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A Mission Accepted

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.

And then came an even scarier realization: As assistants to the mission president, Romney and McKinnon would be left in charge. This mess fell at their feet.

"We were young, and we were used to everyone else taking care of the hard part," McKinnon said. "Then it just crashed all around us. It's not like we had any choice. We had been called to serve."

* * *

On a brisk fall morning last month, Romney embarked on a whirlwind campaign tour through South Carolina, because he believes that he has been called to serve again. Despite a long string of 14-hour days on the campaign trail, Romney had managed to wake up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in his customary three-mile jog. Then he shoveled down some of his wife's homemade granola and gave a short speech to supporters at a children's museum in Columbia, S.C. After almost an hour of post-speech handshakes and small talk, two aids ushered Romney out through a rear entrance and into the back seat of a large SUV.

Behind black-tinted windows, Romney rolled up the sleeves of his white button-down shirt and smoothed wrinkles from his tie. The car rolled out of the parking lot, and Romney stared out the window. He had already spent about 50 days campaigning in South Carolina this year, adhering to a rigorous schedule that often kept him away from his wife of 38 years, his five sons and his 11 grandchildren. Today's afternoon engagement was in Myrtle Beach, but Romney had long ago stopped keeping track of his own schedule. When the car eventually came to a stop, he found himself parked in front of the Columbia airport.

"Oh," he said, visibly disappointed. "Are we flying somewhere?"

Romney doesn't particularly like all that running for president entails. He entered the race mainly because he had the opportunity to do so, he said, and it would have been irresponsible not to seize it. Mormonism instilled in him the desire to serve and the confidence to lead. And, ironically, Mormonism now presents perhaps his biggest obstacle to fulfilling those tenets.

Romney's success in winning the conservative vote depends largely on how he appeals to evangelicals, some of whom consider Mormonism a cult. During campaign events, Romney has tried to cast himself as a run-of-the-mill Christian. He tells voters that, like many folks, he believes Jesus is his savior and that the Bible is the word of God. He denounces his church's long-abandoned practice of polygamy and repeatedly asserts his firm belief in the separation of church and state. When asked about some of Mormonism's particulars -- the practice of baptizing the dead, the requirement to wear holy undergarments -- Romney defers questions to church leaders.

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," he said last week in a speech at the George Bush Presidential Library that was designed to allay public misgivings about his Mormon faith. "To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."

His religious beliefs aren't the only reason that he has had trouble with evangelicals. Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as a moderate Republican who supported abortion and gay rights. In his run for the GOP presidential nomination, he has repositioned himself as a conservative who favors overturning Roe v. Wade and not allowing gays in the military. His transformation has left some voters with the impression that he is a politician of convenience, willing to say whatever is necessary to win an election.

Romney has tried to counteract that perception by talking, constantly, about values. His father, who was elected governor of Michigan in 1962, brought his mother, Lenore, a fresh-cut rose every day, and Romney has shaped himself in his father's image. On George's advice, Romney went on his Mormon mission, made money in business before entering politics and raised a family loyal to the Mormon church. Romney likes to say that he and his wife, Ann, "have been going steady since high school." His campaign centerpiece is to "strengthen the American family," and he offers up his own family -- from his deceased parents to his grandchildren -- as a worthy example.

George did not win the Republican presidential nomination, and Romney has looked back on that loss often during his own campaign. Almost 40 years later, the son has examined his father's experience and found an invaluable lesson about how and why a candidate should run.

"You know, my dad's political experience was driven entirely out of a desire to serve," Romney said. "I knew Dad was far less concerned about winning or losing than he was about expressing what he thought was right.

"There's no question that's my same philosophy. This is about getting my message across and having people understand what I think America needs to do. I'll make my message loud and clear. Of course, to be elected president would be an enormous honor. But not to be elected would be an enormous relief."

* * *

On the same day in 1968 that Duane Anderson said goodbye to Romney and flew home to bury his wife, Joseph Fielding Nelson packed a large suitcase in Geneva. Church officials had asked Nelson, president of the Mormon mission there, to provide adult supervision in Paris. He planned to stay in France for at least a week, maybe 10 days, to motivate missionaries after the tragedy.

On the evening he arrived in Paris, Nelson met with Romney and McKinnon to talk about what needed to be done. The next morning, Nelson repacked his suitcase and traveled back home.

"They didn't need me," he said. "Mitt just gave off the general impression of total confidence and calmness. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do."

In their mission-home living quarters, Romney and McKinnon considered their new responsibilities. The mission home was a four-story mansion, tended to by cooks and housekeepers who needed to be paid. Many of the 200 missionaries in France had not been contacted by mission headquarters since the uprisings began in May. Each missionary worked with a companion, and partnerships needed to be shuffled and redrawn. Homesick missionaries needed counsel. Others needed religious guidance. A dozen church members had left telephone messages with questions and requests.

Each day, McKinnon compiled a mental to-do list of 50 things. If he worked without stopping from daybreak until midnight, he found that he could accomplish about 25.

"I saw this great burden, like we've got to just batten down the hatches and hope for the best until President Anderson gets back," said McKinnon, who was a more experienced missionary than Romney. "And Mitt just thought, 'Wow, this is going to be great. We've got a real opportunity here.' He probably thought I was a real drone, a real ball and chain around his neck. It was just a completely different attitude."

Romney had thrived during his mission by defying convention and sometimes bending the rules to get results. Most of his peers in France had grown up in Utah, the bedrock of Mormonism, but Romney was comfortable in the presence of outsiders. He had attended a private school as the lone Mormon in his class and watched his father serve alcohol to visitors. He had become adept at explaining his faith -- and defending it.

Instead of relying solely on the traditional door-to-door proselytizing techniques in France, Romney had pitched articles to newspapers about Mormonism and arranged public slideshows about the United States, showing pictures from missionaries' home towns. He had approached patrons in bars, even though he never drank, in adherence to Mormon doctrine. He had told jokes and laughed raucously, even though some of his peers frowned on such frivolity.

And here again, in his sudden role as co-president, Romney urged McKinnon to think outside the norms. Romney's left eye was still bruised and a cast covered his right arm, but he insisted that missionaries not be left with time to dwell on the accident. Instead of trudging along and trying to maintain the status quo until Anderson returned, Romney said, why not galvanize the missionaries by trying for something great?

Together, Romney and McKinnon conceived of what they called the Drive to 200. Almost halfway through 1968, the mission in France had performed only 70 baptisms, and that rate had slowed dramatically in the preceding two months because of the tumult across France. Romney and McKinnon printed and distributed a brochure with the headline, "SET YOUR GOALS." In bold blue ink, the pamphlet proclaimed: "The French mission has set its goal: 200 baptisms by Jan. 1st 1969."

"We all bought into that," said Byron Hansen, then the mission secretary. "That became our common goal, our rallying cry."

Romney traveled across France to encourage other missionaries. He led conferences and grew comfortable speaking in front of crowds. Sometimes, to inject levity, he would perform songs he had written with friends, parodies of life as a missionary sung to popular tunes of the 1950s and '60s.

When he spoke about the Drive to 200, Romney motivated missionaries by using the same techniques he would later rely on while raising money at Brigham Young University, while starting an investment firm, while running for governor of Massachusetts: Here, he told his peers, was a chance to be a part of something memorable. A chance to make history.

"He developed a vision, developed and plan and then inspired people," said Dane McBride, a fellow missionary. "It was just impressive to watch him work. He said, 'Guys, we'll look back at this someday when we're 40 years old and be able to say: We did this. That was us.' "

Anderson returned to Paris a few months later, accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law, to find the mission in excellent shape. The missionaries eclipsed 200 baptisms in 1968, the first time they had reached that benchmark in about a decade. A few months later, Romney flew home with his confidence fortified. He had identified a lofty goal and then achieved it, a strategy he planned to replicate whenever opportunity called.

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