"Gone are the minute-by-minute schedules and the swarm of Secret Service agents. There’s no aide to make his peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches. Romney hangs around the house, sometimes alone, pecking away at his iPad and e-mailing his CEO buddies who have been swooping in and out of La Jolla to visit. He wrote to one who’s having a liver transplant soon: 'I’ll change your bedpan, take you back and forth to treatment.'"
—"A detached Romney tends wounds in seclusion after failed White House bid," Washington Post
No one at the homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles recognized the man serving them soup on a post-Thanksgiving weekend. Disheveled and dressed down, the former GOP nominee for President was also wearing a hairnet that held back tousled hair that is usually preternaturally neat.
"Hello, Robert, good to see you this afternoon," Mitt Romney said as he ladled a bowl. He greeted another, "Mr. McCoy, I see you got your hair cut." He turned to a reporter standing nearby. "He looks good, right?"
He's popular among the shelter's clientele, who probably don't know that he's the same man who campaigned against "takers" seeking handouts. They call him "Willie," short for his given name, "Willard."
A black man in a shabby parka sidled up in line. "Hey, Willie, give me five, my man!" Romney slapped the man's hand awkwardly. He turned and deadpanned, "Steve is trying to teach me to be 'cool.'" Steve intoned with the same mock-seriousness: "It's gonna take awhile."
Romney's capacity to remember names, honed over years of high-level business meetings and schmoozing voters, seems to have given him an advantage here at the Union Rescue Mission as well: "I see the light of recognition in their eyes when I call them by name," he said later, "Not that they recognize me, but that they recognize that I'm recognizing them…" He let the sentence hang for a moment. "They are used to being ignored, I guess. Mostly…"—Romney cleared his throat—"by people like me."
"I wanted to ask some of them to the house, maybe," Romney said, wiping his hands on the stained apron he hadn't yet taken off. "But, you know, I'd lose my anonymity. Here, I'm just one of many."
A continent away, Ann Romney stomped her feet to ward off the chill as she watched the young woman riding a horse on the far side of a paddock on Long Island. It could be a scene from any point in her life as a wealthy equestrian except that Tanya, the adolescent laughing loudly as she bounces around on the back of a $250 million show horse, is from Queens and her experience with live horses is, suffice to say, limited. "Police officers ride them in parades, their poop stinks," she said before hesitantly accepting an invitation to get on top of Rafalca. Afterwards, she was all smiles: "I thought it would feel like riding a bike, but it was really bumpy—and I could feel his muscles. He slowed down when I got scared. It was really cool."
Tanya and a half-a-dozen other teenagers were here via The Fresh Air Fund, a charity that sends inner city children to places where they can experience the outdoors. After some cajoling by Mrs. Romney, all of them accepted a ride on top of the equine Olympian. Romney told them that the horse competes in a "dance competition" and they all laughed. "For real?" asked one. Ann Romney had the horse do a sideways shuffle, earning a round of applause. She sent the kids off with apples ("they aren't just for horses!") from a nearby orchard.
"I don't expect this to change their lives in a big way," Ann Romney said later. "Obviously, I've found riding therapeutic, and I hope some of them get something out of it, maybe the idea that they're not limited by their immediate environment, or that there's joy in the world they haven't discovered yet…
"But really, this is more for me than for them. After the election, Mitt and I realized that we had missed something really profound about the American people—that the country maybe wasn't the place we thought it was." She caught herself: "I mean, not in a bad way! I just think we realized we had no idea what it was like to be one of, well, I don't want to use that statistic again, but you know the one I mean."
The Romneys were reluctant to talk to a reporter about their post-election stints as largely anonymous volunteers, but aides prevailed upon them to do so as the family prepared to make one of the largest private educational donations in history to a job retraining facility in Ohio. The center is the product of a public-private initiative that matches community colleges with industries that might otherwise place jobs overseas.
"Look, I'm always going to be a conservative; I’m not giving my money to government to get this done, but I realize that I can play a part in lives of people who have been laid off, who've seen their jobs go across the border," said Mitt Romney in an interview given after he and his wife reunited in New Hampshire late last week. And why Ohio? Romney looked sheepish: "It's the least I can do after running all those ads."
He has other regrets, maybe even a lot of them. "I mean, a car elevator! What were we thinking?" He put his hand to his forehead, mock-slapping it. "We can't un-install the damn thing, but maybe when we sell the place, we'll set aside a specific donation, just so we'll never forget the folly of it all. The Romney Early-Learning Center and Car-Elevator Repair Service Institute? Just kidding. We'll think of something. I just hope I never forget how that single thing screamed 'privilege' and 'out of touch' in a way that we didn't understand at the time."
"Don't forget the NASCAR team owners," Ann said. Mitt shook his head, "Oh, it will be a long time before I forget that."
As self-deprecating as Mitt Romney can be now, he won't speak ill of anyone involved in the campaign. "We all worked really hard. We just got some things wrong." He appeared thoughtful. "Would I do it differently if I could do it again? Of course. Would I even do it again, that's the question. Maybe a guy who's been in business almost all his life isn't the right guy for the job. I really don't know. I know I wish there was a Republican in the White House and I'd like there to be one there soon. But they're going to have to figure out how to make that happen. Here's a 'pro-tip' from me to them"—Romney drops a wink—"don't alienate half the country."
Only one subject seemed a sore point: his choice of running mate. Asked about Congressman Paul Ryan, he took a minute to respond: "I—" He broke off and then shook his head. Ann Romney put a steadying hand on his knee. "I'll just say I wish him the best. He worked hard, and I'll say this, he believes in everything he says. Oh boy, does he."
Ann Romney was more reticent than her husband as to how her tour of struggling communities has changed her perspective on the election and the issues debated during it. A friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Romneys have kept much of their charitable activities private, said that Mrs. Romney spent at least one day incognito shadowing a nurse at a Planned Parenthood clinic. "I'm not saying that she's ever going to be anything but pro-life, but she felt genuinely conflicted about the way the party handled abortion issues this time around. I think she just wanted to understand the other side."
"It's possible to rehabilitate your image, even after a drubbing like he took," said Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant who's seen former clients the Clintons turn their reputations around. "But two weeks ago, I'd have said it's almost impossible for Romney to do it, especially in the time frame we're talking about. I mean it took Carter years. With what you're telling me now, though… it's amazing and humbling, for me, personally, even. I can't tell you the last time I had a conversation with someone who didn't get to where we were in a Town Car."
Mitt Romney says he has no immediate plans to re-appear in public life. "The work at the Mission is as public as I need to be. Heck, I'm going to have to change that up now, too! I hadn't even thought of that!" He playfully slapped a reporter on the arm. "I knew I should have kept up my streak of not talking to folks like you! Now Steve will never finish teaching me to be cool.
"But, oh, seriously: There are other places that need the help. I've come to really like the simplicity of that kind of service, too: You make the food, you give the people the food, you pay attention to them. And I'll tell you what, after a couple of years having people make me sandwiches, it feels good to make them for someone else."
Ana Marie Cox is a political columnist for The Guardian. Photo from Mitt Romney/ Flickr.