The Obama campaign has spent months laboring to get this election to be about anything but the president's record and the candidates' policy proposals. As often happens in campaigns, this requires painting caricatures with no connection to the facts. The Obama camp has worked hard to make Mitt Romney out as a bad, unfeeling, cold-hearted rich guy who only cares about his own bottom line. Romney himself hasn't helped the matter by being such a stiff, tin-eared speaker who actually looks and sounds like a walking stereotype; political communication is not among his skills. But the reality is that Romney's biography shows him to be a real-life Good Samaritan who has walked the walk of caring for his fellow man not only with his own money but with his own time and his own hands. I've had my share of political complaints about Romney, but on this score, the critics should be ashamed of themselves: Romney is a genuine role model of what private citizens can do to assist those in need.
Romney's roster of good deeds only starts with his donations to charity. Romney's substantial inheritance from his wealthy father was donated to charity; despite being born to money, his own wealth comes from his own business career. Romney's tax returns show that he donated over $7 million in 2010-2011 alone, over 16% of his income. Edwin Durgy at Forbes has more on the Romneys' charitable giving:
Romney and his wife Ann also maintain a separate foundation, established in 1999...The couple have contributed approximately$13.6 million, including an initial gift of more than $3.6 million, to their Tyler Charitable Foundation, based in Boston, MA, in the past 13 years.
Since the Tyler Foundation began making grants in 2000, its annual disbursements have averaged approximately $650,000 per year. The foundation's most active years were 2003 and 2008, with approximately $2 million given away in each. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, the foundation hit its average, donating $650,000.
This is admirable in itself. But for wealthy philanthropists, writing checks can be easy. Romney has gone the extra mile, giving of his own time. There are many examples:
One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas.
Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man’s surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition - loans he forgave when she graduated.
And in 1997, when a fellow church member's teenage son fell seriously ill, Romney sprinted to the hospital in the dead of night, where he kept vigil with his terrified parents.
That story begins in the aftermath of the wildfires that engulfed San Diego in the fall of 2007, consuming dozens of homes in Reed Fisher's neighborhood and nearly his own.
Fisher told CBS News the fire did burn a hole through a fence and caught the corner of his house.
While the house was being repaired Fisher got a call from a fellow Mormon, one of his son's friends, offering help. It was Matt Romney, one of Mitt Romney's five sons.
When asked what he said, Fisher said, "We would like to come help. We would like to come do something. And I said, 'Matt, I wish you could, but almost everything has been cleaned up.' But he pressed me, and I said, 'Well, there is this one thing. And I don't know if the insurance is going to cover it. There is a big tree stump in my front yard. They took the tree down, the tree was torched in the fire. But the stump was still there.' So Matt insisted, he said, 'We would like to bring a couple of guys and do some service at your house.'"
On that day, Fisher said he ran out to get some breakfast for the volunteers. Fisher said, "As I drove down to my house, there are four men working in the hole there, ... and one of them is running for President of the United States of America."
That man was Romney. When his son told him about the service project, he had asked if he could help.
"He had dirt under his fingernails," Fisher said. "He was the first one down the hole. He's the first one with the power saw. He's doing the hardest work of any of us."
On April 4, 1995, four of Mark and Sheryl Nixon's six children were driving back from a youth group meeting outside Boston when the driver of the minivan they were in lost control of the vehicle, which side-swiped a utility pole, struck two trees and flipped over.
The two front seat passengers - Rob and Reed Nixon, both high-school athletes - were severely injured in the wreck, their necks shattered, their bodies paralyzed. The boys underwent numerous surgeries, and the family quickly incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses, not only for the treatments but also for a special van and an addition to their house to accommodate their sons' conditions.
New to the Boston area and without the means to pay for their sons' care, the Nixons had few places to turn for help.
Enter Mitt Romney. On Christmas Eve, the Romney family showed up at the Nixon home unannounced, bearing large boxes full of gifts, including a stereo system, VCR and a generous check for Rob, Reed and the entire Nixon family.
"I knew [Romney's] schedule. I knew how busy he was. And their whole family came. He was actually teaching his boys, saying, 'This is what we do. We do this as a family,'" Mark Nixon told Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in "The Real Romney." "We've never forgotten it," Sheryl added. "It stood out so much in our minds and helped us to want to be better parents, too."
Romney later offered to pay for the boys' college education and participated in a 5K road race and fundraiser for them. In subsequent years, he also made large financial gifts to a golf tournament in their honor.
Late one summer night in 1993, distraught over his descent into alcoholism and drug use, Mr. Clark, then a 19-year-old college student, decided to confess that he had strayed from his Mormon faith. So he drove through this well-heeled Boston suburb to Mr. Romney’s secluded seven-bedroom home.
As the highest-ranking Mormon leader in Boston, Mr. Romney was responsible for determining whether Mr. Clark was spiritually fit for a mission, a rite of passage for young Mormon men. Mr. Clark had previously lied to him, insisting that he was eligible to go. But instead of condemnation that night, Mr. Clark said, Mr. Romney offered counsel that the younger man has clung to for years.
"He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out," recalled Mr. Clark, now 37, sober and working as a filmmaker in Utah. "He said, 'The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.'"
Another congregant was inspired by Romney's example of service:
When Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor, and his wife, Christine, felt overwhelmed by church obligations, Mr. Romney showed up unexpectedly at the door. With three young children, Mr. Christensen was in charge of missionary work; his wife ran the relief society, ministering to Boston's poor.
"He said, 'I was just driving home from work, and I had a feeling that I needed to stop by and tell you that God loves you.'" Mr. Christensen was so moved, he recalled, that he wept.
Not all of Romney's outreach efforts were as successful as the Washington Post's account of Romney's outreach to the Hatian community, the NY Times notes that "[w]hen young Southeast Asian converts began joining gangs, Mr. Romney set up small storefront churches in rough areas of town, with the hope of drawing them back," but to no avail. But other communities felt the touch of Romney's generosity and compassion, even if it meant bending the rules a little:
In the back office of his Weston, Mass., headquarters a quarter-century ago, Mitt Romney, the chief Mormon authority in the Boston area, told the leader of his Spanish-speaking congregation that he would not directly pay for lawyers to help the growing number of illegal immigrants in his church. Then he carefully instructed his subordinate on how to circumvent the Mormon Church's new hard line against such assistance and subsidize their legal aide.
"In those issues I cannot help you financially to pay for lawyers," Romney said, according to Jose Francisco Anleu, a Guatemalan immigrant. "But what I can do is allow you to give them food assistance from the bishop's warehouse," a church welfare pantry. The money saved could be used to "pay lawyers." He reminded Anleu that he could use church funds to cover rent, utilities and health care for his needy members. The money came from Anleu's budget, but, as Anleu noted decades later, it was a budget sustained by Romney’s office.
...Marco Velasquez, an immigrant from Guatemala, said that under Romney the church held workshops to learn English and make gallons of inexpensive liquid soap. He also said that while he had papers, most of the other Latino members did not. Some came on three-month tourist visas and stayed. Many of the Central Americans, he said, simply walked across the border into Texas and made their way up to Boston.
"There is always a way to get papers - you had to pay extra," said Velasquez, who added that he had a network in East Boston that could get people Social Security cards - "but they were not real." A counselor in Cambridge before digging his shovel into the ground alongside Romney at the Boston branch's groundbreaking, he said the church "had to know, but they didn't say anything." The same, he said, went for Romney. "He probably suspected that I was doing it."
Ken Smith, the former director of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, also came on Beck's show to discuss what Buzzfeed called "a cringe worthy moment in 1994."
During the visit to the shelter, Smith said Romney first looked at the shelter's books for about 45 minutes and then took a tour of the facility. At the end of the tour, Romney asked what Smith's biggest problem was. Smith told him the shelter had problems paying for milk, and Romney replied, "Well Ken, maybe you can teach the vets to milk cows."
The next day, Smith said, the newspapers were killing him for the remark, and Romney called Smith to apologize. The following day, the milkman showed up, offloaded his milk and gave Smith a bill that was half of its normal size. The same things happened for a month, two months, three months, and then for a full two years, Smith said. Finally, on the day the milkman was to retire, he told Smith that Romney had been paying for the milk.
"Romney's generosity has helped tens of thousands of veterans who are homeless, who have been through this facility, with nourishment," Smith said. "The milk cartons said the name of the milk company, it didn't say, 'donated by Mitt Romney.'"
(You can see video of the testimonials from Smith and some of the others here)
When the daughter of Bob Gay, a Bain colleague who once sat with Romney on the church's high council, vanished, Romney shut down his Bain offices and arranged for a search party. After she was found shaken but safe in New Jersey, Romney boarded a bus to the airport with John Hoffmire, another Bain colleague who belonged to the church. Tears welled up in Romney's eyes as he talked about his journey through New York's rave clubs showing teenagers a picture of Gay’s daughter.
"I looked at this young man, and he had a bolt through his lip," Hoffmire recalled Romney telling him. "But the strongest feeling came over me, and I just thought, 'The heavenly father loved that young man just as much as he loved anybody.'"
Snopes has more, including Gay being quoted at the time - while his daughter was recovering in detox after "a massive dose of ecstasy," saying "I'm not sure we would have gotten her back without" Romney.
It's a story that’s not often told. Mitt Romney at his family's summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H. on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee whisking into the night on a Jet Ski with two of his sons to rescue a drowning family of four, their two friends, and their dog.
On the weekend of July 4th, 2003, the Romney family was enjoying their picturesque summer home in New Hampshire on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee...
"We heard a whole bunch of screaming," Josh Romney told the Boston Herald. The Romney brothers and their father quickly raced to their Jet Skis. "We tore out of there and my dad hopped on the other Jet Ski and came out right after us."
The screams came from Robert Morrissey, of New Jersey, his wife, their two adult children, two family friends, and the family dog.
The family...were sailing peacefully in their 20-foot long wooden boat until it began to take on water. Within three minutes it had begun to sink.
...'This happened really, really fast,'' Mr. Morrissey said in 2003. When the boat started to sink, he dialed 911 on his cellphone as fast as he could. ''As I'm making the call, the boat is going down under my feet.''
Romney and his sons followed the shouts to find the group floating in the darkness treading water alongside their dog.
The Governor heaved the youngest two women onto his Jet Ski, a three-seater, and raced back to shore. The two Romney sons stayed with the rest of the family until the Governor returned to ferry the rest of the family, and their dog, safely to dry land.
Click the links above, all of which have much longer accounts of these and other stories of Romney's good works.
You may choose to dislike Romney's politics, his policies, his ham-handed speeches. But what a better country we would have if half the people attacking him now could compile half of the list above. Compared to Barack Obama, who had half his house paid for by a slumlord convicted of bribing politicians, I'd rather depend on Mitt Romney if I really needed a friend when the chips were down.