Romney in Crisis: Two Dark Spots in Fortunate Life

Thirty years earlier, in the spring of 1968, Mr. Romney, then a Mormon missionary in France, had a scare of a different sort. He was at the wheel of a tiny Citroën, cruising along a country road, when a Mercedes rounded a curve and crashed into his car, head on. One of his passengers — the wife of the French mission president — was killed. Mr. Romney, by all accounts not at fault, was knocked unconscious and mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene.

Next week, Mr. Romney will go to Tampa, Fla., to accept the Republican nomination for president, after months on the campaign trail casting himself as Mr. Fix-it, a turnaround specialist whose business experience can revive a struggling economy. There, his advisers will seek to humanize Mr. Romney, who has had trouble connecting with ordinary voters.

But what his campaign has not offered, to date, is a crisis narrative, the kind of biographical story of overcoming hardship that other politicians have used to define themselves and inspire other Americans.

The French car crash and Ann Romney’s illness provide such a narrative; they are dark moments — bookends of sorts — in what otherwise has seemed a charmed existence. Both offer clues into Mr. Romney’s character, and the way he reacts to challenges. He is both forward-looking and inward-looking, practical and deeply private, with a consultant’s instinct for identifying solutions even in the most personally trying times.

After the shock of Ann Romney’s diagnosis, he immersed himself in research about multiple sclerosis, becoming “a mini-expert,” said Laraine Wright, a close friend of Mrs. Romney. He read scientific papers and called medical experts. And he began focusing on practical ways he might make his wife’s life easier. He contemplated installing an elevator in their home and moved the master bedroom downstairs.

“Mitt is always calm, deliberate, he’s a planner,” Mrs. Wright said. “It was like, ‘Now we have the diagnosis; this is the plan.’ ”

After the car crash in France, Mr. Romney returned to his mission duties with a broken arm and renewed zeal; along with another 21-year-old, he was left in charge of the mission. In an early hint of his executive abilities, he concentrated on motivating his peers to win more converts.

“Mitt was deeply enmeshed in thinking about leadership,” said Douglas D. Anderson, a friend who is dean of the business school at Utah State University. “He developed a very early set of core beliefs and values that had to do with being cool under pressure, that had to do with looking for opportunities where others saw threats, that had to do with being analytical and somewhat detached in order to look at reality the way it is, rather than how it is being perceived by people who are driven by the hysteria of the moment.

“And out of that,” Dr. Anderson went on, “came a pattern of living that was reinforced by events like that critical accident in France.”

An Intensely Private Man

The crisis narrative is standard fare for modern politicians. Barack Obama had his search for identity, born of his mixed-race heritage and of the father who abandoned him when he was 2. George W. Bush quit drinking at 40, and turned his life around. John McCain endured harrowing abuse as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Bill Clinton fought off his alcoholic stepfather. Mr. Romney’s vice-presidential pick, Representative Paul D. Ryan, was 16 when his father died, and was forced to become more self-reliant.

But the broad outlines of Mr. Romney’s biography — the son of an auto executive and former Michigan governor who married his high school sweetheart and went off to Harvard before making his private equity fortune — do not make for the kind of story most voters can identify with. Indeed, a recent poll showed that President Obama has an empathy edge over Mr. Romney.

“It’s not easy,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, “for any human being to reveal moments when they were not 100 percent on top of things, and every presidential candidate is especially reluctant to show weaknesses, but this is one of the most crucial ways we come to comprehend and bond with a possible president, and when voters don’t have it, they wonder.” NYT