NOTE: The piece below was published by Sunstone Magazine in November of 2005. Since, then it has been cited by many other national reporters, most recently last Sunday 12/16/07 by Tim Russert on Meet The Press. Regular updates about Romney’s pursuit of the Presidency are available at www.catchingmitt.com This piece may be reprinted or excerpted provided that the author and Sunstone Magazine are credited.
: : CAN THE THOROUGHLY MODERATE MITT
NAVIGATE THE RIGHT ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE?
By RB Scott
UPDATED EDITORâ€™S NOTE: A native of Salt Lake City, RB Scott â€“ Ron to his friends and Bruce to his mother — has lived in New England for 39 years, two of them as a missionary. He was a staff writer for the weekly Life Magazine and was one of the founding editors of People Magazine. His first novel, Closing Circles-A Mormon Schmeickler in a Gentile World â€“ â€œthe ornate adventures of being Mormonâ€ â€” will be out just as soon as an agreeable publisher offers a contract. He welcomes e-mail comments and inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here he goes again.
W. Mitt Romney has already proved that a Mormon Republican can be elected governor of the nation’s most liberal state. Now he’s off on another mission impossible to win over the hearts and minds of Christian conservatives who control the Republican Party and historically have not thought highly of Mormons like himself.
If he beats the odds again, he could well become the next President of the United States. If he is less persuasive, he could wind up as a capable and attractive running mate. Either way, the party gets a very smart leader at the top of the ticket or an agreeable number two man who always plays by the rules he likes to help shape.
But you never know what brass knuckle politics will dish: any day now Vice President Dick Cheney could suddenly hightail it out of Washington to his hideout in Wyoming (pick your exit strategy: weakening heart, looming indictments, fresh compromising pictures of him with his Halliburton pals). The President would go looking for a Mr. Squeak E. Clean replacement and remember that Romney’s nearing the end of his first term as governor, has a rather spectacular history of bailing-out troubled organizations, not to mention saving lost souls – neither are in short supply in Washington these days. And, well, you get the picture.
If serendipity strikes Mitt again, he could be sitting just a heart beat away from the nation’s corner office, ready to head out on the campaign highway as the anointed heir, savior of the party, in control and in charge of those radical neo-conservatives. Just the way he would prefer it.
This is not some incredible “Wag The Dog” scenario. Brilliantly serendipitous things happen to good people like W. Mitt Romney. So, pay attention.
For now, as he surveys the formidable obstacles that lie ahead, Romney must be experiencing what Yogi Berra did right before he uttered his most famous malapropism: “It’s deja vous all over again.” The most daunting obstacle of all is still his religion, the Mormonism Senator Edward M. Kennedy shamelessly, but effectively, swung at Mitt’s kneecaps back in 1994.
Back then Romney was downright scornful of propositions that his religion would be up for election as much as he was. Ultimately, his sense of what’s fair in politics cost him an upset victory over America’s most celebrated politician. Once the well oiled Kennedy machine recovered from the shock of trailing in the early polls, it played the Mormon card so relentlessly and cynically that even the leader of Boston Catholics, Cardinal Bernard Law got indignant and reminded that the lessons John Kennedy taught the country about a man’s religion “has been lost on President Kennedy’s youngest brother, but salvaged by Mister Romney.”
Law’s stirring protest was of little lasting consequence as Romney was forced to react almost daily to potshots that his religion was racist, then sexist, then backward, then clannish with designs on ruling the U.S. if not the world, and still preaching the eternal efficacy of polygamy.
Fast forward to 2005. Enter stage far right: The new Romney who gets it, who fights back when attacked, as he ably demonstrated in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign. This new Romney gives offense to some if it wins support from the many. Recently he flatly refused to modify his call to wire tap Muslim mosques and keep tabs on some Muslims in the U.S. Why? In part, because it appealed to the hearts and minds of the people in the red states who kept George Bush in the White House.
And, it resonated with religious extremists everywhere who believe a holy showdown between Muslims and Christians is inevitable if not imminent.
It has been nearly four decades since Mitt’s father, George W. Romney, the immensely popular governor of Michigan, had a lock on the Republican nomination until he proclaimed “I was brainwashed about Viet Nam.” We will never know whether Mormonism would have dogged him had he won the nomination, but probably not. In 1968 moderate Rockefeller Republicans like George Romney were flying high, having just wrested control of the party from the clutches of strident Goldwater conservatives.
Today a different brand of zealot – the acolytes of the Christian Right – rule the moderate party of Romney senior and Nelson Rockefeller. But Mitt would rather switch than fight them. Sort of. “I’m a red state kinda guy” and “I’ve always been pro-life” he proclaims a bit disingenuously.
The truly peculiar, perhaps surmountable, problem for Romney is this: those most ardent in their self- righteous scolds — the kind foisting “abstinence only” and “intelligent design” dogmas onto the public schools – are often the very ones who rant that Mormons are the heretics, slickly deceptive and dangerous anti-christs foretold by the prophet Isaiah and others.
If you are unfamiliar with this new breed of unChristian, drop by an “open house” for virtually any new temple. You’ll see them carrying placards bearing hateful messages condemning Mormon teachings and sacred practices. Or, join a public LDS-oriented internet discussion group. Sooner and later and often these well-trained Christian soldiers will attack and disrupt and taunt, avoiding thoughtful discussion at all costs.
“For me the shame is that Mitt is running now when the Republican party has been co-opted by the far right with its extreme and very narrow agenda,” says Helen Claire Sievers, a Democrat and long-time personal friend who has worked with Mitt on many church leadership assignments over the years. “The challenge for him, both politically and ethically, is to get the Republican nomination, because I think his centrist philosophies of fiscal responsibility and genuine social compassion will position him well with the general American electorate.”
“Mitt showed so much promise when he began this quest a dozen years ago – very, very smart, principled, committed” said another long-time admirer who would like to vote for Romney in 2008 “if he doesn’t become your typical politician, willing to do whatever it takes to win the election.”
Romney’s promising start included supporting the formation of the non-partisan Concord Coalition — dedicated to fostering sound social and fiscal policies — led by the late Senator Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts senator, Democrat and one-time Presidential candidate, and other thoughtful leaders of both political parties. Until he began focusing his sites on the White House, Romney’s politics were right down the middle, drifting slightly left on social issues, veering right on fiscal policy – a freshened and appealing version of his father’s politics.
As a church leader he was equally moderate and pragmatic, even a careful change agent from time to time. Local members do not recall a single member who was excommunicated or disfellowshipped while he served as president of a stake that probably has as many religiously rococo and fiercely independent academics, writers and thinkers as any in the church. He eschewed using church councils to settle ethical and money disputes between members, encouraging them instead to press their claims in civil court.
When marital breakups beset the bishops and high councilmen who served under him, Romney refused to accept their de’ rigueur resignations because such would have suggested, incorrectly in his opinion, that the church viewed divorced members as second class citizens.
According to Dr. Kathleen Flake, Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University and chronicler of Utah Senator Reed Smoot’s influence on the public perception of Mormonism in the early twentieth century, that while Romney does not speak for the church, he could be considered the next key figure in a sustained, if ill defined and uncoordinated effort to reassure America that they have nothing to fear from Mormonism. This effort is as old as Mormonism itself, but as the church has grown so has the need for such assurances.”
As if reading from the same script, in parallel timing with Romney’s political emergence in 1994, the gregarious and media savvy Hinckley took to the airwaves to dampen down arch teachings that had long rankled fundamentalist and Trinitarian Christians alike. After an interview in Time Magazine wherein President Hinckley cast doubt on whether church doctrine teaches that man can become as God is, a friend asked what I made of Hinckley’s and Romney’s efforts to soften the sharp edges of Mormonism. I buried my tongue in my keyboard and replied: “If you listen to Mitt and GBH long enough, you might conclude that Mormons are really just Episcopalians who wear funny underwear.”
Romney’s recent slide right and about-faces on choice, stem cell research, same sex civil unions, and “morning after” birth control measures may be as satisfying to some traditional Mormon and Christian conservatives as they are disappointing to believers who took pride in the refreshingly inclusive approach Romney brought to the pressing social issues of the day. In essence he seemed eager to apply the gospel of agency– – “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”- to the process of developing responsive and fiscally-responsible public policies.
As the Senatorial campaign got underway in 1994 many Latter-day Saints in Massachusetts (and elsewhere too, no doubt) were especially pleased that one of their own, a chosen son, was poised to be a leading peacemaker in the polarizing abortion wars and in the emerging and potentially equally divisive gay civil rights movement.
It was not lost on them that Romney laid out his nuanced views that favored choice and civil unions while he was yet serving as stake president. Were his words harbingers of a sea change at Temple Square? Surely no sitting stake president, particularly one with Romney’s sense of propriety, would publicly diverge from standard church policies before sharing his views privately with The Quorum of Twelve Apostles and The First Presidency. Just a year or so earlier, the church-owned Brigham Young University had terminated the contract of Cecilia Konchar Farr, a young English professor (now chair of the English Department of Catholic-run College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota) espoused qualified support for “choice.”
If open-minded members of the church were pleased that Romney was willing to cautiously break new ground back in 1993, they too were stunned by his recent dramatic about-faces. They still want to believe that the unflinching, pragmatic leader who emerged in 1993 was the “real Mitt” even if they worry his tempered “pro-choice” endorsement then was more an expedient reaction to political reality than it was a vision borne of serious study, thoughtful reflection and sincere prayer.
Ditto, the church’s reaction, or lack thereof. The results of a private poll conducted before Mitt announced for office made it quite clear: no candidate for state-wide office who opposed a woman’s right to choose would ever be elected in Massachusetts. Period. The poll results were shared informally with the brethren.
At that time, a senior church official close to the First Presidency, said that some members of the Quorum were dismayed at Romney’s position on abortion even if they understood it was consistent with the doctrine of agency. They realized it would serve no purpose to quibble –the greater good was to get him elected, give him a fair shot at realizing the victory his father booted forty years earlier.”
Pause for moment. Imagine it is 1994 and you are one of those Christian Right zealots. You already believe that the Mormon position on abortion is too squishy. Now one of its most visible members announces he’s “pro choice” and the church takes no action. Ditto “morning after” treatments.” In 1994, Romney championed them, reasoning that they could render obsolete the need for most abortions. If he has had a change of heart since then, he’s not admitting it. So would his recent rush right make you wary? Would you be confidant he wouldn’t rush left when it was convenient?
Even long-time friends understand how hard it is to get a handle on the Real Mitt. “The fact is, he always tells the truth. He is extraordinarily precise about what he says and how he says it, “said a former associate who worked with him at Bain & Company. His assessment is shared by many, many friends of Romney’s in Boston who admire and know him well, but are distressed that politics have forced him to compromise what he stands for, at least for the moment.
The former Bain associate continued: “If you were to go back and parse the actual sentences he used in 1993 to define his support for the right of women to choose, I’ll bet you’d discover his position today hasn’t changed that much. It just seems that way. Like Clinton, Romney expects that you know the answers to important questions are always complex. Therefore, it’s important to carefully define and understand what ‘is is.’”
Perhaps that is why conventionally conservative columnists profiling the attractive Romney often gloss over his apparent flip flops on key issues like abortion, same sex unions and casino gambling. The most boggling flip of all was his ardent support for stem cell research in 2002, research that could lead to effective treatments for his wife Anne’s multiple sclerosis, to outright opposition in 2005.
For some conservatives it seems enough that he is a fiscally conservative leader who has a reputation for rescuing failing ventures, has a moral compass that points “true north” and solid core values. Who cares if their origins are Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist or, egad, Mormon?
As recently as 1999 apparently 17 percent of the electorate did care and said they wouldn’t vote for a Presidential candidate who was Mormon. The recent heated response to Newsweek‘s cover story commemorating the 200th birthday of Joseph Smith suggests that bitter anti-Mormon sentiments are still alive and well in the land. The challenge to Romney is to demonstrate clearly that stacked against Hilary Rodham Clinton, an enigmatic and inscrutable Mormon like him looks pretty darn competent and is a better alternative than the charge former mayor of New York City, or the straight-talking populist Senator from Arizona and former prisoner of war, or the African-American woman who runs the State Department.
Right now he faces the toughest decision of his life. It is not one he can put off for long. As if to underscore his personal angst, as he has done in the past he sought advice from the man he admires most in this world: Mormon President Gordon Bitner Hinckley. The conversation eventually turned to whether a run for the Presidency would be good for him and the church. The specifics of the conversation are, of course, known only to people who were there. However, Romney left with the clear impression that the upbeat Mormon prophet was not worried one whit about additional scrutiny a Presidential campaign might focus on the church and its teachings, but was emphatic about steering wide of any and all partisan political involvements. “The choice to run or not must be yours and yours alone,” he reportedly advised, firmly but kindly.
So there Mitt stands, all dressed up with lots of places to go and no electronic Global Positioning System to get him there. He needs to warm the engines now if he is to run for re-election in Massachusetts in 2006, an election recent polls suggest he could lose decisively.
Or, he needs to devote all his energy to winning his party’s Presidential nomination, a goal that may ultimately prove unattainable, very costly and personally compromising.
Or, he can hedge along the way, conclude that the stars have aligned to make him better suited for the job a heartbeat down the hall from the nation’s corner office.
Perhaps the most promising prospect after all is the hope that Dick Cheney will retire soon to Wyoming and that good things will continue to happen to nice boys like Mitt Romney, as they always have.
Â© 2005-2007 RB Scott All Rights Reserved
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