With Ann Romney, what you see is what you get, except when it’s not. The would-be First Lady is indeed a picture-perfect country-club Republican woman, bright and attractive at 63, with a rich, handsome husband and five thriving sons, a romper room of grandchildren, multiple houses, a stable of horses and — in the slightly tone-deaf words of her ambitious spouse — “a couple of Cadillacs.” As such, she makes a tempting target for liberal critics who look at her pedigree and equestrian pastime and paint her as hopelessly privileged and out of touch, a woman who — in the condescending words for which Democratic lobbyist Hilary Rosen later apologized — “never worked a day in her life.”
But no matter what political ad makers might want us to believe, no one can be summed up in a single image or cartoon. This slice of New England’s upper crust is two generations removed from the grim life of a Welsh coal miner. Seemingly so Establishment, she in fact has a countercultural streak: in the era of free love and changing mores, she defied her parents by joining the conservative Mormon Church and getting married at 19. Later, she often found herself among what were then called liberated women in liberal Cambridge, Mass., and said she “felt disparaged” for her decision to be a stay-at-home mom. “I could respect their choices,” she recalled in a recent television interview. “They needed to respect mine.” In other words, Romney’s life is not the creation of some Stepford-wife assembly line turning out ladies in pearls by the hundred. It has been deliberately shaped to reflect her views about the power of free enterprise to improve lives and the importance of a strong family unit. She is who she is by conviction, not by default.
(Download: The CNN-TIME Convention Floor Pass Mobile App)
And she has experienced a ration of struggle along with the cotillions and cookie baking and tennis dates. Hers arrived much as it does for hundreds of thousands of other Americans, in the form of numbness, weakness, fatigue, stumbling: classic symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a mysterious disease that causes one’s immune system to wage war on the central nervous system. While MS is rarely fatal, it can cripple, confuse or blind. For reasons no one understands, the disease often goes into remission for long periods — even indefinitely. But when it does not, it can be a grim business indeed. At least a quarter of the patients of the late Jack Kevorkian, the suicide doctor, went to him for relief from MS.
Since her diagnosis and initial harrowing flare-up in 1998, Romney’s symptoms have often been dormant, but the stress of the presidential campaign has brought on at least one relapse. “Just a little bitty one,” as she described it to NBC News. “But it scared me” — enough to limit her role as one of Mitt Romney’s most effective promoters, lest exhaustion exacerbate her illness. Before the disease, “I could do anything,” she explained to a group of her husband’s supporters at a fundraiser in Orlando last year. “Everything was good and wonderful.” Since then, the story, like most life stories, has been more complex.
(PHOTOS: Ann Romney’s Campaign Trail Style)
Ann Romney’s story starts with her grandfather David Davies, who first went down into the mines of Wales at the ripe old age of 6. By the time he escaped to Detroit in 1929, he had black lung and had been maimed by a runaway coal car. It was hard, no doubt, to get started in the U.S. during the Great Depression, but no harder than what he was used to. His teenage son Edward grew up whip-smart, eventually becoming an inventor with a good head for business who then became a prosperous manufacturer. And so it was that beautiful Ann Davies, granddaughter of a poor Welsh immigrant, attended the posh Kingswood School for girls. At the senior prom in 1965 she promised to marry a tall boy from the all-male Cranbrook School. Willard Mitt Romney was the son of the governor of Michigan. Her parents said she was too young, but when Mitt returned to the U.S. from his years of Mormon missionary work in France, that promise was kept. President Nixon sent warm wishes to the newlyweds, and future President Ford was a guest at the wedding.
Eventually settling in the prosperous Boston suburb of Belmont, Ann Romney spent the next three decades raising her sons, volunteering in the community and honing her formidable tennis game. “A mother, homemaker, very active in her church, school. She used to go and volunteer, serve Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless in town, that sort of thing,” recalls a friend and neighbor, Alyce Morrissey. “Very active, very friendly lady, very outgoing.”
Meanwhile, her husband was a vertical blur in the booming world of Boston business consultants. A turning point came, as Ann tells it, with the death of Edward Davies, who urged his daughter from his deathbed to squeeze everything possible out of life. She in turn told Mitt that he must not defer his dream of a political career. He pulled the covers over his head and said, “Don’t think about it,” she later told interviewers, but the upshot was a Senate campaign against the legendary Senator Edward Kennedy in 1994. “People think Mitt’s such a strong person, but I run the show,” she once said laughingly to a reporter from the Boston Herald.
Ann did Mitt no favors in that first campaign with her blithe interview in the Boston Globe, in which she spoke of selling off stock to pay the bills during college as if it were a brush with poverty. Her statement that she and her husband had not quarreled since they were teenagers dropped jaws all over the Bay State. “You couldn’t pay me to do this again,” she said after it was over.
Three years later, her nest was almost empty. The youngest Romney son, Craig, was a couple of years away from graduation at the private Belmont Hill School. Vague symptoms — numbness, tingling — worsened to the point that her brother, a doctor, urged Ann to see a neurologist. By early 1999, she was nearly bedridden and staring at life in a wheelchair. “I was at such a scared time in my life,” she told the audience in Orlando. “The only way I can describe it — do you know when you have the flu and you just can’t get out of bed? That’s how I felt all the time … That’s what I was living with, in addition to my right leg, my whole right side, basically not working.”
(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)
In her telling, that’s when her husband told her what she needed to hear: “He said to me, ‘I don’t care how sick you are. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair. I don’t care if I never eat another dinner in my life. I can eat cereal and toast and be just fine. As long as we’re together, everything will be O.K.’ I needed that at that moment.” When Ann tells the story on the campaign trail, she adds a kicker to tie this private moment to Mitt’s campaign promise to turn America around. “That was the turnaround in my life that gave me the hope to go on.”
Romney credits her doctor’s aggressive treatment and the therapeutic effects of horseback riding as reasons for the “miraculous” recovery of much of her strength. But it’s the nature of the disease that she can’t know when she might get worse. She has tried alternative therapies, like reflexology and acupuncture, but through a spokesman she declined to discuss whether she is taking any of the conventional medicines that have been approved for MS in the years since she was diagnosed.
MS drug therapy is a touchy subject in countries around the world because the medicines are extremely expensive — starting above $3,000 per month and rising steeply for drugs that must be infused intravenously. And they only slow the disease; they don’t cure it. As a result, access is uneven. Single-payer systems, like Britain’s National Health Service, have been resistant to covering the treatments, and some U.S. insurers put a lifetime cap on the amount that patients can spend on the drugs. In a 2011 interview with Parade, Romney advised her fellow MS patients “to get on medications because the medications now are so effective in reducing symptoms.” A more explicit discussion could entangle her in the thorny debate over health care spending.
Her inability to be a constant presence on the campaign costs her husband one of his most effective advocates. Aides say Ann is Mitt’s closest adviser, and he seems more relaxed on the stump when she is around. She stood at his side, granddaughter Chloe in tow, during Paul Ryan’s debut appearance in Norfolk, Va., and again at a Ryan “homecoming” event in Wisconsin. At a NASCAR institute in Mooresville, N.C., Ann delivered a rousing call to arms. “America is in trouble, and these are the two guys that are going to save it,” she said.
She also knows how to sting. Obama’s entire campaign strategy boils down to “kill Romney,” she charged in one interview, and in another she defended the decision not to release more family tax returns because “it will just give them more ammunition.”
In many ways, the Romneys seem more alike than different, but Ann points to one exception: she puts a lot of stock in intuitive judgments — the opposite of her husband’s data-driven approach to life. She had a feeling, back in 1999, that she would walk again, and sure enough, on a winter day in 2002 she jogged slowly and haltingly over the longest quarter-mile of her life, carrying the Olympic torch as part of the relay to Salt Lake City. “I had my husband beside me and I had my children helping me hold — my right arm was still pretty weak — helping me to hold up the torch,” she recalls.
It’s that intuition that keeps her going now. “I have the same voice, same intuition,” she continues, about her husband’s race for the White House. And it is telling her that “Mitt is going to save America.”
— With reporting by Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias / Washington
TIME’s new book, The Essential Voters Guide, offers a revealing look into the 2012 presidential campaign. Learn about the hot-button issues and get to know the candidates and their families. Get your ringside seat to the election here