His wife has fought MS; car crash in '68 killed a passenger.
Mitt Romney was, uncharacteristically, terrified.
It was the fall of 1998, the height of Romney's high-flying career as a private equity executive. But his wife, Ann, was not well. She was exhausted and having difficulty walking; her right foot was dragging. When a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital arrived at a diagnosis -- multiple sclerosis -- "they just held each other in their arms," their son Josh said, "and just cried."
Thirty years earlier, in the spring of 1968, Romney, then a Mormon missionary in France, had a scare of a different sort. He was at the wheel of a tiny Citroen, 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. Romney, by all accounts not at fault, was knocked unconscious and mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene.
This week, Romney will accept the GOP 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 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 others.
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 Romney's character and how 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.
'Mini-expert' on MS
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 Ann 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," Wright said. "It was like, 'Now we have the diagnosis; this is the plan.'"
After the car crash in France, 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 and 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," Anderson added, "came a pattern of living that was reinforced by events like that critical accident in France."