When a weakness as a candidate is a presidential strength

Mitt's distaste for tooting his own horn is part of what makes him presidential

Mitt Romney is a bad self-promoter. The reasons why are also reasons he’ll be a fine president.

How bad a self-promoter is Mitt Romney? Pretty bad, when you think about it. Romney has lived in the public eye to varying degrees his entire life. He’s run numerous campaigns, served in public office, and is completing his second run for the presidency. Still, there is much of his life still hidden from the public — so much that reveals incredible decency and character. Publicizing that information could not only confer tremendous political advantages on Romney, but would destroy the cartoonish image of him his opponents have cultivated. Yet Romney instinctively keeps that information private, refusing to glorify his personal heroics for political gain.

Hiding his light under a barrel. Mitt Romney
Hiding his light under a barrel. Mitt Romney (Photo: Christopher Halloran /

Yes, Romney’s earnest character and modest personality make him a terrible self-promoter; but while that character makes him a weaker candidate than he might be, it will also make him a stronger president.

Some of Romney’s private, modest demeanor is innate, but I suspect that much of it derives from internalizing his Mormon values. I’m no cultural expert, but I spent a week with the Utah Delegation at the Republican National Convention, and certain cultural traits stood out. The Utah group was a remarkably accomplished bunch — but it took some prying to find out just how remarkable. Modesty is a value they take seriously, applying it to dress, to language, to behavior and to demeanor. Self-promotion goes against the grain of such lifelong self-discipline. And Mitt Romney is nothing if not self-disciplined.

Romney’s intelligence, diligence, attention to detail, and strong moral compass have made him incredibly successful in every area of his life: at Harvard University, where he simultaneously completed law school and business school — in the top 5 percent of his class; in a storied venture capital firm which created dozens of successful companies and tens of thousands of careers; in turning around a loss-ridden, scandal-plagued Olympics to be one of the most successful games ever; in governing Massachusetts, turning deficits into surpluses and fostering genuine bipartisanship; and in anchoring a big, successful, happy family, including five boys who themselves are models of decency and citizenship.

But what truly stand out are the endless little stories — largely unknown— of his personal generosity. These speak volumes about Romney, the man. It is said that character is shown by what one does when no one is looking. Well, outside the public eye, Romney has shown plenty. Besides the tens of millions of dollars he’s quietly given to charity, there are dozens of barely-known stories of devotion of time and emotional support generously shared with strangers as well as friends. Just a small sample:

A co-worker of Romney’s died of a heart attack, leaving a 5-year old daughter. The Romneys stayed in her life, and she turned to them for loans to pay for Columbia Medical School. Just before graduation, she received a Christmas note from Romney — the loans were now a gift, no repayment necessary.

Romney once heard of a new-to-Boston family whose sons were left paraplegic in a car accident. Romney and his family paid them a Christmas Eve visit, delivering a stereo and other gifts for the crippled boys. Romney continued to support the boys through college.

Romney once got a phone call from a Utah colleague about a Boston single mother who had her heating oil turned off just before Christmas. Romney and his sons loaded up their Ford with firewood, and delivered it to the woman. And even started her fire.

Then there’s the story of Romney’s all-night hospital vigil with the terrified parents of a son who had suddenly fallen ill (and then recovered). And the one about Romney saving a family from drowning when their boat sank. Including their dog. And the one about rescuing a group of kayakers from winds that were smashing them into rocks. And the one about building a playground in honor of a neighbor’s child who had passed away — no, not just writing a check, but actually swinging a hammer. Romney and the local boy scouts quietly maintained the playground themselves over the next five years.

And the one about marshaling all of his company’s resources to rescue the 14-year old daughter of one of Romney’s Bain partners who went missing while visiting New York. Romney closed Bain’s Boston office, flew 50 employees to New York, worked with the NYPD, and enlisted the help of Bain’s business partners to distribute handbills — including leaflets distributed at all retail outlets of Duane-Reade, a Bain-portfolio company. Thanks to Romney’s efforts, the girl was found — drugged, disoriented, and hidden by a captor. Today she is a happily-married elementary school teacher.

Does any of this sound like the heartless robber-baron described by Romney’s opponents? We haven’t even broached the lengths the man went to in supporting his wife through MS and cancer.

These stories demonstrate the decency, selflessness, character and values Americans want in their leaders. Yet, likely because of those same values, Romney maintains a shyness about his acts, no matter how legitimate his pride or potentially politically potent their use. To Romney, these are people, not political props.

It is an extraordinary man who commits himself to such generous and heroic acts; it is an extraordinary politician who won’t utter a word about such acts for political aggrandizement.

The contrast with other politicians is stark. How many candidates have we heard try to score political points crowing about a mother’s passing, or wife’s car accident or relative’s death from smoking? The contrast is consistent with Romney’s internalizing his religious codes of honor and modesty since his youth: the fidelity to principles of honor, charity and duty to community; the nobility of service and sacrifice; the veneration of courage and resilience; and the humility that comes from recognizing that there are causes and people greater than oneself. It is, in short, a contrast in character.

No, Mitt Romney is no self-promoter. He could never have authored two autobiographies by age 45; he could never boast that “I have a gift,” or that I “probably know about Judaism more than any other president,” or that “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters; I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors; and I’m a better political director than my political director.” Even thinking such thoughts goes against his character.

Character matters. In a president–particularly in a Commander-in-Chief–character arguably counts more than any policy. From character flows leadership, as it is character which dictates morally grounded direction and earns public trust.

Character is critical to determining how a leader will respond to crisis. Will he reach deep inside himself and in the traditions that shaped him and find the honesty, courage and grace to inspire strength and greatness? Will soldiers trust the wisdom and integrity of his decision when he orders them to war? Will he truly understand the terrible toll of war, as well as the high price of appeasement? Will he make decisions affecting the lives of fellow citizens and public servants based on considerations greater than cheap political expediency?

Now, as you vote, ask yourself: which candidate better demonstrates that kind of character?

Abe Katsman, a Seattle native, is an American attorney, consultant, political commentator and writer living in Israel.  He serves as Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.

About the Author
Abe Katsman, a Seattle native, is an American attorney, consultant, political commentator and writer living in Israel. He serves as Counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel.