My Dinner With Mitt

You arrive for Saturday night supper at the home of our new governor at 6 sharp with a thirst — for a before-dinner cocktail and for answers to some pressing questions.

You're wondering what, by rejecting Democrat Shannon O'Brien and her unbecoming candidacy, we've just bought into. Why a guy like Mitt Romney, endowed with movie-star looks and international celebrity as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, even wants the job of salvaging our broken-down heap of a state from the junkyard of fiscal collapse. How on earth a Republican multimillionaire venture capitalist, called “the face of corporate greed” by O'Brien during the campaign, will stay in public favor as he makes painful cuts in government services in the months ahead. And you wonder: Can a Mormon from the Midwest with impeccable manners and an aversion to cursing, drinking, smoking, and excessive consumption of red meat ever truly fit into our foul-mouthed, hard-boozing, chain-smoking, carnivorous corner of paradise?

Which leads to the most pressing question of all as you're ushered into the sprawling kitchen/family room of the Romneys' Belmont home: Can a decidedly nonteetotaling non-Mormon get a before-dinner drink around here?

The good news is, yes, you can.

The bad news? It's Diet Vanilla Coke.

No kidding. It's a new product, and Mitt, clad in the same checked button-down shirt and ironed jeans he wore on those ubiquitous campaign “work days,” is staging his own taste test.

“Who wants to try it?” he asks, pouring samples of Vanilla Coke and Diet Vanilla Coke into juice glasses. First Lady Ann Romney, barefoot and in casual black pants and a red sweater, smiles and rolls her eyes at her husband's Dick Clark-like enthusiasm. (Say, kids, can you dance to this one?) But son Tagg and his wife, Jennifer, are game. They sample both and make their choices. And there's a trace of fatherly pride as the governor-elect of Massachusetts announces: “Tagg got it right.”

An evening at home with the Romneys is an experience awash in such moments. Another daughter-in-law, Laurie, brings over her toddler twins, Chloe and Nicholas, and before dinner Romney happily sprawls on the living-room carpet and serves as a launching ramp for Nicholas's new truck. Beatles and Frank Sinatra tunes play in the background on a homemade cassette tape. And after Tagg offers a brief blessing in the kitchen, everyone says “Amen” and sits down to a no-frills meal of pasta, salad, French bread, chocolate cake, and ice cream, washed down with that nectar of the gods, Diet Vanilla Coke.

“Our favorite thing is being with the kids,” Romney says, contentedly surveying the scene. “Having dinner and sitting around talking — that's what we love to do best.”

Getting a sugar buzz? Get used to it. “There aren't going to be any big, dark secrets,” says Bob White, chairman of Romney's transition committee and managing director of the investment firm Bain Capital, Romney's former company. “What you see is what you're gonna get.” And what you see on Saturday night at the Romneys' is a total focus on family, the foundation of a style that will be with us for at least the next four years.

Romney did go to last summer's Rolling Stones concert at Gillette Stadium, but without duplicating the headline-grabbing ways of former Governor Bill Weld, who reportedly got so inebriated at a Stones show in Foxboro that he had to be escorted from the stadium in a golf cart. Unlike former Governor Paul Cellucci, a movie connoisseur with a taste for fine restaurants, the Romneys, Ann admits, “have a very low threshold” when it comes to movies (Mitt loves anything with Gene Hackman in it), and prefer low-key dining at places like Summer Shack. “I'm not as zany as Weld, not colorful like [former New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani,” Romney cheerfully concedes. “I am what I am.”

A model of self-discipline, apparently. Mitt is up every morning at 5:30, jogging three miles on a nearby school track every other day in good weather or on the treadmill at this time of year. Breakfast is cereal, egg whites, and toast without butter. Lunch: a sandwich at his desk. Ann and Mitt spend their evenings reading, unless one of their favorite TV shows is on: Everybody Loves Raymond, Ed, or, when the Romneys are feeling dangerous, a Seinfeld rerun.

Romney will admit — you read it here first — to one peculiar vice. Each night before lights out at 11, the commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts National Guard indulges himself in a moment of sin, lite: a huge “Jethro bowl” of sugary cereal like Cocoa Puffs. With fat-free milk, of course.

The most important taste test is about to be conducted on Mitt himself, with a skeptical, economically stressed electorate as the testers. Can beleaguered coffee-achiever voters warm up to a self-assured, buff, coffee-avoiding square like Romney?

Romney is well aware of the importance of his public image. He plans to take calls from listeners on radio talkshows and may adopt a practice of his late father, Michigan Governor George Romney, who regularly reserved an office day for five-minute visits by ordinary citizens. “I anticipate a wave of protest,” he acknowledges. “Making the cuts and changes is going to make me unpopular.” Although his campaign successfully exploited the negative public perception of House Speaker Tom Finneran, he worries that “there will be an image created of me like that of Finneran. If someone is genuinely disliked, their ability to work and lead is very much diminished.”

Then again, after a spectacularly successful business career, his salvaging of the Olympics, and last fall's smash success of his gothic-romance campaign novel, The Vanquishing of the Unbecoming, Mitt Romney's self-confidence is finishing three miles around the track while any self-doubt is still putting its pants on. “I don't worry about being liked,” he says over chocolate cake. “People respected my dad but didn't necessarily like him. The most important thing in life is not being liked. The most important thing is being true to who you really are.”

Yes, you may have read that on a Hallmark card. But this guy really means it. That ought to be a wake-up call for cynics who suspect that, just as the reformist rhetoric of Weld and Cellucci became expendable once they settled into office, Romney's campaign commitments — to oppose new taxes, for example — might prove flexible.

“I don't owe anything to anyone,” Mitt says after helping clear the dishes. “I'd rather not be governor if I have to sign on to things I don't believe in.”

Romney often declares his most precious possession to be his reputation for integrity. Right out of the box, that stand is exacting a personal toll. Perhaps the single most important aide to Romney's campaign was eldest son Tagg, a soft-spoken but dynamic Mini Mitt who managed Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healy's difficult primary campaign. “I loved it,” Tagg says, seated at his father's right hand at the dinner table. But while Tagg nods at a visitor's suggestion that he might play a role in the new administration, his father frowns. We campaigned aggressively against the patronage and nepotism culture on Beacon Hill, says Mitt to Tagg's silent but obvious dismay. Adding Tagg to the payroll “wouldn't look right.”

Mitt's constant allusions to his own father underscore some obvious similarities. George Romney was a notoriously self-disciplined figure who went to bed promptly at 9:30 each night, even if he had a houseful of party guests downstairs. He took the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' commitment to public service — which encourages young Mormons to spend up to two years as missionaries — to an even higher level, impressing its importance upon his offspring.

“My dad always said the most important thing a man can have is character,” says Mitt, retreating to his study after dinner and returning with a scrapbook of his father's obituaries. Leafing through the pages, he reads the headlines: “Citizenship Set George Romney Apart” . . . “The Last Lion.” His voice trails off as Romney murmurs, “Well . . . ,” and turns away, brushing his eye with the back of his hand. “That's what you aspire to — to be known as someone of principle and character and purpose.”