political hacks like Rahm [Emanuel] and [David] Axelrod. ... Valerie has a thing about him not selling out.” That his closest friend and adviser saw him in quasi-messianic terms suggested Obama probably did, too.
What does Romney’s top campaign buddy tell us about him? At first blush, it would seem to be that, for all his flirtations with culture-war conservatism, border-policing maximalism, and supply-side economics, he remains a corporate technocrat at heart. “[Bob’s] main role ... is trying to get the best people, trying to drive actions and decisions, versus a specific ideological bent,” says Coes. One of Romney’s signature initiatives as governor was what he called the “Business Resource Team,” the mandate of which was to coordinate among the roughly 20 state agencies and industry groups with influence over the economy. “We got them to work together so that if a business wanted to expand, it’s easier, they get a faster response,” says Ranch Kimball, Romney’s former economic development czar. “The governor believed in it. Bob did, too.”
But just because White and Romney don’t have an ideology doesn’t mean they lack a worldview. In fact, they have a distinct worldview. To them, business and finance aren’t just amoral, but forces for good. They believe achievement in the corporate world is virtuous, not merely lucrative.
No surprise, then, that ever since Romney entered politics, White has been the most consistent voice on behalf of embracing his record at Bain. White touted it to reporters during Romney’s first run for office in 1994 and was central to the calculations that credit Romney for helping to create tens of thousands of jobs there. During this presidential run, when opponents have attacked Romney as a predatory capitalist, White has been a leading internal advocate of Romney’s response: “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.” “People tried hard in the primary, as the president is now, to make Bain a negative issue,” says Kaufman. “But, because of Bob’s extensive knowledge, etcetera, it made it easier for us to make it a positive.”
Of course, just because “success” served Romney well in a Republican primary doesn’t mean it will work in the general election, when voters may look skeptically at a record of corporate buyouts. And the campaign understands this. “It’s going to need to evolve for the general,” concedes another Romney adviser. Still, the evolution will have limits. Though Romney’s record reveals flashes of compassion, as president he is unlikely to brood about income inequality or any of capitalism’s hard edges. If one can extrapolate from Bob White, Romney believes such disparities and dislocation are the flip side of a vibrant economy—that capitalism works remarkably well the way it is.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.
*Correction: A former Romney aide notes that this description lumps together two episodes. The decision about the Russert debate occurred several weeks earlier, while the October meeting at Romney's home was about becoming more aggressive generally, including doing more debates.