A Mormon in the White House?
By Hugh Hewitt
Regnery Publishing Inc., March 12, 2007
256 pages, $27.95
Before you ask, the answer is "yes." Yes, a Mormon can get to the White House. Yes, the hubbub over Mitt Romney's religion is a media conspiracy that conservatives should swat away like a cloud of Christian-hating gnats. And yes, those are the only questions that could possibly prevent Romney from storming past his rivals and seizing the presidency.
And so Hugh Hewitt, the radio host and blogger who has become one of the right's foremost boosters of George W. Bush, picks up the pompoms and shakes them like mad for the former governor of Massachusetts. "I have studied and repeatedly interviewed the most senior officials of government and in politics," Hewitt writes. "I have never met a more intellectually gifted, curious, good humored, broadly read and energetic official than Mitt Romney."
Hewitt had a series of interviews with the candidate, his friends and his family that led to the iconic portrait that occupies the first half of his book. Romney "stormed BYU" and "blitzed" Harvard's business and law schools, and he learned that "the first order of business is business" on the way to raising a "Christmas card family." Hewitt is so enraptured with Romney, in fact, that he reads greatness in fairly mundane things. The candidate corrects anyone who introduces him as the valedictorian of his class at Brigham Young University. Romney makes sure they understand a fine distinction: He was a transfer from Stanford, so his GPA didn't reflect four years at BYU. "His care about such a small detail reflects a recognition … that precision matters a great deal in campaigns," writes Hewitt.
The breathless reporting isn't really necessary. Romney has a private-sector résumé that makes the rest of the GOP field—and all of the Democrats—shake with envy. Making millions (at least $500 million) in venture capitalism, saving the company that first hired him from implosion and turning around the 2002 Olympics from failure—or outright collapse—are even more impressive on the page than in the CliffsNotes version rattled off in Romney's first campaign ad.
But all Hewitt knows is the positive ad; he writes as if the gripes of conservatives who haven't caught the Romney bug are self-evidently silly. "Romney critics have argued that his leadership on the marriage issue was a product of his 2006 decision to seek the presidency," Hewitt writes. And that's rebutted with a snippet of the anti-gay marriage speech Romney gave at the 2004 Republican Convention.
That doesn't answer the charge that Romney ran as a pro-gay rights candidate in his 1994 Senate race and his 2002 race for governor. Problems such as this and Romney's shifting positions on legal abortion, the stuff that motivated a man in a "Flipper" get-up to tail him at this year's Conservative Political Action Convention, are rebuffed as false or created by the "MSM" (mainstream media). The YouTube video of Romney's 1994 debate with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), when he passionately stated his pro-choice views, was "designed to bleed Romney with the pro-life community and to paint him as a (John) Kerry-esque flip-flopper." Hewitt doesn't ask whether it did so effectively.
His failure to engage with Romney's toughest challenges leads to real trouble when Hewitt tackles the Mormon question. As he tells it, the rottenest attacks on Romney's religion are coming from "the Left"—and by "the Left" he means "a couple of columnists." Slate's Jacob Weisberg and Christopher Hitchens are cited for their contrarian columns arguing that Romney's Mormonism is a legitimate issue, as is Damon Linker for his New Republic cover story on Romney.
Hewitt fires back: "The Left will relish the assault on Romney's faith, treating it as the soft underbelly of a more generalized assault on the idea of religious belief leading, they hope, to the routine dismissal from the public's consideration as leaders any man or woman who believes in revelation as well as reason."
It's not being too cruel to Weisberg, Hitchens and Linker to say that this overstates their importance in the '08 race. Romney's Mormonism is the biggest weakness not among liberals, who'll presumably be marking their ballots for the Hillary/Obama/Kucinich/whoever ticket. It's a killer among religious conservatives who consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints illegitimate or even abominable.
Hewitt's analysis never really coheres. The short version of it follows. First, Americans—especially Christians—are basically decent, and there's no religious test for office; if the media are fair, and people learn about Mormonism, it will benefit Romney. Second, if skeptical conservatives—in South Carolina especially—attack Romney's faith, it will benefit Romney because "any overt displays of this animus will produce sympathy in the North and even in other places in the South." Third, Mormons will be so excited by the Romney candidacy that they'll beat down doors in Iowa; they "will deliver not just themselves but their non-Mormon friends and neighbors to the caucuses en masse and do so with a full grasp of the rules and a deep experience in patience that comes from knocking on thousands and thousands of doors during their time as missionaries."
How can all of that be true? The sight of battle-hardened Mormon missionaries campaigning for Romney would obviously lead to uncomfortable questions. And Hewitt inadvertently shows that Romney might not handle them so well. In one interview, Hewitt quotes back to Romney a reporter's comparison between Mormonism and Scientology. So is Romney's faith like Scientology? "It's not." How would he explain the difference? "I'll leave that to the Church authorities." Hewitt calls this prudent. However, that conversation repeated on "Good Morning America" or some Des Moines chat show is brutal. How hard would it have been for Romney to buck off the comment with a joke? I'll get him started: "When we're in love, we don't celebrate by jumping on couches."
Having a conservative mega-personality like Hewitt on his side is a plus for Romney, and the kind of voters who agree with Hewitt—No McCain! No Rudy! Who's that other guy?—are going to swoon a little over the candidate portrayed in this book. But no one with an ounce of skepticism will. That's a small problem for the author and a big one for the candidate.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason magazine.