A Mission Accepted

The mind-set that shapes Mitt Romney's candidacy was formed in 1968 during his mission in France: One does not merely strive for leadership; he is called to it through prayer and circumstance.
The mind-set that shapes Mitt Romney's candidacy was formed in 1968 during his mission in France: One does not merely strive for leadership; he is called to it through prayer and circumstance. (Courtesy Of Romney For President)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

They had spent the past month scared and sequestered as France revolted around them, so the Mormon missionaries could hardly wait to get outside Paris and onto open country roads. The mission president and his wife readied their roomiest car, a Citroen DS. For this road trip in June 1968, they asked Mitt Romney to be their driver.

Romney, a 21-year-old from Michigan, had moved to Paris only a few days earlier to become the mission president's assistant. He had previously been stationed in Bordeaux, where riots and strikes had created mass chaos. For most of May, Romney had been unable to fill his car with gas or to call home. A mail stoppage had prevented him from receiving his monthly $100 stipend for living expenses. It felt, a fellow missionary said, "like the entire world was coming unglued."

Even before the riots, Romney had often felt stymied in France, where months of professing his Mormon beliefs had yielded frustratingly few tangible results. An ocean away, his father, George, had run a failed presidential campaign in his absence, and Romney could keep up only by reading 10-day-old news clippings. "There's no question, I would have loved being there and seeing the people of the country the way he did," Romney said years later. "But I was doing something that I wanted to do, that I had committed to do."

By mid-June, France had stabilized enough for Romney to chauffeur his boss, H. Duane Anderson, and Anderson's wife, Leola, to the southern border to handle a dispute between two elderly church members. Anderson was dressed in a dark business suit, and Leola wore high-heeled shoes, a white dress and a glimmering necklace with pearl-like beads. Though it was a work trip, the missionaries embarked with a levity more fitting for a leisurely escape.

The mind-set that now shapes Romney's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination first crystallized after that fateful drive to the South of France: One does not merely strive for leadership; he is called to it through prayer and circumstance.

For Romney, that circumstance was a catastrophic moment on a winding two-lane highway through French wine country. A car heading north at about 60 mph missed a curve, barreled over a hill and veered into Romney's southbound lane. The car slammed into the front of the Citroen, knocking Romney out cold. Police who arrived at the scene on June 16, 1968, found pearl-like beads scattered across the road. The officer who discovered Romney, motionless and mangled, marked the young man's passport "Il est mort": He is dead.

Two ambulances took the Citroen passengers to a hospital in the nearby town of Bazas, and Leola died soon thereafter. Romney was admitted to the hospital with fractured ribs, a concussion and a broken arm. When his family in Michigan learned about the accident, a brother-in-law who had attended medical school flew to France immediately, intent on supervising Romney's care.

"We weren't really sure if he was even going to survive at that point," said Bruce Robinson, the brother-in-law. "Nothing was particularly clear. All we understood was that there had been a fatal crash, and Mitt was in very bad shape."

Two other missionaries heard about the accident and left Paris in the middle of their dinner, driving through the night to Bazas. When they arrived, Byron Hansen checked on Romney and watched him slowly regain consciousness. Joel McKinnon visited Anderson's room and found him writhing with abdominal injuries and a collapsed lung. McKinnon, who also served as an assistant to Anderson, told the president that Leola had died after the crash. He seemed almost too stunned to react.

During those first few days after the crash, Romney grieved Leola's death much more visibly than Anderson, visitors said. The two men spent several days in the hospital under Robinson's care before Anderson felt well enough to climb into a wheelchair and return to Paris in a rented Pullman railroad car.

When they finally arrived back at the mission home, Romney and Robinson pushed the president's wheelchair into an elevator and rode to the second floor. The doors opened to reveal the apartment where Anderson had lived with Leola. For the first time since the accident, Anderson broke down and sobbed. "We just sat down and held him for about 10 minutes," Robinson said. "That's when the grief hit him, and it hit hard. Mitt and I have talked about that since, and neither of us will ever forget it."

Romney went to bed that night on the third floor of the mission home with the realization that everything around him was collapsing, friends said. Anderson would need to return home for a few months to bury his wife and to recover. Two-hundred missionaries scattered throughout France had fallen into a disastrous slump, their enthusiasm crushed by Leola's death and the May riots. More than 3,000 church members counted on mission headquarters for support and religious guidance, and now that hierarchy was in disarray.

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