While Romney avoided foreign travel as governor, one of his Massachusetts predecessors embraced it

July 31, 2012

Mitt Romney flew home from Poland on Tuesday afternoon, ending a foreign trip riddled with gaffes — from criticizing Britain’s preparedness for the Olympics to suggesting that Israel’s “culture” was responsible for an economy that significantly outpaced those in Palestinian territories.

As critics and supporters wonder whether Romney was adequately prepared, it’s worth recalling that Romney explicitly shunned foreign travel when he had a chance to gain firsthand experience traveling the world as an American official — in his case, as governor of Massachusetts.

“We felt our state was in financial distress,” Kerry Healey, Romney’s former lieutenant governor and current foreign policy coordinator, said recently to explain why Romney refused to participate in trade missions when he was the top elected official in the state. She said that “previous governors had spent a great deal of the people’s money on trade missions and had very little to show for it.”

This came as a surprise to one of Romney’s predecessors: former Republican governor William Weld. “I didn’t know that,” Weld said. “I thought they were really great. But I spent a lot of time abroad my whole life. So I enjoyed it greatly.”

During his tenure as governor, Weld participated in 16 trade missions, in which he estimated he visited five countries per trip. Massachusetts is a “very international state,” said Weld, adding that he and his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, divided up countries by weather. “I sort of took the Nordic rim, Germany and France. I took the cold places. And I said, ‘If it’s okay with you, you take Italy and Spain.’ I didn’t get too much of a fight on that.”

These trips, he said, brought business back to Massachusetts and raised awareness for small businesses of export markets. “We saw quite an increase in the proceeds from exports of even small businesses,” Weld said.

Weld, who at the time held his own presidential ambitions, said that the trips also had a political benefit of bringing Republicans and Democrats together and of sharpening his own understanding of the world, which was important to his constituents.

“There are certain things that you absolutely have to understand,” Weld said. “I got to know [Irish Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams and [Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister] Martin McGuiness reasonably well and that was politically important. We had six trips to Israel. Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres are both great friends of mine.”

Weld said that he had a “long suit on Israel” and recalled how “I would go out with Bibi and Ehud Olmert . . . sort of the young coming-Likud members of the Knesset, and we would go pub crawling. That was just very exciting.”

Romney, like many presidential candidates before him, has said that Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital. Weld opened a trade office in Jerusalem, announcing, “It’s nice to be here in the capital of Israel,” which didn’t sit well with the George H. W. Bush administration.

“I got back and the first call was from Mario Cuomo. ‘Governor, what are you doing? You’re killing me. Now I’ve got to open an office over there,’ ” Weld recalled the former governor of New York saying.

Romney did explore one nominal trade mission as governor — a 2005 visit to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But it came late in his governorship and critics used it as evidence that he was neglecting his official duties to bolster his foreign policy credentials ahead of a presidential bid.

Romney canceled the trip.

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