Romney's 'Italian brother' remembers 1958 road trip to SLC

Aug 7 2012 - 1:18pm

TURIN, Italy - Italian businessman Attilio Cortella was a foreign exchange student from Italy in 1958 when he joined Mitt Romney and a driver on a road trip from Detroit to Salt Lake City and back, during which they ate hamburgers, slept in motels and joked around.

Cortella, who owns an auto-parts business in Turin, was 17 years old when he lived for a year in Michigan with the boy who would become the presumed Republican presidential candidate. Mitt-the-young-boy, then 11, was more playful than Mitt-the-candidate, Cortella told Adnkronos in a telephone interview.

"Mitt was somewhat vivacious and never stayed still" in the Rambler compact car, manufactured by American Motors Corp., the carmaker headed by "papa Romney," as Cortella referred to Mitt's father George, who became governor of Michigan before launching an unsuccessful bid for Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

"Public Romney is a bit more serious and less happy-looking than I remember him back then," Cortella said. "In reality he is an easygoing person who likes to kid around."

In addition to countering the notion of Romney's stiff personality, Cortella takes issue with critics who say the candidate's immense fortune prevents him from relating to the middle and lower classes.

"They say he doesn't care about people, but that's the complete opposite from what I saw. The entire family was always interested in people. He's a Mormon and this religious belief brings him to naturally take care of the others," Cortella said.

Cortella says Romney has run into problems for behaving in a manner many can perceive as un-Republican.

"A Republican has to act in a certain way and he's encountered big problems for acting like a conservative who is a bit open," he said. "More so than (Newt) Gingrich, not to say anything about (Rick) Santorum. He has boundaries in which he is forced to stay within.

"Even in Lansing there was his way of acting when he'd come out and meet the citizens and voters. As opposed to how he was when he'd become kind of rigid (giving a speech) in front of a crowd," Cortella said. "His public image doesn't let you see his human side."

Reminiscing about his time as a teenager with the Romneys, Cortella remembers a more innocent America when Detroit's auto-industry was king, before the Kennedy assassination, or moon landings, or Vietnam, or the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That United States could also be more provincial and xenophobic toward immigrants - or Italian foreign exchange students.

"I saw an America when it was America," said Cortella, whose company has an office in Orlando, Fla. "At that time, life in the U.S. for Italians could be less than easy."

To console him, George Romney would tell Cortella, "forget about what others say. Be happy to be Italian."

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From Adnkronos International, special to The Washington Post News Service, with Bloomberg News.


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