Romney’s Harvard Years: An Earnest Traditionalist

The first entry of a six-part series

Mitt Romney delivers a commencement address at Brigham Young University in 1971. He then began a joint business and law program at Harvard University. (AP/Courtesy of Romney family)

Mitt Romney delivers a commencement address at Brigham Young University in 1971. He then began a joint business and law program at Harvard University. (AP/Courtesy of Romney family)

BOSTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney started his political career in Massachusetts, but his years at Harvard University first brought him to the state. During his time at Harvard, he struck many of his classmates as unusually optimistic and not at all jaded, even though he arrived on campus at a time of great societal ferment.

Anger over the war in Vietnam was at full throttle in 1971, when Romney began his first year at Harvard Law School.

Protests were common on campuses nationwide, and Harvard was no exception. Just two years before Romney arrived, students protesting Harvard’s stance on the war had taken over an administration building in Harvard Yard. Police eventually stormed in with billy clubs and Mace to arrest them, and that incident was still a fresh memory for the often cynical and skeptical student body.

Not Romney.

“Mitt was dramatically different from that,” recalls Garret Rasmussen, one of Romney’s law school classmates. “He was entirely positive, entirely enthusiastic, not a complaint in the world. He thought it was wonderful to be at law school. That’s what stood out about him.”

In fact, Romney was a supporter of the U.S. role in Vietnam. He was unlike many of his classmates in other ways, too. He hadn’t gone to an East Coast prep school or college. Instead, he’d grown up in Michigan, attended Brigham Young University in Utah, and been a Mormon missionary.

Rasmussen, who’s now a partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm, says Romney had a simplicity and straightforwardness that seemed distinctly Midwestern.

“More like a farm boy than a sophisticated New Yorker,” he says. “That was the impression. Not that he’s dumb, not that he’s naive. It’s more that he’s a country boy more than a city sophisticate.”

But Romney was no rube. His father, George Romney, had been the governor of Michigan, the CEO of American Motors, and was in President Nixon’s cabinet when his son started law school. That made the Romney name a prominent one on campus. But Mitt Romney was only one of numerous Harvard students from august, wealthy, connected families. His classmates included the son of the U.N. secretary general and the great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt.

“Mitt didn’t stand out in the class as some kind of political superstar,” says Ron Naples, who also went to Harvard with Romney. “He was one of the guys. He was a guy that I think most people came to know and like.” Naples wasn’t a law school classmates of Romney; they were business school classmates — part of a tiny, elite group of students earning degrees at both Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.

Howard Brownstein was also in that group, and he says Romney’s short-haired, clean-cut, buttoned-up look was a distinguishing feature.

“It wasn’t unusual that you would see fellow students who looked like radicals, and Mitt didn’t look like that,” Brownstein recalls. “Mitt looked like a pretty straight, conservative guy. He was clearly one of the more traditional-looking and -acting people at the campus. I wouldn’t say a stiff. I would say just traditional.”

Even Romney’s home life was traditional. When he enrolled at Harvard in his mid-20s, Romney already had a wife and two children and even owned a house in nearby, well-to-do Belmont. Brownstein was an occasional guest.

“We were used to living in dorms and apartments and he was sort of living a few years ahead of the rest of us,” Brownstein says. “Here was a guy, he was already married, he was living in a nice suburban home. He kind of reminded us of the homes we grew up in.”

Even with his family obligations, Romney made time to socialize. He played basketball at a gym in a church in Harvard Square and went to group dinners at restaurants like Joyce Chen and Legal Sea Foods and Cafe Budapest. But he didn’t drink, true to his Mormon faith, and Brownstein says you’d never hear him put someone down or utter a curse word.

“Mitt is nothing if not earnest,” he adds.

Conservative, old-fashioned, seemingly guileless, so sunny and self-assured he might be mistaken for naïve. That’s how Romney’s Harvard classmates remember him. And that’s in many ways the Romney of today: the classically handsome guy with the beautiful family and nearly perfect life. Someone who seems to expect everything to go right, and for whom everything usually does. But back at Harvard, Romney had another quality — something that’s rarely used to describe him these days.

“What impressed me was he had a warmth that just connected to you,” says Mark Mazo, who was in a five-person study group with Romney at Harvard Law.

Mazo is aware that Romney the campaigner is often criticized as stiff, cool and unable to relate to regular people. But Mazo, now a Washington, D.C., lawyer, had a recent interaction with Romney — after not having talked to him in about 30 years — that has him standing his ground. At a Romney fundraiser in Washington a few weeks ago, Mazo reintroduced himself.

“I said, ‘Governor, it’s been a long time since Harvard Law School. I’m Mark Mazo.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Mark Mazo! Mark Mazo!’ He said, ‘How’s Fern?’, a reference to Mazo’s fiancee in law school, now his wife.

“And my first thought was. ‘That was darn good staff work!’ ” Mazo recalls, explaining that he had RSVPed that he’d be coming and he assumed Romney’s handlers had looked up personal details about guests for Romney to sprinkle into conversation.

“But then he said, ‘Mark, I remember when you came to dinner at my house,’ ” Mazo continues. “He said, ‘I remember what we had to eat. We had pork chops.’ And he was right. That is what we had to eat, was pork chops. I don’t know how he remembered it. And there was no amount of staff work that could have filled him in on that one. He actually remembered, which I was blown away with.”

Maybe that’s nothing more than a sign of a good memory. But Mazo believes it shows that Romney has a more personable, human, down-to-earth side than he reveals in public, or that’s captured in soundbites, and that he generally gets credit for. Still, then and now, Romney had a fundamental sense of reserve.

“Mitt was not a quipster,” says Janice Stewart, one of a small number of women in Romney’s business school class. “He did laugh. I mean, he had a beautiful smile and he laughed, but he wasn’t a humor leader. He would never be the one to think of the quip, but if somebody else made a good quip or a good line or something in class he’d laugh at it. But was not the one who was going to invent the laughter.”

Stewart, who went on to work in management for Xerox, says there was something else Romney was not: “He was not one of the three or four that we thought of as being the ultra, ultra, ultra bright ones. He was not the brainiac kid in the room.”

Brownstein, who was in Harvard’s dual degree program with Romney, agrees with that assessment.

“There were some people on that campus who, you know, when they thought, their brain lit up the room,” he says. “You could talk to them in a dark room and it would be like sunshine. Mitt was not one of those. Mitt was not the guy who was going to be president of Law Review and be first in the class and go write the Uniform Commercial Code.”

He was certainly bright and hard-working, they say, but he was just one of many smart, driven Harvard students. What did distinguish Romney was his participation in that dual-degree program. Out of roughly a combined 1,300 students in his business and law school classes, just 15 graduated from both.

“When we told people we were in the JD/MBA program, you were kind of looked upon as somebody a bit special,” recalls Brownstein, now a corporate turnaround specialist.

He says that whereas Harvard Business School puts its students through a practical, problem-solving regimen of analyzing real business case studies and deciding what they would do if they were in charge, “the law school is teaching you at a more theoretical level.”

Together, the two educations gave students a detailed knowledge of the law and the government regulatory system, as well as a deep understanding of how to run a business. And those dual-degree graduates were some of Harvard’s most sought-after recruits. Stewart describes the power of the twin degree this way: “If you came out of that MBA/JD joint program, it’s hard for me to imagine a task that somebody could have could put in front of you that you couldn’t do, other than brain surgery. But running anything — running a company, running the Olympics.”

Both of which Romney went on to do.

“A lot of us did the safest thing,” Rasmussen says. “We would go work for the Boston Consulting Group or Morgan Stanley. Those were the big places that hired out of business school. If you wanted just to play it safe and get rich that’s what people did. Or out of law you go to Sullivan & Cromwell in New York or Cravath and things should work out for you. But Mitt was willing to start something on his own.”

Right out of Harvard in 1975 — after graduating with honors from the law school and in the top five percent of his business school class — Romney did make a conventional career move by becoming a well-paid consultant. But he later took riskier moves that ultimately made him wildly rich and also complicated his image. Compared to the person his classmates recall from four decades ago, the Romney of 2011 is often criticized as a more hollow, opportunistic man with flexible convictions.

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  • Youconvincedmetovote4Mitt

    This is a man I could support as President of the United States of America!

  • Guest

    Very well written profile of of Mr. Romney! Enjoyed it, and it could actually tilt some people who are on the fence.

  • Anonymous

    “In fact, Romney was a supporter of the U.S. role in Vietnam.”   –  Why didn’t he fight in it then? 

    • Sacha Pfeiffer

      John: in answer to your question, Romney didn’t fight in Vietnam because he received a draft deferment as a result of his Mormon missionary work. You can read details about that here:

      • Anonymous

        He could have gone when that was completed.  The war lasted longer than two years.

        • Coltakashi

          When Romney completed his church mission and returned home, he got married and returned to college and a student deferment. Soon after, in 1969 the student deferments were ended and the Draft Lottery was begun. Everyone born the same day as Romney got a lottery number in the 300s, while callups were limited to men below 100. My own number was 16, which led me to join AFROTC and spend 20 years in the Air Force. If my number were 300 I would have done something else. People who wanted to avoid the draft went to Canada. The rest of us played by the rules and let Uncle Sam figure out if he needed us. Draftees (including ROTC cadets like me) were not more patriotic than those not drafted. And lots of us in the military during 1965-1975 never went near Vietnam. We were manning nuclear missiles in North Dakota or nuclear bombers in Maine or tanks in West Germany facing off against the Soviet Union. I programmed computers that tracked spy satellites at NORAD inside Cheyenne Mountain. You didn’t have to volunteer for Vietnam to be patriotic. I bet you didn’t support John McCain even though he was a Navy pilot shot down and held in a POW camp in Vietnam.

  • bt33blue

    Dear Ms. Pfeiffer,


    Your puff piece on Mitt Romney cannot humanize a man who has
    no conception of what life is like for ordinary people struggling to make a
    mortgage payment or shell out their son’s college tuition, let alone negotiate
    the rough waters of unemployment.  Not
    even an avalanche of warm and fuzzy anecdotes can obscure his history as a corporate
    raider who made his much-touted mark in the business world by buying up other companies
    and firing their employees, all for the sake of the sacrosanct Bottom
    Line.  Please see the following link for




    a choice tidbit from this online article:


    CEO of Bain Capital, Romney profited as five of the companies under his firm’s
    direction went bankrupt, and thousands of workers lost their jobs. One
    particularly brutal round of firings came back to haunt Romney during his
    failed 1994 Senate campaign, when laid-off workers protested his candidacy.”


    this is from Boston Globe reporter Robert Gavin’s investigation of Romney’s
    tenure at Bain (“As Bain slashed jobs, Romney stayed to side,” 1/27/08):


    “In assessing deals, Romney and partners didn’t consider
    whether they saved or created jobs, according to a former Bain employee who
    requested anonymity, citing confidentiality guidelines. When Bain partners
    discussed shutting down failing businesses in which they invested, Romney never
    suggested they had to do something to save workers’ jobs. “It was very
    clinical,” the former employee said. “Like a doctor. When the patient
    is dead, you just move on to the next patient.”


    I find those words chilling. 
    How do they square with the homey image of Romney that you promote in
    your piece?  Haven’t we got enough of the
    usual propaganda put forth by his own campaign that touts his earnestness, good looks, and “aw shucks” personality without WBUR’s
    adding to it so uncritically?  Shouldn’t
    you be trying to pierce the public relations bubble surrounding Romney –
    indeed, surrounding any candidate – and show us the reality behind the
    well-crafted image?


    The Globe article ends with recounting Romney’s reply to a
    worker who complained that he lost his job because Romney had done nothing to
    end a strike at a company controlled by Bain. 
    The self-serving Romney wrote: 
    “I was advised by counsel that I could not play a role in the


    What a profile in courage, from someone who never hesitates
    to play up his supposed moral values, someone always ready to lecture others
    about the importance of taking personal responsibility.


    Finally, if we needed any further proof that Romney’s
    heartless, out-of-touch character continues to this day, we should recall what
    he told a group of unemployed Florida residents earlier this year in reference
    to his (voluntary, mind you) – departure from the Massachusetts governorship: “I’m
    also unemployed.”


    Does WBUR intend to continue treating Romney with such undeserved
    deference in the next installment?


    • jeri

      “Haven’t we got enough of the usual propaganda” – please practice what you preach!

      • bt33blue

        To Jeri:  Want to point out what you’re talking about, or just make a comment?  Have you got any facts to counter what I wrote, or are you just content to make a snide comment?

    • Listener

      Romney may tell the unemployed that he is unemployed, but:

      “In 2010, Mitt earned somewhere between $9.6 million and $43.2 million, according to The National Journal’s calculation of his financial reports. I believe I speak for us all when I say that there seems to be a lot of room in the middle of that estimate, but you get the idea. Much of that came from investments, but Romney also gets quite a bit of cash for making speeches. He once made $68,000 for one appearance before the International Franchise Association in Las Vegas.”

  • Mattinjersey

    I don’t get the last line of the story. HIs classmates don’t really say much about his convictions, or about being opportunistic or not. Just because he remembered what the guy had for dinner doesn’t say much about his character…

    • Anonymous

      He didn’t change the meal halfway through dinner.  That was very consistent of him and proves that he can be trusted.  

  • Sigh

    At 9:17 minutes, was this drive-time appropriate?  
    Mazo’s anecdote was a weak link:  it attests to Romney’s warmth – but because Mazo was at HLS with Romney, it fails to refute Romney is not warm with “regular people.”  

    Romney interests me, but this piece falls flat.
    Sacha, you’re so much better than this!  

  • Listener

    It was a huge ommission to state that:
    “In fact, Romney was a supporter of the U.S. role in Vietnam”
    and not mention that he did not serve in Vietnam.
    He “supported” it, but did not enlist.
    He “supported” it, but left the danger to others.
    “Mitt Romney received a deferment from the draft as a Mormon “minister of religion” for the duration of his missionary work in France, which lasted two and a half years.
    Before and after his missionary deferment, Romney also received nearly three years of deferments for his academic studies.”
    Romney also was a supporter of the U.S. role in Kuwait (first Gulf War), Iraq and Afghanistan, but did not encourage any of his children to enlist.
    Romney is so out-of-touch with the men and women serving in current U.S. wars he forgot we are at war.
    In an Apr. 25, 2011 Manchester Union Leader op-ed titled “Obama isn’t serious about America’s financial health”,
    he accuses Obama of “engage in one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history.”

    • Anonymous

      During his failed campaign last time Romney claimed:

      “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I’d be a great president.”—

      Romney noted that his middle son, 36-year-old Josh, was completing a recreational vehicle tour of all 99 Iowa counties on Wednesday and said, “I respect that and respect all those and the way they serve this great country.”


  • Anonymous

    I just heard that the next part of this series will cover his business.  I hope the series investigates how Bain conducted business throughout the country and isn’t just a narrow biography of Romney in MA.

  • Maynard

    Does anyone know how much money Romney, the allegedly self-made man, inherited from his multi-millionaire father?  I have not been able to find out.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_I7WR67FTTIYY7LCYVQLKIHPBEY Rose

      Maynard- Mitt Romney made the vast majority of his own fortune as a Co-Founder of Bain Capital. Check the record he did make is Own Personal Fortune.

    • Coltakashi

      George Romney died in 1995, after Romney had made his fortune as a partner at Bain Capital and returned to Bain Consulting as president to rescue it, at a salary of $1 a year. In 1994 Romney ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy, using a lot of his personal money for the campaign, in which his dad advised him. So Mitt had earned his wealth before his Dad died, leaving his estate mainly to his wife.

  • Trelerke-politics

    it’s heart warming that his harvard years were earnest, a nice recovery from terrorizing gay classmates, “boy hood pranks”   etc.     Sigh, he actually is the right person to lead such a violent, crude, free market besotted country.

  • Bstephen

    I wonder why HLS Connect (the online directory) doesn’t list him as a Harvard Law School graduate. 

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