washingtonpost.com
The Front-Runners: Mitt Romney

Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007 12:00 PM

"By mid-June [1968], France had stabilized enough for Romney to chauffeur his boss, H. Duane Anderson, and Anderson's wife, Leola, to the southern border of France to resolve a dispute between two elderly church members. ... Though it was a work trip, the missionaries embarked with a levity more common for a leisurely escape. The mindset that now shapes Romney's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination first crystallized during 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."

Washington Post writer Eli Saslow was online Monday, Dec. 10 at noon ET to discuss his article exploring Mitt Romney, his relationship with his father, and his campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Eli Saslow: Hey everybody, thanks for checking in on our first chat of candidates week. If you get a chance, stick around for Sally Jenkins chat about Hillary Clinton at 1 p.m. It promises to be interesting.

I'm mainly a sports writer here, and I'd never written about politics before. I had a great time spending a few days out with Romney's campaign. What an exhausting grind it must be to live that for a year-plus. After two or three days, I was more than ready to come home and relax. I can't imagine what it must feel like for Romney and his closest staffers, who live in that whirlwind for so long. Anyway, let's get on to the questions. Feel free to chime in during the next hour. If, by some chance, you think of something later or I don't get a chance to answer your question here, please feel free to e-mail me anytime. Thanks.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Both your article on Romney and your colleague's on Clinton focused on the candidates' childhood relationships with their fathers. Was that theme assigned by your editor, or is it just a coincidence? I enjoyed both articles, so I'm curious what to look forward to for the remainder of Candidate Week. Thank you.

Eli Saslow: Thanks for the nice note. I'm not sure if fathers will be omnipresent throughout the series, but I do think you can count on all eight of these profiles focusing mainly on impactful moments early in these candidates lives. The editors who put this series together wanted these stories to be almost "coming-of-age" type pieces. Because of that, I think fathers -- and mothers, and father-figures, and mother-figures -- will play a part in several of these profiles. It's tough to talk about coming-of-age moments without talking, at least a little bit, about parents. And speaking specifically about Romney, it's tough to talk about anything without talking about his dad. They are so similar and so intertwined. Plus, Mitt talks about George constantly.

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Detroit: Did Mitt Romney have any significant input into his father's presidential campaign in 1968? How disappointed do you think he was by his father's failure to become president?

Eli Saslow: Good question, thanks. Romney really didn't have any involvement in his father's campaign, because he was busy on his mission in France. Mormon missionaries are prohibited from speaking often with their families, so Romney was pretty out of touch. Other missionaries who served with him in France told me that Romney spoke often of his father, and he devoured all the news he could get. His father's secretary faithfully sent Romney a package of news clippings about the campaign every few days, and Romney devoured them.

As for your other question, I think Romney was very disappointed by his father's failure to win the campaign -- even more disappointed than his dad. Romney said something revealing about this during our interview, and I didn't get a chance to use it in the story. Here it is (forgive the typos, please).

"Dad, he sent me a letter at the end of the campaign, and he said, 'I aspired, and though I achieved I am not satisfied.' He said what he believed, and it registered with the American people, and they chose a different path. It's interesting, years later, as you know, his campaign tended to come apart around the 'brainwashing' term. Years later, when McNamara published his book, 'The Fog of War,' it was pointed out that McNamara acknowledge that they had lied to the American people. And my wife Ann said to my Dad: 'Gee, Secretary McNamara is saying exactly what you were saying. How does that make you feel?' And he said, 'I never look back.' My dad was a man truly without guile. He did not look back. He just looked forward. He only looked at what he might to contribute going forward. I looked back, and I've said: 'Gosh, how our country would have been different had my father been elected instead of Richard Nixon. There would not have been Watergate. We would not have had that tragedy in American history.' And I'm convinced he would have been a great leader."

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Laurel, Md.: I found the Romney coverage very interesting, thank you. My question is related to the timing of the background information on the candidates. How were the days picked? Did Clinton and Giuliani both get Sundays (newspaper primetime) as a result of their position in national polls? Also, the surging Huckabee and Obama get Saturday and Friday? Perhaps the coverage could've been a little more fair in spacing them over two weeks of work-week coverage. Please discuss.

Eli Saslow: That's a thoughtful, insightful question, but unfortunately I don't have the answer. I know the editors felt it was important to run these stories across consecutive days, for the sake of consistency. Also, the display for each story in the newspaper is the same: on the top left side of the front page, with nice black-and-white portrait photos and a wonderfully designed package by Justin Ferrell. I think we've done a lot here to be as fair in the presentation as we possibly can.

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Boston: Do we know anything about whether George Romney thought of his son as a potential president? How disappointed was the father by Mitt's loss to Ted Kennedy in 1994?

Eli Saslow: Good question. Mitt's brother, Scott, spent a lot of time campaigning with Mitt and George during 1994, and he told me that George firmly believed Mitt had a bright political future ahead, regardless of the results of that '94 election. George believed that Mitt was better prepared to become a politician that he had been. George famously had a bit of a temper -- righteous indignation, Mitt called it -- and that sometimes got him in trouble. He spoke his mind without a filter. He believed Mitt was the more composed politician.

I don't believe George was devastated by Mitt's loss to Ted Kennedy in 1994, because both the father and son knew that it was a nearly-impossible race to win. But George loved being involved again in politics, and he thrived on the campaign trail. Even though he was 87 years old at the time, he sometimes walked for two or three miles during parades or made long speeches at events.

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The hard questions: I'm not especially religious, but I'm not opposed to religion: What do I know, anyway? But I am pretty sure that the religious people who will contribute something really positive to 21st-century America will be the ones who are honest about the past as well as the present. That Romney studiously avoided any hard questions about his faith told me a lot about how seriously he takes it ... and indeed reveals a lot about his character.

Eli Saslow: An interesting comment, thanks. I think Romney tried to take some steps toward being honest about his faith by making his speech about religion last week. But even then, he rarely mentioned Mormonism, using the word only once. And he certainly prefers to talk about his religion as a vehicle of his character and his values, not his spirituality.

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Seattle: Reading up on Romney, I found someone who has a very strong personal belief system but works very hard to not let it dictate his professional life. It seems to me that Romney's flip-flops can be explained better in this fashion. Is he not using that approach because of evangelicals wanting a candidate who believes what they believe and votes that way?

Eli Saslow: It seems to me that Romney indeed has tried to explain his flip-flops by defining them as genuine changes in character and values. He says he had a change of heart about abortion brought on by stem-cell research, etc.

When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, I think Romney did keep his politics and his personal beliefs separate. He won office with a campaign that was pro-choice, even though Romney himself said he did not personally condone abortion. But now his politics and personal beliefs seem a bit more aligned. I think he certainly is hoping that he is now in a better position to garner support among evangelicals.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any evidence at all that the car crash could have been Romney's fault? Was there any sort of investigation, and was he issued a ticket? I know he was a victim of the crash, but could he also have been a cause of it?

Eli Saslow: No. The other people who were in the car that day are adamant that Romney was in no way at fault. The passengers were talking as the car rolled up a hill, and then -- wham. A Mercedes slid into their lane and slammed into their car. Romney didn't have time to react. His passengers did not believe he was speeding.

Romney was cleared of all fault immediately, at least legally. But one would imagine, as a 20-year-old driver in an accident like that, he probably sometimes felt at fault, or guilty. And I'm would guess that was something he had to confront psychologically.

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Utah: Doesn't it offend other Mormons that Romney tries to distance himself so much from his faith? It seems like it would be pretty off-putting for others like him to hear him rail against all of these old Mormon traditions, no?

Eli Saslow: Romney did get a little backlash from the LDS community when he said in an interview a while back that he "can't think of anything more horrible," than polygamy. Some Mormons were upset that Romney would so harshly dismiss a part of their cultural tradition.

Certainly, it's a tough line for Romney to walk: He doesn't want religion to define him, but if his religion at least partly defined him for the 4 million-plus Mormon voters, that probably would work out okay.

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Washington: How much do you think Romney's Mormonism will hurt him? Will the conservative Christian Coalition rally behind him if he gains the nomination, or do you think many will decamp to the Democrats? Thanks.

Eli Saslow: Certainly I think Romney's Mormonism could hurt him, and he's done a lot of work to try to counteract that. Just look at the print version of the Washington Post today: Inside the A Section, there's this word-association graphic. It's a compilation of surveys, and it shows what words are most often associated with Romney. Well, "Mormon" is printed in huge, big, black bold letters. It practically looks like a headline. Right now, his religion is defining him for a lot of voters. I think his campaign probably views that as problematic, as evidenced by the speech he gave last week.

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Chicago: I'm LDS, and I frankly find it very disturbing that Mitt Romney felt comfortable going into bars during his mission. That's something that is strictly against the code of our faith. Frankly, I think it's a perfect example of how flexible he has been on so many issues. He lives in the gray area. Did he drink on his mission, too?

Eli Saslow: He went into bars for his mission because he was -- and still is -- somewhat results-oriented. He knew that the willingness to talk to bar patrons would give him an advantage in France, and so he did it. He never drank, but yes, you're right: He's willing to venture into the gray area when he believes it will pay off. In that case, I'm quite sure it did.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why do you think the media is soft-pedaling Romney on salient questions regarding his beliefs -- for instance, when he states that he unequivocally believes in Mormonism, did he as a 30-year-old man support the church's racist policies until they changed their policies (and not their doctrines) in 1978?

Eli Saslow: I'm not sure the media is "soft-pedaling" on the hard religious questions. I just think personally that the hard, specific questions about the particulars of his faith are not the most important things to ask a presidential candidate. He has made it clear -- and U.S. history has made it clear -- that the specifics of his faith will not determine how he governs. So, in light of that, how much time is it worth to find out what Mitt Romney thinks about holy underwear, or the belief that the new Jerusalem is in Missouri?

As for his church's background of racism, Romney has gone to great lengths to distance himself from that. Most faiths, I believe, have some history of bigotry or racism; Mormonism is not unique in that respect. And Romney -- much like his father did 40 years earlier -- has tried to frame his campaign as very-forward thinking in terms of civil rights.

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Washington: Nice hit job today in the "Front-Runners" piece. Sunday's was praising Hillary, especially how she overcame living under a mean conservative to see the light and become a Democrat. In contrast, today's piece makes fun of Romney hair (really, is this what is has come to by liberals?) and that you can't believe anything he says. You (and your lefty buddies at The Post) should be ashamed.

Eli Saslow: Thanks for the input. I actually think the Clinton and Romney stories were quite similar: Both focused on how each candidate came to craft a belief system and a way of looking at the world. I'm not convinced either was more positive or negative than the other. I think the next six candidate profiles will fall in that same median.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Does Mitt Romney believe that God has called upon him to run for president?

Eli Saslow: Hmm, this is a complicated question, one that forces me to infer quite a bit. But, I think at least partly, the answer is: Yes. Mormonism makes it clear that one should not just aspire to lead; he should be called to it. In church service, decisions about who should lead are made prayerfully. Romney's father caught some heat when he admitted that he spent a full day praying about whether or not he should to run for office. I think, for Romney, the idea of being called into service is deeply founded. It's a part of everything he does.

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Seattle: I've read Newsweek Online's great article about Romney's Mormonism in his past. That man impressed me; Romney the wannabe evangelical does not. Why doesn't Romney run on his family's and religion's values? I think more Americans would be impressed by them if he showed them.

washingtonpost.com: Mitt's Mission (Newsweek, Oct. 7)

Eli Saslow: Thanks for mentioning that story, another solid account of Romney's time as a missionary. I think Romney is trying to run on his family values, and he talks about those values relentlessly. But I also think his political resume, and some of his changes of heart, have made those values a difficult sell for some voters.

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Cheyenne, Wyo.: I am troubled by Romney's intent to continue the war in Iraq -- with other people's children, while his conspicuously do not serve. This does not speak well of the candidate or his kids. What is his explanation, and will his children serve in combat if he is elected?

Eli Saslow: When Romney was asked about this, he took some heat by saying that his children were serving by helping campaign for him. So ... no. I don't believe his children will serve in Iraq if he is elected. They are all married, and they all have children of their own. I think it would be unlikely for any of them to enlist.

All five of Romney's son's spent two-plus years serving during a mission, and now they're deep into careers -- all of them successful, smiley and wholesome.

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Richmond, Va.: This may be a little off-topic, but I am so curious as to how Romney -- so Republican and so conservative -- managed to win the governorship in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in America. Can you explain that a bit?

Eli Saslow: He managed to win because his platform was quite different than it is now. He was much more moderate -- enough so to curry endorsements from gay rights and pro-choice groups. If would venture to guess that, had his platform been the same as it is now, that the 2002 gubernatorial election would have been a bit different.

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Whitewashing Mormonism: I think Romney missed a big chance to forge a bland counter-narrative about his Mormonism. No massacres, no polygamy, no White Salamanders -- just a bunch of nice white people doing wholesome things, like the Camp Fire Girls. He could have told us that Mormonism is all about wo-he-lo -- work, health, love. Who'd know the difference? If anyone tried to point out that there was more to it than that, he would have been shouted down as a bigot by decent Americans everywhere. Having adopted the Disneyland persona of the other big religions in America, Mormonism would be beyond criticism. Or am I missing something?

Eli Saslow: Hmm. That would have been an interesting tactic. But I'm not sure any presidential candidate has to ability to whitewash anything -- not with all the relentless publicity, scrutiny and attention. As the most likely Mormon candidate in history, I'm not sure he ever had a choice to dodge tough question about his faith.

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Kensington, Md.: In Mr. Romney's latest moment of "leadership", he informed the millions of us Americans who do not believe in a supernatural father figure that we are irrelevant, that we cannot understand freedom ("freedom requires religion"). Is Romney so desperate to cater to the religious extremists here who want the U.S. to be more of a theocracy that he effectively has written off the secular backbone of this country? In all of the analysis by the punditry, I've yet to see him asked this point-blank. Thanks.

Eli Saslow: Good question, and I think that brings up a good point. Romney is adamant that, though particular religion doesn't matter for a president, religion and faith does. He thinks that the U.S. needs a person of faith in office, and I think most of the other candidates -- based on the way they campaign -- seem to agree with him. Romney's staffers have said, time and time again, that a Mormon would be more likely to be elected president than an atheist. That's why he has tried to remain in the gray area of speaking infrequently about Mormonism but frequently about faith.

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Raleigh, N.C.: The Mormon faith makes historical assertions that have archeological and anthropological implications -- great civilizations built cities in the New World, golden tablets were found and reburied by the church's founder using hidden tablets to decode them, Semitic peoples wandered the Great Plains and were mistaken by white settlers for "indians." Has Gov. Romney been asked to reconcile the paucity of scientific evidence (DNA, for example) to back up these claims?

The purely theological claims of the LDS (nature of the afterlife, eternal marriages, posthumous baptism) should be left outside political scrutiny, but the historical claims of the Book of Mormon should be examined like any others. How does Gov. Romney explain this chasm between claims and facts? We went to war based on little evidence of WMDs in Iraq. Don't we want a resident who insists on great proof to substantiate great claims?

Eli Saslow: If these questions have been asked, I didn't ask them, and I never heard Romney answer them. Romney has made it clear that the Book of Mormon will not impact his decisions in office, so I'm not sure how significant the historical teachings of Mormonism really are here. That's a good thing to think about, though.

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Lincoln, Neb.: When Romney was active in Massachusetts office, he claimed he was a moderate. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights and welcoming of immigrants. Now that he's running for the GOP nomination, he has shifted to the right on these issues and is posing as a born-again conservative. Who is the real Mitt Romney? Does he stand for anything other than his own personal ambition?

Eli Saslow: I think, with this question, you have echoed probably the biggest challenge Romney faces in running for president. I think, like yourself, a lot of voters are confused about "the real Mitt Romney." That's a haziness he's going to continue to address, obviously, in the hopes of generating a more authentic reputation amongst voters like you.

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Washington: Nice hit job today in the "Front-Runners" piece.: Eli, this reader is confusing your article with Robin Givhan's accompanying fashion commentary. (She did one on Hillary, too, and I am eagerly looking forward to her take on Richardson.)

washingtonpost.com: Givhan on Romney (Post, Dec. 10)

Eli Saslow: Ahh, thanks for clearing that up.

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Floridian (originally from Mississippi): My take on Romney is that he's a big phony who will say or do anything to get elected -- like almost all of them, but he has an air of desperation that comes across as plastic and insincere in a big way. I don't trust the guy at all. Plus, I just don't see most of my fellow Southerners (conservative Protestant churchgoers) voting for Romney, because he's a Mormon and because he has flip-flopped and because of what I opened with. What do you think/see/hear/read/discern about this?

Eli Saslow: Another voter with whom Romney still has some work to do, apparently.

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New York: Do you think his choice of a vice president and of cabinet members will be dictated solely by politics, or by his conviction of how they will do the jobs? Can you speculate what kind of people he will have around him? What kind does he have now?

Eli Saslow: Yes, I think the choice of who he has around him will be dictated by his evaluation of their productivity. Romney is results-oriented, and everywhere he's gone -- at Bain Capital, at the Olympics, as a politician -- he has thrived because the people around him are competent and talented. That's my impression of his staff now -- many of whom would likely stick on in the event that he gets elected.

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Eli Saslow: We've run out of time, but thanks so much for reading the article and contributing your thoughtful questions. If anything else comes up that you're still curious about, e-mail me. Now I'm going to give my tired fingers a break; join me back here for another chat, about adventurer Steve Fossett, back here at 3 p.m.

Thanks again, and take care.

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Windermere, Fla.: The fellow who says he's from Utah and wonders if it would be upsetting for other Mormons to see how Romney has "railed" against polygamy is not from Utah. What a sham. No active Mormon believes in polygamy. I'm 71 years old and was born, reared and educated in Utah -- lived there for 55 years. A couple of my ancestors had more than one wife, but they did not like it -- Romney's position is the position of all Mormons across the country. There are no polygamists in the Mormon church. Haven't been for more than a hundred years. We despise the practice, despite what happened in the past. Ask any legitimate Utah Mormon. Your guy is a phony.

Eli Saslow: Even though we've wrapped up, I felt like this was an important thought to add. Thanks again everybody.

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