Ann Romney: loyal wife, caring mum, political asset?
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Mitt Romney’s campaign is counting on Ann Romney to be her husband’s ambassador to ordinary Americans. It would be a stretch, however, to argue that Mrs Romney’s life story has much in common with theirs. France24.com takes a closer look.
The lineup of speakers to take the stage at the Republican convention in Tampa this week reads like a who’s who of conservative heavyweights: party veterans like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former presidential candidate John McCain, as well as rising rightwing stars like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
But one of the main attractions, and perhaps the most strategically crucial, is Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, who delivered the first major speech of the convention on Tuesday evening.
The Republican White House hopeful and his advisors were counting on the telegenic, well-liked Mrs Romney to accomplish precisely what First Lady Michelle Obama did at the Democratic convention in 2008: “humanise” her husband, who is often perceived as slightly aloof, and act as his personal ambassador to ordinary Americans – particularly to women, with whom Romney has polled poorly.
The 63-year-old Romney is often praised for her graciousness (she has said that Michelle Obama is “lovely”), tireless devotion to her family (she raised five sons and frequently looks after her 18 grandchildren), and courage in the face of hardship (she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 and battled breast cancer in 2008).
It would be a stretch, however, to argue that Ann Romney’s life story has much in common with that of ordinary Americans.
Born in 1949 into a wealthy Michigan family, Ann Davies met her husband – the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney - in elementary school, and became romantically involved with him at age 15.
Marrying into Mormonism
By 17, Ann – until then an Episcopalian - had begun her conversion to Mormonism, a development she has attributed to her own search for spiritual fulfillment rather than pressure from the Romneys.
Ann’s new religion led her to Utah’s Brigham Young University, a private college owned and operated by the Mormon Church, where she got involved with student government and volunteer work.
One person who remembers Ann Romney fondly from that period is Kim Cameron, a fellow student whom she dated for several months while Mitt Romney was on his 2-year Mormon mission in France. “Ann was smart and proactive,” said Cameron, now a professor of Business at University of Michigan. “She wasn’t trying to be in the limelight. Just a confident, capable girl getting a degree.”
It has been reported in the past that Ann wrote a letter to Mitt while he was abroad, telling him about her new relationship and suggesting they break up. Cameron did not confirm or deny the existence of such a letter, noting only: “When Mitt came home for Christmas break, it took about 24 hours for them to get engaged.”
Ann married Mitt at 19 in a civil ceremony, though the two also had a religious wedding at a Mormon temple, which Ann’s parents, as non-Mormons, were not allowed to attend.
When the couple moved to the elegant Boston suburb of Belmont and started a family, Ann chose to stay at home – a decision that caused northeastern career women of the era to “turn their noses down at me”, Romney told The New York Times in June.
Ann’s life in Belmont - raising children, playing tennis, going to church, and volunteering as a cooking instructor – was busy, but comfortable. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd somewhat caustically wrote in April: “…they set up house in a suburb, befriended other young Mormon couples and kept to their cloistered, conservative, privileged, traditional, white, heterosexual circle.”
A bubble burst by politics and health hardships
Mitt Romney’s political ambitions eventually pulled Ann away from her routine, and her first steps onto the public stage were shaky. Romney’s 1994 US Senate bid against Ted Kennedy ended in defeat, and Mrs Romney was mainly remembered for a widely panned Boston Globe interview, in which she talked about dieting, financial investments, and the fact that she and her husband rarely argued.
“She sounded like an airhead, and frankly it was inappropriate,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian and professor at Boston University. “It allowed Kennedy to paint Romney as out of touch with the common person, which is the same tactic Obama is using now.”
Soon after her husband’s loss, Ann Romney told the Boston Globe: “You couldn’t pay me to do this again.”
But in the years since, serving as first lady of Massachusetts during her husband’s tenure as governor (2003-2007) and then hitting the road for his 2008 and 2012 bids for the Republican presidential nomination, Mrs Romney has gained in political confidence. Now she is seen as a key element of her husband’s effort to win the White House, smiling by his side at rallies, stopping off at Midwestern bakeries, serving pancakes at campaign breakfasts, and chatting warmly with journalists.
“They’ve deployed her well,” Whalen noted. “The crowds are more receptive to her than to him, because she conveys that sense of compassion and of being a good listener. Without her, his numbers would be a lot lower.”
Whalen also offered that Mrs Romney’s appeal “has probably been enhanced by her tribulations with multiple sclerosis, which have made her more sympathetic” in the eyes of Americans.
Diagnosed with the degenerative neuro muscular disease in 1998, Mrs Romney has said she was initially bedridden with pain, exhaustion, and depression. In addition to alternative treatments like acupuncture, she took up “dressage”, a little-known Olympic sport in which a rider guides a horse through a choreographed routine set to music. When travelling, Mrs Romney often takes riding breaks, and one of her horses performed in the Olympics this summer.
An undercover ‘political tactician’?
Mrs Romney has said multiple sclerosis has prevented her from pursuing a graduate degree in art history and starting a career.
Instead, her life has revolved largely around her husband’s political aspirations. Though she confided in a recent interview that she and her husband are never “exactly on the same page 100 percent” when it comes to policy, Mrs Romney has not specified where the areas of disagreement lie. “In terms of politics, she keeps it close to the vest, which is an advantage,” Whalen assessed.
That is not to say she has always managed to avoid controversy. Mrs Romney raised eyebrows when she told a journalist during the Republican primaries, “I don’t even consider myself wealthy”. Just weeks later, she was slammed by some as oblivious to the struggles of most Americans, when she wore a 990-dollar designer blouse during a TV appearance.
The most public flap Ann Romney has been involved in also concerned her privileged lifestyle. This time, though, the candidate’s wife turned the situation to her advantage. Responding to Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who taunted Mitt Romney for seeking advice on women’s issues from Ann when “his wife has actually never worked a day in her life”, Mrs Romney struck back via Twitter: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work,” she wrote.
Buoyed by an outpouring of support from both sides of the political divide (even Michelle Obama “tweeted” in her defence), Mrs Romney then took to Fox News to continue her rebuttal. “She should have come to my house when those five boys were causing so much trouble,” she said. Then, referring to her health problems: “I know what it’s like to struggle.”
In a sign of her growing ease with political combat, Mrs Romney was said to have relished the spat. NBC journalist Garrett Haake recounted that at a Florida fundraiser, Ann “sounded like a political tactician” while discussing the clash. “It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” Haake reported Mrs Romney as saying.
That response drew criticism in some corners. “It’s important when you act the martyr not to overplay your hand,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote in perhaps the most scathing assessment of Ann Romney to date. “If you admit out loud to a bunch of people…that you’re just pretending to be offended, you risk looking phony, like your husband.”
Others see Mrs Romney’s willingness to confront detractors as evidence that she is ready for the scrutiny that awaits her if her husband wins. Anita McBride, who acted as chief-of-staff to former First Lady Laura Bush, has met Ann Romney several times and says she looks like a natural in the spotlight. “She married into a political family, she’s knowledgeable about the process. She is very prepared for public and political life,” McBride noted. “She’s watched it over a long period of time.”
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