David Brooks

WASHINGTON: Mitt Romney is a rich man, but is Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth? Is Romney a spoiled, cosseted character? Has he been corrupted by ease and luxury?

The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career.

Romney’s salient quality is not wealth. It is, for better and worse, his tenacious drive — the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions.

Where did this persistence come from? It’s plausible to think that it came from his family history. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed that it takes several generations to make a career. Interests, habits and lore accrue in families and shape those born into them.

The Romney family history, which is nicely described in The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, is a story of tenacious work, setbacks and recovery. People who analyze how Mormonism may have shaped Romney generally look to theology. But the Mormon history, the exodus, matters most.

Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather Miles was a member of the church in Nauvoo, Ill., and spent years building a temple there. Even after Joseph Smith was killed by a mob and most of the Mormons fled, Miles stayed to finish his temple.

Then, in 1844, as the great work was being completed, mobs burned it to the ground and forced Miles and his family to head West. Most Mormons made the trek to Salt Lake City, but the Romneys could not afford an ox cart. They were part of a small, malnourished band that took four years of struggle to make it the 1,300 miles west.

Mitt’s great-grandfather, also Miles, made the trek starting at age 7. He was married in 1862, but a month after his marriage Brigham Young told him to leave his wife, Hannah, and become a missionary for three years in Britain. Hannah supported herself by taking in other people’s washing.

Miles returned in 1867 and bought a two-room house. Young commanded him to take another wife, and Hannah had to prepare the room for the woman who would be her rival.

“I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow,” she recounted in her own private memoir.

Then they were commanded to leave family and friends and build a settlement in the desert 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. Living at first in primitive huts, they built a community, and Miles prospered. Then came a command to move 400 miles across the wilderness to settle a desert patch in Arizona.

Again the Romneys were thrown back into primeval hardship. Miles, his three wives and their many children lived in a small wooden house and survived on bread, beans and gravy. There, as elsewhere, the locals detested the Mormons for their polygamy, for their religion and for the fact that the Mormons tended to outwork them. The local newspaper said Miles should be hung for polygamy, so two of his wives were sent to hide in cornfields and the mountains of New Mexico.

They were compelled to move again. Romney left his family to build a colony in Mexico. It was 1885, and he was living out of a wagon. Hannah led eight children through the Arizona mountains to join him. In Mexico, they lived in a house with a dirt roof, so mud dropped down when it rained. Eventually, all the wives and the 21 children were reunited. Miles and his son Gaskell, Mitt’s grandfather, built a successful community, with brick homes, churches and wealth.

George Romney, Mitt’s father, was born in Mexico. But when he was 5, in 1912, Mexican revolutionaries confiscated their property and threw them out. Most of the Romneys fled back to the United States. Within days, they went from owning a large Mexican ranch to being penniless once again, drifting from California to Idaho to Utah, where again they built a fortune.

Mitt Romney can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail. Mormonism is an uncomfortable subject. But he must have been affected by it.

It is a story of relentless effort, of recovery and of being despised (in their eyes) because of their own success. Romney himself experienced none of this hardship, of course, but Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.

Romney seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise — whether it’s trying to persuade the French to give up wine and join his church, or building a business, or being willing to withstand heaps of abuse in pursuit of the presidency. He may have character flaws, but he does not have the character flaws normally associated with great wealth. His signature is focus and persistence. The wealth issue is a sideshow.

Brooks is a New York Times columnist.