“That freedom so integral to the American experience will again propel us forward to new heights of discovery, to new horizons of opportunity, and to new dimensions of prosperity.”
Those words come from the first presidential acceptance speech of Willard Mitt Romney, 45th President of the United States. You don’t recognize them, of course, because you never heard that speech, because Romney lost the 2012 election. But Mitt, the documentary premiering on Netflix today, captures him composing the speech and reading bits of it aloud, aboard his campaign plane, his work interrupted by his running mate, Paul Ryan, with an upbeat report from an election-eve campaign swing through Ohio. “It’s all good,” Ryan says.
It wasn’t, as it turned out. That small moment is one of many caught by the unobtrusive camera of Greg Whiteley, who tailed Romney over six years and two campaigns. Mitt doesn’t serve up a Game Change-style story of campaign tactics and finger-pointing, nor does it particularly dish or drop bombshells. But it offers a quiet, empathetic picture from the perspective of Romney and his family of what it’s like for a human being to experience the glare of a modern media campaign and to offer himself up for rejection, twice.
As followers of the campaign know, Romney’s family were not just his supporters but among his closest advisers, particularly his wife, Ann, and his son Tagg. Mitt emphasizes the dynamic from the beginning, as the Romneys huddle up in winter 2006 for a family meeting to weigh the pros and cons of a Presidential run. There are many cons–Tagg notes that he once asked Mitt’s father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, for advice on a political career, and grandpa’s advice was “Don’t do it.” But he urges dad to go for it, despite the risks for a rich, patrician (and Mormon) candidate: “The country may think of you as a laughingstock, but we’ll know it’s not true, and it’s OK.”
Much of Mitt ends up being about that, namely, the way a candidate like Romney gets framed in a campaign and how hard it is to shake a label once it sticks. The first section of the movie, focusing on the 2008 GOP primaries, shows how Romney made a run at Sen. John McCain but found himself painted as, in his words, “the flipping Mormon.” It stuck, he concedes, and now you can’t un-stick it: “It’s like trying to convince people that Dan Quayle is smart.”
Whiteley’s film, which largely steers clear of the details of issues, doesn’t take much of a position on whether the flip-flopping charges were true or not. It’s telling a more personal, apolitical story: that running for President is rough, even for highly successful, well-insulated people and their families. The Romney brood is close and omnipresent in Mitt, and you get a sense of how the candidate is buoyed by the sight of his grandkids–“the whole gopher village!”–but you see too how the strain and the hits of campaigning wear on them over the years. After 2008, as associates immediately start talking about a second run for her husband, a tired Ann says, “I think I need to write myself some notes as to why I would not want to do that again… The answer’s no. It’s too much.”
But the answer was yes. The second half of the movie jumps forward to 2012, bypassing its clown-car primary to Romney’s acceptance at the Republican National Convention and the general election. (As my colleague Zeke Miller reported, the professional Romney campaign operation, which scarcely wanted to be in the documentary at all, shut the cameras out during the primary.) A politics buff will easily recognize the highlights–the 47% video, the debates–but the family perspective is new. After his re-energizingly successful first debate with President Obama, the Romneys jubilate in private (“He just absolutely crushed it!”).
And after the second–where Romney trips himself up in the “Please proceed, Governor” moment over Benghazi–the family complain about Candy Crowley’s fact-checking of Romney’s claim that the President did not call the attack an “act of terror” immediately afterward. Privately, though, they recognize their candidate walked into a mistake: “Someone briefed him on that, and someone got it wrong.” But the more striking moment comes after the post-mortem, as Mitt and Tagg playfully argue about whether there’s a food court in the LaGuardia Delta shuttle terminal, and Tagg whips up a map on his smartphone to prove himself right. Once again that night, Mitt Romney has been fact-checked in a debate.
Anyone who attentively followed the 2008 and 2012 elections and the reporting around them will not be very surprised by how Mitt’s story plays out. But it’s an interesting footnote, a spin-free picture of the personal cost of campaigning; speaking as a disclosed Obama voter, I found it humanly sympathetic regardless of political sympathies. As the returns come in election night (reporting after the election said the Romney camp was “shellshocked” by the loss, despite the polls), it’s simply an illustration of how hard it is for people to let go of a dream. Aides look for glimpses of hope in the red-and-blue map, the grandkids cry, and the candidate, gradually, sees that he needs to let go of the alternative history he was writing aboard his campaign plane and grapple with reality.
“So,” he asks the room, “what do you say in a concession speech?”