It's not every interview that gets interrupted by a call from the president of the United States. But that's what happened when "Sunday Morning" sat down with Sen. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann. President Biden phoned Romney last week on the eve of his diplomatic mission to Israel; the Republican had just returned from his own visit, which he described as heartbreaking.
"Particularly to meet with the families of the hostages – their lives are entirely different," Romney said. "One of the people said, 'You don't understand. We live in a different world than you do.'"
At age 76, Mitt Romney says he still cares deeply about what is happening around the world.
And here at home, he worries deeply about the future of his party.
O'Donnell said, "You were once the party's nominee, and now you're a pariah in the Republican Party."
"Yeah, that's saying it in a gentle way, yeah," said Romney. "I mean, yeah, no question. I don't really have a home in my party.
"I come from a tradition of, you know, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush and John McCain. Those are the people that have shaped our party: anti-Putin, anti-Russia, anti-authoritarians, anti-Kim Jong Un, character counts, that the character of our leaders makes a difference and it shapes the character of our country. That's the party I've come from. And I don't recognize that in the great majority of our party today. And that, for me, is very troubling."
This is Romney's first interview since announcing he would not seek re-election. Without having to worry about how voters will see him, he's now concerned about how history views his legacy. That's why he participated in a new biography by McKay Coppins, "Romney: A Reckoning" (published by Scribner, part of CBS' parent company Paramount Global).
Upon learning that her husband was giving over his private diary to a journalist, Ann responded, "I might've said, 'That's not a good idea! Hey, you maybe wanna look through it before and take out a few things?'"
Mitt added, "Now that I've read the book, it's like, 'Oh, did I really say that about this person? Oh, my goodness!'"
The book is revealing, with unvarnished opinions and stories of what happens behind closed doors in the famously clubby United States Senate. "I don't think I've heard a single member of my caucus, Republicans in the Senate, say, 'You know, Donald Trump is great. Aren't we lucky to have him as our leader?'" Romney said. "Donald Trump represents a failure of character, which is changing, I think in many respects, the psyche of our nation and the heart of our nation. And that's something which takes a long time, if ever, to repair."
"In a way he almost was like a spy behind enemy lines," said Coppins.
Romney gave Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic, hundreds of text messages and emails. The two met close to 50 times, often late at night when Romney would tell all. "I think there was something therapeutic for him in being able to sit down and review his entire career, his life," Coppins said. "This was not an authorized biography in the sense that he had any editorial control over the final product. So, there were some meetings that felt like therapy sessions. There were some meetings that felt almost confessional in nature."
Romney is quoted in the book as saying, "A very large portion of my party really doesn't believe in the Constitution."
How did he come to that damning conclusion? "When former President Trump said we should set aside the Constitution and reappoint him as president, you had Republicans cheer that," Romney said. "It's like, 'Wait a second: This is the leader of our party saying we should put aside the Constitution? How can you believe you're following the Constitution if that's the case?'"
Romney, who barely escaped the mob on Jan. 6, 2021, was at the Capitol that day despite the concerns of his wife, Ann. "I do get death threats," he said. "And her feeling was I would not be safe and I shouldn't go. And I said, 'Well, this is a constitutional moment. This is a time when I have to be there.'"
That day, on the Senate floor, Romney said, "Do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom?"
A year earlier, Romney had been the lone Republican Senator to vote to impeach then-President Trump for pressuring Ukraine's president to find damaging information on political rival Joe Biden. It's a stance that would have been familiar to his father, George Romney, one-time Governor of Michigan. In 1964 when Republicans nominated far-right Senator Barry Goldwater for president, George Romney took a stand against his own party. At that year's nominating convention George Romney said, "The strongest personality on Earth cannot deal with the problems of this nation except upon the basis of correct principles."
O'Donnell asked, "What did you learn from your dad?"
"My dad is my life hero," Romney replied. "As a Republican governor, he refused to endorse the nominee of his party, Barry Goldwater, for president because he thought he was weak on civil rights and extremism. So, that's the person who I try and model myself after. And I'm not quite there."
Family remains at the center of the Romneys' life. They have 25 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The senator says his wife is his closest advisor, and as we discovered in his private office, she's always close at hand. "Normally there's a life-size cardboard cutout of Ann that stands right there, and they have taken it away, 'cause they're afraid you'd see it," Romney laughed. "There it is! They gave me this and we had a good laugh about it. But then I said, 'Don't throw it away, I want to keep it!'"
The book reports on a 2019 phone call to Ann from Oprah Winfrey, alleging that Oprah said if Mitt ran for president, she would be his running mate. Ann Romney tells a different story: "She was trying to figure out how Mitt could do an independent run. I remember trying to explain to her that that doesn't work politically. I was the one that suggested, 'Well, Oprah, why don't you run with him and see how that works?' I don't think it was really her thought at all. 'Cause I don't think she really wants to be involved in any kind of politics in an active way."
As for Mitt Romney's next move, he says he cannot imagine running for president in 2024 under any circumstance: "Perhaps if Godzilla comes in and removes all the other candidates and so forth. But other than Godzilla stepping in, no, I'm not running for president. Not giving it any thought."
But he is thinking about how future generations will judge his time in the public service.
When asked how he wants his children to remember him, Romney said, "Well, they probably already have an image of who I am. But my descendants I hope will walk away saying, 'Okay, Granddad or Great-Granddad had beliefs which were either right or wrong, but he stood by 'em.'
"I'd like them to also know that my life is not defined by winning and losing elections. My life is defined by my relationship with my family and my faith. That's what I live for. Those other things are part of the life experience. But that's the defining measure of my life."
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For more info:
- Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah)
- "Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins (Scribner), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, to be available October 24 via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
Story produced by Ed Forgotson and Julie Morse. Editor: George Pozderec.
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