Mitt Romney says the attacks on his record at Bain Capital are petty. They’re just another diversion, in his view, from the election’s real issues. But the controversy over when he left Bain captures something much bigger. Together with Romney’s equivocations on other issues, such as abortion and the individual mandate, the Bain episode exposes a pattern in Romney’s character. He keeps his options open, often maintaining multiple alternative realities. Then, in retrospect, he streamlines his autobiography.
Here’s Romney’s airbrushed story, as he presented it to ABC News on Friday:
I had no association with the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999. That is when I left the firm. … As everyone knows, I went on to run the Olympics for three years. I was there full time. After that, I came back and ran in Massachusetts for governor. I had no role with regards to Bain Capital after February 1999.
Romney’s problem is that during those three years, Bain filed—and Romney signed—documents that maintained the alternative realities he now dismisses. The documents, submitted to regulators, name Romney as the firm’s "sole shareholder, sole director, chief executive officer and president,” and, for good measure, its "controlling person." In a round of interviews Friday and Sunday, Romney and his surrogates tried to explain away these documents. But their explanations only underscore his double life.
1. I was just the owner. In several interviews, Romney said the documents show him as Bain’s owner but not its manager. He argued that Bain’s managers made all investment and personnel decisions and that he didn’t run Bain any more than an ordinary investor runs a company in which he owns shares. But Romney wasn’t an ordinary investor. According to the documents, he was the sole shareholder. That means he could oust, and therefore had the power to redirect, the company’s management at any point. “As an owner, I could have come back,” he conceded to NBC News. “I could have gone back and taken over.” To CBS News, he affirmed, “I had the capacity, if I were not on leave, if I were actually wanting to run the business, to do so.” In effect, then, Romney’s choice not to intervene in decisions made by Bain’s managers represents some level of acquiescence.
Romney knows his distinction between management and sole ownership of Bain is flimsy. In fact, in his interview with CBS, he momentarily forgot it. “I was the owner of an entity which was a management entity,” he said. “But I had no responsibility whatsoever after February of '99 for the management or ownership—management, rather, of Bain Capital.” Management and ownership were effectively intertwined. Anything Romney left to others was a matter of delegation.
2. I moved full time to the Olympics. Romney’s claim that he committed to the Olympics “full time” and had “no role” at Bain doesn’t fit the record. News articles and press releases from 1999 to 2000 quote Romney, his wife, and Bain describing his role with Bain as part-time, not defunct. A July 1999 press release refers to Romney’s “part-time leave of absence.” Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie tried to patch up the discrepancy: “Maybe that's what they thought at the time, is that he could do it [the Olympics] part time. It was not a part-time job. It was a 16-hour-a-day job.”
The notion that Romney had no time for corporate management during his period is plainly false. Romney testified in 2002 that he continued to serve on corporate boards during his Olympics tenure and returned to Massachusetts for “a number of social trips and business trips,” including “board meetings.” On Friday, Romney confirmed to CNN that he continued to serve as a fiduciary of Staples, a formerly Bain-run company. That doesn’t mean Romney worked part time for Bain during these years. But the evidence does indicate that he began his Olympics tenure with the intention of doing so and only gradually gave up on that idea. Exactly when this transition happened isn’t clear.
3. I don’t recall. In two interviews on Friday, Romney was pressed on whether he had participated in any Bain-related meetings after February 1999. He told CBS, “I don't recall even coming back once to go to a Bain or management meeting.” He told NBC, “I don’t recall a single meeting or single participation in an investment decision by Bain or personnel decision.” If Romney had taken a leave of absence with clear rules about nonparticipation, he wouldn’t need to search his memory this way. He would simply cite the policy. The reason he’s going by recollection is that the question of his participation was left open.
4. I retired retroactively. On State of the Union, Gillespie said Romney “ended up not going back [to Bain] at all and retired retroactively to February of 1999.” When NBC’s David Gregory asked whether Romney stood by Bain’s decisions from 1999 to 2002, Gillespie repeated: “He actually retired retroactively at that point, David, because he ended up not going back to the firm after his time in Salt Lake City. So he was actually retired from Bain.” Actually retired? Come on. There’s a difference between being actually retired and declaring three years later that you were, at the time, retroactively retired. Romney backdated his retirement from Bain, recasting what had begun as a part-time leave. He later did the same thing on abortion, backdating his pro-life conversion.
5. I remained responsible, but only for the good stuff. On Friday, NBC’s Peter Alexander challenged Romney to choose one reality or the other. If Romney wasn’t responsible for Bain’s controversial decisions after 1999, Alexander asked, “Is it fair, then, to take credit for jobs that were created by Bain Capital after that time? Can you have it both ways?” Romney answered:
Well, what I've pointed out is that businesses that we helped create and helped start went on to create lots of jobs. So if you're responsible for starting a business, and it grows and adds a lot of jobs in the coming years, then I'm happy to point out that my involvement was in helping get that business started and seeing it grow over the years.
In other words, yes. In the same way Bain structured its deals—collecting profits if things went well, but avoiding losses if things went poorly—Romney expects credit for watching Bain-managed companies grow but no blame for watching them outsource or terminate jobs.
What’s intriguing, looking back at this period, is that Romney was living multiple realities in three overlapping dimensions. Geographically, he was positioning himself to run for office either in Utah or in Massachusetts. Politically, he was preparing to present himself as either a pro-lifer (in Utah) or a pro-choicer (in Massachusetts). And financially, he was preserving his option to resume full-time management of Bain, even as he took on the Olympics and considered a political career. Chief executive of Bain was just one of many things Romney was and, at the same time, wasn’t. It didn’t define the man. Nothing does.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: