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Temperamental Journey

The peculiar anger of Mitt Romney.

It was an odd and unexpected moment when, on October 18 at the CNN debate in Las Vegas, the normally even-keeled Mitt Romney suddenly lost his cool. Challenged by Rick Perry about once having employed illegal immigrants as lawn workers, Romney initially answered with a chuckle and strained smile; but, when Perry kept interrupting his attempt at a reply, Romney’s temperature shot skyward. “Anderson?” he called to the moderator, and, when no help arrived, he turned on Perry, his voice rising to a shout and his eyes flashing with anger. “Would you please wait?” he barked at Perry. “Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish what I have to say?” At one point during the exchange, Romney reached out and condescendingly put his hand on Perry’s shoulder.

Moments later, Romney returned to his usual stiff good cheer. Still, a flush lingered, as did the questions swirling among political commentators. What had just happened? How could Perry have so easily provoked the polished former CEO known for his robotic self-control?

The confrontation hinted that perhaps there was more to Romney’s emotional makeup than the reserved, overly programmed manner that is usually ascribed to him in the press. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Romney has a genuine temper. “I’m always very surprised when people talk about Romney as stoic, because I never saw that,” says Brian Lees, the former GOP leader in the Massachusetts state Senate. “He got very animated about lots of things, impassioned, and sometimes angry.” Romney himself has acknowledged as much. In a June interview on CNN, he said his sons had come up with a name for any flare-up involving their father: They call it a “Mitt-frontation.”

A certain level of passion is a perfectly normal thing, of course. Yet Romney (whose campaign did not respond to questions for this article) has several times over the years found himself in embarrassing situations, ranging from confrontations with law enforcement officials to an altercation with a hip-hop star. These incidents raise the question of whether voters and journalists have completely misread the temperament of the likely Republican nominee.

IN JUNE 1981, Romney and his family were about to launch their motorboat on Lake Cochituate, west of Boston, when a state park ranger alerted Romney, who was 34 at the time, that he risked a $50 fine because the boat’s registration number was painted over. According to news reports that emerged during his 1994 run for Senate, Romney believed that the number was partly visible, and, against his wife Ann’s advice, proceeded to launch anyway. “I figured I was at the state park with my kids,” Romney told The Boston Globe in 1994. “My five kids were in the car wondering why we weren’t going out in the boat, so I said I’d launch and pay the fine.” The ranger ordered him to shore, put him in handcuffs, and drove him, still in his wet bathing suit, to the Natick police station, where he was booked for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped a few days later, the case was formally dismissed in February 1982 by Natick District Court, and the court file was sealed at Romney’s request. “He did not have the right to arrest me, because I was not a disorderly person,” he told the Globe.

It was not the last time Romney would clash with a law enforcement official. Two decades later, at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Romney found himself stuck in a huge traffic backup on the road to the men’s downhill ski area, because some buses had not received the proper security-clearance placards and were being prevented from proceeding. Romney, who had organized the Salt Lake Olympics, jumped out to take charge. He started directing traffic, over the objections of a sheriff’s deputy, Kodi Taggart; she later filed a report on Romney’s interference. And he lit into an 18-year-old volunteering as a security officer, Shaun Knopp. Knopp told reporters that Romney had asked “who the fuck” he was and “what the fuck” he was doing and had then told him, “We got the Olympics going on, and we don’t need this shit going on.” Romney denied this at the time, saying he had not used such language since high school. “I would not, have not, and never would use the f-word,” he said. The worst word he used with Knopp, he said, was “H-E double hockey sticks.”

Fraser Bullock, who worked with Romney at Bain Capital and served as the chief operating officer of the Olympics, told me that Romney was fully justified in being irate during the traffic jam. “He’s a man of action. He knew something had to happen and he said, ‘OK, I’ll do this,’” Bullock says. “It was unfortunate that the law enforcement people reacted negatively to that, but what was done needed to be done.” Bullock told me he never saw Romney agitated otherwise during the Olympics.

In the days after the incident, the state’s top law enforcement official decided against an investigation. But the officer in charge of security at the downhill site, Weber County Sheriff’s Office Captain Terry Shaw, said a police sergeant from Colorado working under his command had corroborated Knopp’s account, and Shaw demanded an apology from Romney.

When I reached Shaw, who has since retired, he told me that he had not witnessed Romney’s fury; by the time Romney made it to Shaw at the front of the traffic jam, he had calmed down somewhat, though Shaw speculated that Romney’s softer tone may also have had to do with Shaw’s higher rank. Shaw told me he later demanded the apology anyway to back up his subordinates. Romney was initially unrepentant. “I won’t say it was exactly an apology. Things were left undecided,” Shaw told me. Subsequently, Romney attended a meeting with Shaw where he expressed regret for having lost his cool but still denied Knopp’s version.

Though the incident in Salt Lake City and the 1981 arrest at Lake Cochituate are the most extreme indications that Romney might have a temper, there are, scattered in his past, a handful of other occasions on which his anger seems to have flared. Lees, for instance, recalls Romney being angry the night of the 2004 election, when a major Republican push to reclaim seats in the Massachusetts legislature fell far short. Romney blamed poor execution by the state party, and, Lees says, “He got pretty impassioned.” In 2007, Romney grew angry during a meeting in which Sandy Rios, then a conservative talk-show host at Chicago’s WYLL, challenged the reliability of his opposition to same-sex marriage. According to her account at the time: “Romney lost his temper. He said it wasn’t true and in so many words that I was lying. He asked if I was an attorney, and I said, ‘No, sir, I am not.’ ‘I am a graduate of Harvard Law School,’ he stated. ... He continued coming after me [and] would not stop when interrupted by an aide.”

Interestingly, Jamie Burnett, who served as Romney’s New Hampshire political director in 2008, notes one type of situation where Romney seems guaranteed not to lose his cool—when he is challenged about his religion. Burnett was with Romney in 2007 when he went into a diner in Dover, New Hampshire, to greet patrons. When he marched up to one older man, Burnett recalls, “The guy just turned and yelled at him and said, ‘I’m not going to shake the hand of a Mormon!’” What struck Burnett most was Romney’s response. “He was taken aback a little, but he said, ‘That’s fine, I just wanted to say hello, you don’t have to vote for me.’ He went on, and it didn’t faze him that much.” A few months later, at a town hall meeting in California, a man asked Romney, “If you were elected president, how many first ladies could we expect?” Romney smiled and pointed at Ann, who was with him. “Just the best one in the country. This one here,” he said.

AS I ASKED AROUND about Romney’s temperament, I heard a few different theories as to from where it might come. One centered around his adolescence. As a student at Cranbrook, the elite boarding school outside Detroit, young Mitt—the governor’s son—was hard to figure out. He was no athlete in a school where jocks held sway, and he was a good but not great student. If he got noticed for anything, it was for his practical jokes: He clowned around with a bunch of fellow jesters that went by “Romney and the gang,” and his yearbook entry features a photo of him grinning maniacally in oversized fake glasses and fake Groucho Marx eyebrows. “Mitt was not particularly outstanding at that time in his life,” says classmate Sidney Barthwell, now a Detroit magistrate. “He wasn’t a great athlete, he wasn’t a leader of the school in terms of elected office. ... Mitt was kind of silly at times in those days.”

And he came in for his share of ridicule—not for being Mormon, though that may have driven some of the ribbing, but for generally being a bit different and hard to categorize. Another classmate, Eric Muirhead, recalls a student government meeting where Romney, who was not an elected officer, piped up with a “rather flip” remark, only to be viciously turned on by two students, one of whom stalked off, ending the meeting. Muirhead, who recently retired as an English instructor at San Jacinto College in Houston, does not recall the exact words of the attack, but he says that it was “ugly,” that it denigrated Romney’s “personal manner,” and that it “seemed to have a lot behind it.” What Muirhead remembers most is Romney’s reaction. “He just sat there and took it,” Muirhead recalls. “The meeting was adjourned and I apologized that he had to go through that, and he just shook his head.” Having watched Romney from afar over the years, Muirhead is pretty sure that his tendency to flare up on occasions like Perry’s interruption of him traces to such moments: “He had to survive some belittling as a schoolboy, and when that happens you become tough or you become passive—and he became tough.”

Another school of thought centers around Romney’s fixation on decorum. One longtime Romney associate told me that his flare-ups reflected nothing more than Romney’s contempt for people who are failing to adhere to the rules of proper discourse. “The one thing that bothers Mitt more than anything is general rudeness, just not being nice and kind,” the associate says. “If someone is screaming or using profanity or not being a nice person, being abusive or obstinate in a kind of nasty way, all of those things really get him agitated, get his back up.”

This would help explain the odd tension on display in these moments, which lack the self-assured flair of, say, Chris Christie’s slaps at those who get in his way. Perhaps when Romney wants to exert control over a situation and restore order, he is at the same time struggling not to lose control over himself. “He’s a very polite person and expects people around him to be polite,” says Burnett, the former New Hampshire political director. “He’s trying to be polite, but he’s also trying not to get walked all over. ... I’ve never seen it as a weakness with him—though sometimes it can be awkward.”

Others offer less charitable theories to explain Romney’s temper. There is the repression explanation: Tom Birmingham, a Democrat who was leader of the Massachusetts Senate just prior to Romney’s governorship, compares Romney to the stereotypical British, who are “so formal and buttoned up because, if they didn’t have these formal structures, ... they’d go crazy. It may be that he is so closely holding things in that his inner volcano explodes.”

But Birmingham and others also point to another theory: the entitlement of an executive. Romney, they say, simply does not like having his authority challenged by people he considers less than his equal. “He has a very corporatist approach to governing, and, in corporations, they’re not democracies,” Birmingham says. “Leaders give orders and they’re expected to be followed. He’s very accustomed to having his way obeyed.”

I heard a slight variation on this theory from someone who was a high-level Romney appointee in Massachusetts. This person observed that Romney is not a typical “command and control” executive, alone in his corner office. Rather, he is most comfortable surrounded by other smart people of similar station to his own, which this person attributed to his background in management consulting. “One of the nice things about being a consultant is that you learn to be a strong leader in some situations, but you have many other peers of equal caliber,” the former appointee says. “He’s more comfortable in that peer-leadership role.” This might explain why people I spoke with who worked alongside Romney at high levels said they rarely witnessed Romney as anything but collegial and easygoing. Perhaps among his own element, he generally is able to hold things in check.

There is one final theory that might explain Romney’s occasional outbursts: He may simply be a genuinely quirky person. For years, people have talked about the strange story of how in 1983 he embarked on a family vacation with his dog in a crate that was fastened to the roof of his car. Bullock told me that, during the Olympics, Romney had an unusual rule: Every senior staff meeting had to start with a joke. “It was usually Mitt who had a joke,” Bullock says, “and he’d laugh hilariously at his joke and most of us would chime in.” More recently, there was the odd incident this past June when he pretended that a New Hampshire waitress had pinched his butt.

Whatever the roots of Romney’s temper, we are seeing more of it this campaign season than four years ago. (One opposing campaign official has even come up with a name for the outbursts, calling them “Mitt-fits.”) Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who advised John McCain in 2008 and whose wife is now advising Ann Romney, believes that Romney drew a clear lesson from his 2008 loss. Duprey still chuckles at the memory of the Republican debates in 2007 and 2008 where Romney would be ganged up on by the other candidates, even after he was no longer the front-runner. McCain “just sat back and smiled—Huck was after Romney, Giuliani was after Romney. It was entertaining. The poor guy probably thought, What did I do to deserve all this?” This time around, Duprey says, Romney seems determined to stand up for himself. Romney is now “more relaxed in his own skin. He’s less programmed about letting it show, whether it’s anger or humor.” This could explain Romney’s recent occasional eruptions on the campaign trail. There was the moment at the Iowa State Fair in August when Romney, provoked by a heckler, fired right back, producing his memorable line, “Corporations are people, my friend.” That same month, he raised his voice to a bellow when a woman at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire kept interrupting his response to her question. “You had your turn, madam,” he declared. “Let me have mine.”

IS ANGER in a politician a concern? Romney’s 2008 campaign answered this question in the affirmative with an explicit attack on McCain’s far more established reputation for a bad temper. Today, even as Romney’s temper seems more obvious than in the past, he also appears aware that it could be a problem. In the June CNN interview, Romney and Ann, who was also on the show, implied that they had been working to lower Mitt’s temperature. “As both of us have gotten older,” said Ann, “you certainly hope you mature. ... That’s how you learn to control your emotions. And he’s got—definitely gotten better with that. But there are still some Mitt-frontations.”

Then she turned to her husband. “What do they call me?” she asked him. “Oh, Ann is the—the ‘Mitt stabilizer,’” Romney said, adding, “If I’m away from Ann longer than a week or so, I just get off the horse. She has to bring me back and moderate me down a bit.”

As it happens, Romney’s most unusual altercation happened with Ann at his side. He was sitting in an Air Canada jet in February 2010 preparing to take off from Vancouver to Los Angeles when, according to news reports, he asked a passenger in the row in front of him to put his seat up—and the passenger took a swing at him. The assailant was removed from the flight. Soon afterward, his identity emerged: Sky Blu, aka Skyler Gordy, of the party-rock duo LMFAO. Romney later recounted the incident for David Letterman: “The fellow in the seat in front of my wife put his seat back during the takeoff procedure, and, as we have all heard ten thousand times, ‘Please put your tray table and the seat back in the upright and locked position.’ So I tapped him on the shoulder and reminded him of that direction, and he didn’t like that, by the way, and he gave me a good swat and he broke my hair.”

Sky Blu offered his version in a YouTube video where he is sitting in tight red briefs, with a gold medallion around his neck. “I start to sleeping, I’m too upright, so boom, I lean back, ... and I just hear this guy: ‘Sir, sir put your seat up!’ It was pretty hostile. ... I looked back, and he says again, ‘Sir, put your seat up!’ ... even louder, a little more anger to it. I’m like, ... what did I do? Ask nicely and I’ll put it up, but with that? ... I’m looking at him, and all of a sudden I see him reach over and he grabs my shoulder. ‘Sir, put your seat up!’ and I just react—boom!—get off of me. I didn’t take it any further than that. I just wanted the man not to touch me. He put a condor grip on me. ... What am I supposed to do?” The similarity of Sky Blu’s version of events to the Perry incident—when Romney would also put his hand on an opponent’s shoulder—is hard to ignore.

As luck would have it, LMFAO was recently in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a show. I was unable to talk my way backstage but hung around, hoping I’d be able to hear “We Came Here To Party.” The song was inspired by the Romney clash and builds toward these lines:

We both get a lot of attention in the press
You sellin’ books and wanna be the president
We sellin’ hooks and the flow is heaven sent
We both hustlin’, so why we tusslin’?

Sadly, the song was not on the playlist, which included crowd-pleasers such as “I’m in Miami, Bitch,” “Put That Ass to Work,” and “I Am Not a Whore.” Crass as the lyrics are, there is a clownish element to LMFAO, from Sky Blu’s oversized toy eyeglasses, to the inflatable zebra and palm tree that bobbed about, to the playful costumes worn by the dancers. At one moment, sometime before everyone on stage had stripped to their skivvies for the grand finale, “Sexy And I Know It,” the thought crossed my mind that there was surely at least a little bit in common between LMFAO’s juvenility and Romney’s high school pranks. Who knows, maybe Sky Blu and Romney could have had a better moment together on that plane. But anger had come between them. 

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.