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Growing Up Romney

Mitt, Tagg, and the Romney family’s myth of self-reliance.

THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be the race that Tagg Romney took easy. When his father ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Tagg signed on as a full-time staffer and even served as the campaign manager for Mitt’s running mate. Four years later, when Mitt began to run for president, Tagg moved his family back to Boston from Los Angeles so he could man a desk at campaign headquarters.

But by the beginning of this campaign season, Tagg had a daughter in high school and twins on the way. He’d recently started a private-equity firm called Solamere. He was in his early forties and gave the impression of someone who had better things to do than hole up in a cubicle piled high with pizza boxes. A new arrangement was struck: He would schlep off to any ballroom or spin-room where he could help as a surrogate. He would be on call to sweet-talk donors and buck up supporters. And, of course, he would always be available for late-night calls with his dad. But he wouldn’t take a job with the campaign or linger around the office. He would continue to run his firm.

It didn’t quite work out that way. This summer, staffers noticed Tagg turning up at Romney headquarters. By September, he had mostly put his day job on hold. When David Wright, a longtime family friend, recently asked how he could tend to the firm while scrambling for his dad, Tagg more or less conceded he couldn’t. “I’ve fortunately got great partners,” he said.

Earlier this month, Politico outed him as the leader of a family “intervention” that resulted in the kinder, gentler, more moderate Mitt Romney on display at the first debate. Though Tagg insists the story is pure fantasy—“News to me,” he cracked when I saw him at a recent event—his own stump speech acknowledges his ever-escalating involvement. “A few months ago, I told the campaign that, at crunch time, I’d be willing to do whatever it takes,” he told an audience of well-wishers. “I kind of thought they would have me on the road a day or two a week. Well, it turns out they put me on the road seven days a week.”

The punishing schedule—one friend compares it to “coughing blood”—is especially curious in light of how badly Tagg wants to be seen as more than his father’s son. Indeed, if all families have their own myths, a kind of founding narrative that’s passed down through the generations, for the Romneys it’s about personal initiative. George Romney’s family fled the Mexican revolution destitute when he was five years old, heightening his pride in the wealth and power he attained later in life. Mitt Romney speaks often about giving away his inheritance so that whatever he achieved would be his alone. “Everything that Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way, and that’s by hard work,” he said at the notorious Boca Raton fund-raiser in May. For his part, Tagg “has a high desire to make Solamere a big success,” says one close friend, adding that he’s determined to “create his own name.”

What’s so strange about the Romney myth is that its grip hasn’t weakened even as it has become less true. The affluence Mitt was born into paid for his elite education and financed his first home. The wealth Tagg stands to inherit has given him the freedom to pursue any career and take any professional risk he wants.

That’s not to say he set out to trade on his pedigree. Not long after graduating from Harvard Business School, he turned down offers from several prominent firms to join an obscure start-up called eGrad, whose meager resources gave it a kind of grunge aesthetic: secondhand furniture and heating so erratic he brought in blankets to keep warm. When Tagg wasn’t cold calling would-be corporate partners, he could sometimes be found packaging merchandise and mailing it. But making it on your own is never so clear-cut when you’re a Romney. Some of the biggest meetings he landed were with Staples, which his father had funded at Bain Capital, and General Motors, a company where his last name still carried weight.

Tagg’s biography is littered with similar stories—short cuts he couldn’t have taken without his last name, obstacles that melted away before he was even aware of them. And yet, thanks to the Romney myth, he and his family believe that most of what he has achieved comes from old-fashioned industriousness, not older-fashioned status and wealth.

Tagg’s blind spots, however, are largely forgivable. Everyone looks in the mirror on occasion and sees a taller, thinner, more virtuous version of himself. The problem is that Tagg’s blind spots are also Mitt’s. And Mitt’s peculiar version of reality doesn’t just drive him personally; it skews his politics and shapes his policies. It distorts his entire vision of how a president should govern.

THE HOME WHERE Tagg Romney grew up in the Boston suburb of Belmont was large but hardly extravagant. There were no full-time maids or butlers, certainly no car elevators. His father preferred to live below his means and, until Tagg was 14, Mitt was just a moderately affluent consultant, not the private-equity titan he would become. If Mitt so much as saw an overpriced item at the supermarket, he’d grumble—and in some cases even bolt. He’d get especially peeved about the cost of movie tickets. “We’d be like, ‘Dad, you can afford it,’” explains Tagg’s younger brother Josh. “And he’d say, ‘That’s not the point. These guys are charging an unfair price.’ It would get embarrassing.” The sense of modesty was so ingrained that when Tagg, then serving in France on his Mormon mission, heard that his family was buying a five-bedroom, $1.25 million villa, he suddenly became queasy. “How can you afford that house?” he asked his dad, according to The Boston Globe.

Tagg wasn’t known around Belmont as a rich kid; he was known as the kid with the cool, if slightly eccentric, parents. For breakfast, the Romney sons subsisted on sugary cereals. After school, classmates would stop by for cookies Ann Romney had baked. Like many prepubescent wise guys in the 1980s, the Romney boys were fanatical about “Saturday Night Live.” Even though the show didn’t come in for many endorsements in Mormon parenting guides, Mitt and Ann would be sure to watch it, then let the kids see a recording if the jokes weren’t too raunchy. The Romneys were, in fact, unusually tight-knit. One visitor recalls a family ritual: Every night at around 9:30 or 10:00, Mitt and Ann would meet at the foot of their staircase, clasp hands, and escort each other upstairs to the bedroom, in full view of their brood.

At the Belmont Hill School, the tony prep academy that he and his brothers attended, Tagg didn’t play a varsity sport or turn up at parties. He never dominated class discussions. Between his acne and his middling grades, he seemed timid and unsure of himself. “I didn’t have a lot of friends until my sophomore or junior year, when I got more self-confident,” he says.

His most distinctive feature was his Mormonism. Schoolmates remember Tagg as the only Latter Day Saint in a graduating class of about 70, which sometimes made him hard to relate to. His responsibilities as a Mormon teenager included attending a daily seminary class at 6:15 in the morning, a time the typical high school student is either asleep or catatonic. While classmates were frantically applying to Ivy League schools, Tagg had all but settled on Brigham Young University (BYU).

The featured speaker at graduation was Tagg’s grandfather George, ever the distinguished-looking statesman even in his early eighties. But the speech itself was a shock—a jeremiad about the importance of chastity and the false god of evolution. “My wife isn’t a descendant of orangutans,” George thundered. “It was pretty offensive,” says Tony Maws, a classmate and admirer of Tagg’s, who recalls his friend slinking down in his chair. It was a perfect illustration of the Romney paradox: Being the grandson of such a prominent figure was a telltale sign of Tagg’s establishment credentials. And yet the speech was a reminder that he was still something of an outsider, part of a community that aroused suspicion.

What Tagg shared least of all with other teenagers was their preoccupation with the opposite sex. Though he dated casually in high school, it wasn’t until he arrived at college that he expressed serious interest in women. “The year we lived together at BYU,” says Kurt Christensen, “if you were to ask me what Tagg was most interested in, it was finding his Ann.” He found her pretty quickly. Christensen was staying with the Romneys the week before Tagg got married to Jennifer Thomas, and he happened to be in earshot when Mitt spoke to his son, then age 22 and alert to the wonders of human physiology, about the birds and the bees. “We had been two Mormon boys who had remained relatively naïve about sexual matters,” Christensen says. “Obviously, Mitt felt it was probably important he talk to Tagg.”

Tagg had always been the most Mitt-like of the five Romney boys. Matt, two years his junior, was athletic and popular. Josh, who is five years younger, had a gift for working a room. Both were laid back while Tagg was high strung. Tagg also inherited his father’s earnest hokiness— a kind of camp-counselor enthusiasm. Except for a few years during early adolescence when Mitt got on his eldest son’s nerves—“It bothered me that he would be so nice,” he later told Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in The Real Romney—Tagg has long admired his dad and sought to emulate him. Like Mitt, Tagg worked at a managementconsulting firm and set his sights on business school. He was the only Romney child who interned at Bain Capital.

More so than his brothers, whose childhood circumstances were cushier, Tagg soaked up the earn-everything-you-have ethos that animated his father and grandfather—flinty, hard-driving figures with little tolerance for slacking. “If I drown in a stream, look for me upstream,” George used to quip. Mitt would wake his sons up early on Saturday mornings with a bulky list of chores. When he created a trust fund for his children, valued at some $100 million, he made the disbursements discretionary rather than have them pay out at regular intervals or when the kids reached a certain age. He wanted to send the message that Romneys don’t join the leisure class. “Look, he would like to make sure his family always has the money for the health care and education they need, or if they decide they want to be missionaries,” says one person familiar with the trust. “But you’ve got to work hard. The trust is not going to support them so they can be trust-fund kids.”

That was never a worry with Tagg. While at eGrad, his colleagues noticed him carrying around a very Romneyesque totem: the beat-up, brown leather briefcase that Mitt used for his first job out of grad school. “The hardworking aspect is what that symbolized to me,” recalls John Fees, the company’s co-founder. “He could have afforded whatever he wanted, looked cool if he wanted. But he carried his dad’s briefcase.”

A FEW YEARS out of business school, there was nothing exactly wrong with Tagg’s career—he’d worked for a major pharmaceutical company as well as a start-up. But he gave little indication of being the next Romney overachiever.

Then, around his thirtieth birthday, inspiration struck. Tagg was a lifelong sports fan who treasured his Red Sox season tickets. But he hated how time-consuming it was to unload his seats when he couldn’t make the games. So he conceived of a company that would buy up tickets people couldn’t use and sell them to other fans—kind of like StubHub. When he shared the notion with his dad, Mitt half-jokingly said, “That’s the first good business idea you’ve had,” according to Greg Davis, a friend from business school. Tagg abruptly quit eGrad and launched Season Perks, Inc.

He felt as if he was on the cusp of something big. After merging with two rivals to form Season Ticket Solutions in 2001, the new business signed contracts with the Boston Celtics and the Colorado Avalanche and was exploring major deals with the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. But that September, Ticketmaster pulled out of an agreement to purchase the company for $12.5 million. The corporate giant seemed determined to replicate Season Ticket’s software and muscle it out of existence. Tagg abandoned the company shortly afterward.

When Mitt returned to Massachusetts to run for governor in early 2002, he found his son in transition. Tagg’s first business hadn’t quite panned out, and his plan B wasn’t much beyond the cocktail-napkin stage. “He was living in Boston, was in between jobs,” says Josh Romney. Tagg began serving as an aide to his dad.

It was the first time since his Bain Capital internship that Mitt was essentially his boss, and it seemed like a violation of his do-it-yourself code. But the operation had a start-up feel, which played to Tagg’s organizational strengths. Working out of his parents’ basement, Tagg secured office space, purchased I.T. equipment, and helped recruit personnel.

There were other reasons to take the assignment, not least Tagg’s devout sense of loyalty. “He’s pretty intense about his father, in the sense of defending him, getting upset if people aren’t one hundred percent followers,” says Tony Kimball, a family friend. Mitt had long been skeptical of political professionals, so part of Tagg’s function was to keep a close eye on the help. He was anointed one of six deputy managers and sat in the campaign war room. “No question that his primary role was to watch his father’s back, watch the money,” says one Romney adviser. “Mitt put in six million bucks [for the race]. I think he wanted to trust but verify that he was getting a full day’s work out of people.”

Tagg was widely liked nonetheless. He drove a beat-up green Camry and took pains to play down his sway with his father. By the fall, he’d even established some chops as an operative, having run the lieutenant governor campaign of Kerry Healey—a first-time statewide candidate who could have embarrassed Mitt by losing her September primary.

When the campaign ended and Romney prevailed, Tagg was keen to join him at the state capitol. But if the son had suspended his need for independent success, the father emphatically had not. One evening during the gubernatorial transition in late 2002, the family invited a reporter from Boston Magazine to dinner. The Romneys were still giddy from the campaign, and none more so than Tagg:

“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.”

After sitting in on some early transition meetings, Tagg spent the next several months tending to administrative scut work—settling up with campaign venders, completing Federal Election Commission filings—while figuring out his next move.

IN LATE 2005, after a few years with Reebok, Tagg landed a dream job: head of marketing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He got to hobnob with Tommy Lasorda, the World Series-winning ex-manager, and was officially the boss of Vin Scully, the team’s legendary broadcaster. Having tried to crash the sports industry as an outsider, he was now on track to run it from the inside.

Perhaps more importantly, it looked as if he’d left the family business behind. At the time he took the job, Mitt was nearing the end of his term as governor, and there were indications he would seek higher office. “I remember our conversation vividly,” says one close friend. “I said, ‘Tagg, your dad’s going to run for president, ... you’re going to have to work on your dad’s campaign. Why move to L.A. for a year?’ He said, ‘Look, I’ve got to do my own thing. I’ve got to focus on business.’”

Only a few months into the new gig, however, Tagg was backsliding. He joined several family members urging his father into the presidential race, and when Mitt took their advice, Tagg moved his family back into the same house in Belmont—down the street from his parents—that he had put on the market a year earlier but hadn’t sold. As in 2002, Tagg took a paid job on the campaign and served as an intermediary between his father and the consultants Mitt didn’t entirely trust.

Since Tagg had walked away from a career as a sports executive to help elect his father, he faced a choice when Mitt stumbled in the primaries. Another corporate job could be a letdown after the Dodgers. And while founding a company still appealed to him, he was in his late thirties, with three children to feed, and he had just spent a year on sabbatical. Starting from scratch was suddenly less practical. He kicked around ways to parlay his campaign experience into a business venture and settled on launching a private-equity firm with his father’s 28-year-old fund-raising chief, Spencer Zwick.

It was hardly an obvious move. The sum total of their private-equity experience was Tagg’s two summers interning at Bain Capital. But they did have at least one qualification any money manager needs: the ability to scare up money. “They met a lot of people doing the national campaign, wealthy families,” says Greg Davis, part of a group of business school friends who meet each year to discuss their careers and families.

It didn’t hurt that the Romneys themselves were backing the fund. Solamere Capital—named after an exclusive neighborhood in Utah where the family had a vacation home—was incorporated in February of 2008, only weeks after the campaign ended. Its first office address was the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston’s North End. One of its first big commitments was $10 million from Ann Romney’s blind trust.

Solamere’s business model is perfectly legitimate but only available to people who are exceptionally well-connected, even by Wall Street standards. Most private-equity firms raise money from investors so they can buy up companies or stakes in companies. But Solamere invests most of its money with other private-equity firms, acting as what’s known as a fund of funds. It takes a high-powered Rolodex to enter this business, for the simple reason that the most profitable private-equity funds are extremely choosy about the money they accept. “Tagg being who he is, it helps him get into funds others wouldn’t be able to get into,” says Davis.

As it happens, most of the game is simply getting in the door. Once that’s accomplished, it’s a pretty foolproof way of earning millions of dollars each year: Solamere collects money from wealthy investors, pools it together, and places it in a group of brand-name funds, like Bain and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. “They’re not choosing funds you’ve never heard of,” says one person who gave them money. (They nonetheless took on a third partner with private equity experience.)

Predictably, Zwick and Tagg have not been shy about touting their connections when pitching investors. According to a copy of the Solamere prospectus that The Boston Globe obtained, they promised “unique access” to lucrative deals that the partners would land thanks to their “close personal and business relationships.” The New York Times reported that the firm ultimately raised money from a variety of Romney donors and fund-raisers, including John Miller, a longtime family friend and former corporate CEO, and Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay.

Tagg insists that only a fraction of the money he raised came from his father’s network, and that most Solamere investors “are people I or Spencer have known in other areas of life.” But given Mitt’s prominence, even investors outside his orbit must find the name reassuring. In January of 2010, Mitt addressed Solamere’s first investor conference, presumably to vouch for the company’s prospects, at least implicitly.

It’s no shock, then, that the Romney network and the Solamere network are highly intermingled. It’s part of what makes it possible for Tagg to stay put at the firm while giving over increasing amounts of time to his father’s campaign. One friend who is both a partner at a private-equity firm that Solamere invests in as well as a top Romney fundraiser, describes the relationship this way: “When I’m on the phone with Tagg, or we’re at a meeting together, we inevitably talk about Solamere investments—and also how much money we have working for the next campaign event.” A few beats later, he added, “There are a lot of guys like me.”

GIVEN THAT Tagg and his father place so much stock in making their own way, you might think this path to success would be a source of mild embarrassment, or at least sheepishness. This is not the case. “There are lots of people out there with connections having similar meetings, but we’re able to close the deal because we built a pretty good model,” Tagg says. A close friend puts it this way: “Tagg is too self-aware and too honest to not admit that there’s been some benefits professionally from his dad’s fund-raising network.” But this friend insists Tagg would be successful no matter what: “With or without that pedigree, Tagg works hard.”

There is no doubt about that. On the day of the vice presidential debate in October, I caught Tagg just past noon in the Washington exurbs, where he was addressing a crowd of his father’s supporters. In person, he looked remarkably like his mother, with her toothy smile and bird-like eyes. He spoke winningly about his family, including what he described as the one credential he had over his father: a daughter. Roughly nine hours and four stops later, I saw Tagg turn up at the University of Virginia, a good 100 miles from Dulles airport, where he was flying out early the next morning. When I left, around 11 p.m., he was still shaking hands and posing for photos, looking just as put together as ever, with a line of waiting admirers snaking through the room.

But the question isn’t whether Tagg works hard. It’s whether hard work accounts for as much of the Romneys’ achievements as he and his father assume. “Tagg likes to talk about advice my grandfather gave each of us and Dad,” says his younger brother Josh. “That is, success comes when luck meets preparation. He talks about that a lot. He wants to be in position to achieve success.” But capitalizing on the kind of break Tagg got—being born into the right family—requires a lot less preparation than most.

In any other circumstance, the Romney myth would be innocuous enough, even constructive. The danger arises when a family myth intersects with a governing vision, when the stories a presidential candidate tells himself shape the policies he favors for everyone else. Though he has always been generous with his fellow worshipers and neighbors, Mitt has supported a budget that would likely slash programs people without his means depend on, such as child care and food stamps. He has endorsed cuts to Medicaid that could leave seniors unable to pay for nursing homes and middle-class families unable to fully provide for disabled children. His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to borrow money from their parents, even though most parents can’t oblige, however much they’d like to. Once you understand the Romney ethos, it makes sense that Mitt coolly dismissed nearly half the electorate as entitled takers.

Romney recently said that “ninety-five percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country,” implying that his sons have had only marginally greater opportunities than those of his secretaries. It’s what allows him to believe that his family has earned every dollar they’ve accumulated, unlike the underachieving masses, who would rather accept government goodies than shape their own destinies.

The disdain Romney seems to feel for those who need government help, the condescension toward people who aren’t as privileged or successful, is jarring enough in its own right. But it’s even more jarring when you consider that almost all of us—Mitt and Tagg very much included—have needed help at some point in our lives. It’s just a matter of where that help comes from. That Mitt Romney would roll it back for those who have no place else to turn but government isn’t an act of virtue or tough love. It’s an act of hypocrisy.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “We Built That: Fathers, sons, and the Romney family’s myth of self-reliance.”