To run and to lose a presidential campaign is both publicly painful and painfully public, as the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter “Fritz ” Mondale lost 49 states to President Ronald Reagan. A couple of years after that defeat, Mondale was chatting with George McGovern, the Democrats’ 1972 nominee, who had also lost 49 states to a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Mondale reportedly asked McGovern, “Tell me, George, when does it stop hurting?” McGovern’s answer: “I’ll let you know, Fritz. I’ll let you know.”
“Mitt,” a valuable political documentary that follows the former Massachusetts governor all the way from 2006 discussions with his family about seeking the White House through his 2008 primary campaign to his 2012 nomination and loss to President Barack Obama, provides the intimate, human portrait Mitt Romney and his campaign never gave voters. Filmmaker Greg Whiteley was given near-total access to Mitt and Ann Romney, and their large and close family.
There’s an old political maxim that holds that the higher the office, the more important candidate. Voters often have no idea what sort of person their lieutenant governor might be, but long before Election Day, in any year divisible by four, most voters have definite opinions about the competing presidential nominees — which one they like more, trust more, would rather have for a next-door neighbor or an in-law.
We hear a lot of cheap talk in campaigns about “family values.” But after watching “Mitt,” I would argue that Mitt Romney genuinely values family. Ann and Mitt have 22 grandchildren, and with each of them in this movie, Mitt is openly affectionate and playful.
In one moving exchange, Romney speaks to his sons about their late grandfather, his own dad, the able, former Michigan Gov. George Romney: “He was the real deal. The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became governor.” Then, revealing an introspective side, he continues, “I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School … I’m standing on his shoulders.” Moments later, the family, without self-consciousness, are on their knees praying as Romney thanks God for the opportunities — and advantages — Romney’s parents gave him.
What was missing from the Romney candidacy and from the film as well is any expression for what we, as a nation, ought to or could do for children in our country who were not lucky enough to have a father with the talents and values of George Romney. In fact, the only “victims” whose cause he embraces in private are the small businesses he regards as oppressed by onerous tax rates and red-tape regulations. What we see is a keenly analytical Mitt Romney who tempers his family’s enthusiasm following his victory in the first debate over Obama by reminding them that incumbent presidents, because they are overconfident, almost invariably have lost the first debate. On election night 2012, as the tide turns against the GOP, Craig Romney tries to cheer up his father by pointing out that he was “still ahead in the popular vote.” Mitt’s clear-eyed response: “Yeah, well we haven’t got California yet.”
Obama won by almost 5 million votes. But that voters in 2012 were never able to see this very human side of the presidential challenger, which the movie “Mitt” captures, could well constitute a case of criminal negligence on the part of the Republican campaign.