Mitt Romney has a friend in Hugh--Hugh Hewitt that is. The radio talk-show host, Harvard grad, and Ohio sports aficionado has nothing but praise for the former Bay State governor and GOP presidential candidate. And the case for Romney is one that the L.A.-based lawyer-educator can make without pounding the table. Certainly, convincing Republicans to support a Massachusetts Mormon as their 2008 standard-bearer will be an easier task than begging party activists to back Harriet Miers—a lost cause that the former Reagan Justice Department staffer undertook in 2005 via a series of walk-the-plank radio briefs.
An alternate title for this Romney hagiography might be McCain in the Outhouse! —as readers are never far from a page on which the Arizona senator is taken to the political woodshed. Indeed, there are no less than seven index references to McCain’s collusion with the “Gang of 14”—the bi-partisan group that preempted senate filibusters against a handful of Bush judicial nominees but kept others from receiving up or down votes. Among other grievances, Hewitt lambastes the “maverick” Republican for collaborating with Democrat Russ Feingold on a speech-restricting campaign finance bill and for teaming up with Ted Kennedy on legislation that would repeat the 1986 immigration-amnesty fiasco. But so much for the candidate Hewitt calls a “Great American, lousy senator, and terrible Republican.”
A Mormon in the White House? (Note the question mark.) focuses primary attention on the unfinished biography of Mitt Romney—the fourth child of three-term Michigan Governor George Romney and of his talented wife, Lenore. The book was written, Hewitt says, because “Mitt Romney ought not not be President because of his religious beliefs.” To make that case Hewitt showcases the governor’s impressive credentials and explains why those qualifications shouldn’t be shunted aside by a recrudescent “religion test” that would overturn the social consensus reached in 1960 with John Kennedy’s election and would violate the spirit of the Constitution’s Article VI prohibition against religious tests for office.
Hewitt notes that Mitt Romney, unlike his father, is a five-star product of America’s higher education system—topping stellar years at Brigham Young with a joint degree from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School. These academic achievements were followed by a series of career triumphs, first at Bain and Company, then at Bain Capital—a firm founded by Romney in 1984 and grown into a multi-billion dollar investing powerhouse. Flush with this success, Romney was tapped to rescue his old firm, Bain and Company, from the verge of insolvency. That task prepared him for an even more impressive salvage operation—the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games. This triumph is chronicled in Romney’s own book, Turnaround.
Hewitt touts with radio repetitiveness the business technique Romney successfully employed throughout his career—the “Bain way”—a method of information gathering, debate, and analysis that took the case-study curriculum at Harvard Business School an implementation step further. In 2003, Romney brought these talents to his new job as governor of Massachusetts—turning a huge projected deficit into a surplus, without raising taxes. Romney’s aggressive response to the massive, and eventually tragic, mismanagement of the “Big Dig” project provides an example of acting under pressure. In this instance the governor was able to oust the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority’s Chairman and CEO and to commence a top-to-bottom construction review—with authority now vested in the governor. Whether Romney’s universal health insurance plan will be scored as another political victory is yet to be seen. Even more impressive, from the perspective of social conservatives, was the tenacity Romney displayed in supporting an initiative that called for a constitutional referendum on the state Supreme Court’s 4-3 mandate for same-sex marriage. Other actions that win points with most conservatives are Romney’s beyond-the-Bain-way veto of embryonic cloning legislation and his refusing to extend diplomatic courtesies to Iran’s former President, Mohammed Khatami.
In addition to career accomplishments, Hewitt focuses attention on Romney’s family life—as a son, a husband, and father to five sons. Summer trips, practical jokes, mission work, courting secrets, and other not-too-private moments constitute a portrait of wholesome affection and commitment on which the media are tempted to place a “too good to be real” label. A Boston Globe hit-piece written in 1994 during Romney’s senate race against Ted Kennedy, typifies this kind of jaded journalism. That article directed its embarrassed misgivings toward Romney’s “too perfect” wife, Ann—a remarkable woman who subsequently won dressage medals amid a successful therapeutic regimen to counter her multiple sclerosis.
Having established his candidate’s credentials, Hewitt addresses the book’s central concern—whether Mitt Romney’s religion should matter to voters and reporters. In his introduction Hewitt notes with dismay a November 2006, Rasmussen poll that found 43% of voters unwilling to vote for a Mormon candidate. Hewitt later observes that the “Mormon question” was largely a non-issue during George Romney’s run for the Republican nomination in 1968. That ill-fated campaign was done in, for the most part, by media spin directed against a man (born in a Mormon community in Mexico) who wasn’t a member of the cosmopolitan elite.
A major argument that Hewitt employs to distinguish Mormons from fringe sectarians is that church members are now firmly ensconced in American life—a point made by David Broder and Stephen Hess when they wrote The Republican Establishment in 1967. That “Establishment,” of course, included Michigan Governor George Romney. Hewitt points out that two other Mormons, besides Romney’s father, have conducted recent presidential campaigns—Orrin Hatch and Mo Udall. To this list of prominent Latter-day Saint pols, one could add the name of Nevada’s Democrat Senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Beyond the fact that Mormons populate both sides of the political aisle, Mitt Romney’s record in very blue Massachusetts should suffice to rebut any conspiratorial ideas about a Utah-centered theocracy. Moreover, the candidate’s perfect-pitch responses to questions about the political influence of the Mormon Church are reinforced by statements from LDS leaders who forswear any role in partisan politics.
To acquaint readers with the general contours of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hewitt dedicates several pages to the group’s history and theology. (In 1996, Hewitt was involved in a PBS production, Searching for God in America, that also explored the Mormon faith.) Finally, as a supplement, the author provides a transcript of his conversation with two conservative Christian religion professors—a brief discussion about Mormonism and whether the two gentlemen could conscientiously vote to put a Mormon in the White House. (Both said they could cast such a vote.)
Beyond the damage done by needlessly ditching a talented Presidential candidate, Hewitt rues the harm that will befall the country if secular journalists and political operatives begin to scrutinize office-seekers’ religious beliefs. The “Mormonism is too weird” objection can easily become an argument against those who believe in transubstantiation, the Assumption of Mary, or the biblical account of creation. (Chris Matthews’ question about evolution, recently directed to GOP presidential candidates at the Reagan Library, is an example of what Hewitt hopes to avoid—queries that open the door to reportorial inquisitions about biblical inspiration, Papal authority, or whether candidates really believe this “crazy Jesus stuff.”)
Hewitt observes that an Atlantic Monthly journalist has already asked Romney about his liturgical undergarments—and that additional cases of anti-Mormon and anti-religious bigotry (e.g. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg) have popped up in the press. Media response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on partial-birth abortion also seems to validate Hewitt’s fears—as journalists who take their cue from New York Senator Chuck Schumer haven’t been shy about playing the “Catholic card” against judges presumably guided by Church dogma on the topic and not by established principles of jurisprudence.
In sum, Hewitt’s message is that Mitt Romney has become a political canary in the coalmine. If a man of Romney’s intellectual and professional stature is taken down simply because of his religious beliefs, others will follow. Permission will have been granted to destroy political opponents across the religious spectrum for believing “weird” things—or perhaps for being excessively moral in the eyes of a skeptical, secular press.