On the night of the South Carolina Republican primary in January, I sat near the front of a dark campaign press bus and listened to reporters talk about Mitt Romney’s underwear.
Earlier in the day, one of them had happened upon the candidate and his wife doing laundry in the basement of our Columbia, South Carolina, hotel, and a small cluster of colleagues had now gathered to listen to him relate the anecdote, lapping up every mundane detail of this rare interaction with the closed-off couple.
Finally, another reporter interrupted.
“Did you see their underwear?” she asked, grinning mischievously as though she had just said something naughty.
“What do you think it looks like?” inquired another.
“I think you can see pictures online,” someone chimed in.
The exchange prompted giggles from the group — some nervous, others indulgent — as I slid down in my seat and pretended to look at my phone, hoping it wouldn’t occur to any of them I might be wearing the strange, exotic garment they were all gossiping about. It wasn’t that their tone was antagonistic or insensitive; just uncontrollably curious — like virginal adolescents talking about sex during a sleepover. And as a lifelong Mormon, I had grown fairly used to hearing my religion talked about that way.
This was how much of the political class was treating Romney’s religion at the start of 2012: too awkward to discuss in an open forum, yet too tantalizing to ignore altogether. Questions permeated hushed conversations and private e-mail chains: Does Romney really believe he will get his own planet when he dies? Does he baptize dead Jews in his temples?
And as one prominent journalist at Newsweek quietly asked a colleague in the run-up to the Republican primaries, “Would he actually wear that Mormon underwear in the White House?”
If Mitt Romney has one lasting political legacy, I think it will be that next time a Mormon runs for president, that question likely won’t be asked.
As Romney’s expansive campaign headquarters collapses into a pile of cardboard boxes in Boston, his aides and supporters are beginning to mull what place their failed campaign will have in the history books. And many have determined that Romney’s political career may be remembered most for the role it played in mainstreaming a large minority religion, despite a concerted, strategic effort to avoid the topic altogether — something I witnessed with a front-row seat.
A couple days after the election, I spoke to Robert O’Brien, a campaign foreign policy advisor and avowed Romney loyalist. We’d spoken several times over the course of the campaign, and his surrogacy had always been marked by a sort of religious devotion to the candidate, and an undying faith that he was the man meant to save America from ruin.
Suffice it to say, he was crushed by the loss.
“I couldn’t sleep on Tuesday night, which is unusual because usually I can sleep through anything,” he told me from his office in Los Angeles. “I stayed up late and made a to-do list with like 80 things. I figured that was the best therapy.”
He also began considering his friend’s legacy, and as a Mormon who converted from Catholicism in his early twenties, O’Brien saw historical parallels between his current and former churches.
“I always thought Mitt Romney would be Al Smith,” O’Brien said, referring to the first Catholic presidential nominee, who lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. “Now I think he’s going to be Al Smith and JFK rolled into one person. Even though we didn’t win the way JFK did, to come within a couple points of the presidency, I think makes a lasting impact on the faith… It’s going to be a non-event next time a Mormon runs.”
For a Mormon journalist who’d spent much of the past year examining the religious life of a candidate and coreligionist, his assessment was vaguely troubling. Was he saying editors won’t be knocking down my door when Mia Love throws her hat in the ring in 2024?
But after a year of crisscrossing the country with Romney — pestering his campaign for answers about his faith, and writing countless Mormonism-for-dummies primers along the way — I couldn’t deny that Romney’s career had provided a national education on his young, American-born faith.
And if my experience was any guide, it’s an education the country won’t be unlearning anytime soon.
Even as his campaign turned him into the world’s most famous member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney spent much of 2012 publicly evading the subject of his faith.
In speeches, he conducted all manner of rhetorical gymnastics to avoid uttering the word “Mormon.” In interviews, he quickly changed the subject every time the topic came up. And to his staff, his instruction was to dodge and deflect all questions regarding his religious beliefs.
He regularly employed variations of the declaration, “I’m not running for pastor-in-chief.”
His reluctance to engage the Mormon question was rooted, his aides privately told me, in a bitter 2008 Republican primary. Back then, Romney was trying to outflank John McCain and Rudy Giuliani on the right by presenting himself as a sort of culture warrior — hoping his staunch, conservative values would attract the party’s religious base.
But as his staff and family fanned out across Iowa to win over Evangelical voters in the fall of 2007, they were met with rank anti-Mormonism. Local ministers preached sermons against “the Mormon cult” on Sundays, Christian voters routinely confronted the Romneys with Bible verses during retail politics stops, and some people even refused to shake hands with Romney’s former Lt. Governor Kerry Healey because they thought she was Mormon.
Romney’s first instinct was to try to persuade the religious right that Mormonism was just another Christian sect. He answered complicated theological questions on local talk radio, and delivered a major address at the George Bush Presidential Library titled “Faith in America,” designed to emphasize the “common creeds” his church shared with Protestants.
But the more he tried to educate conservative Christians about his religion, the more intense the pushback became. And for the candidate’s family, the rejection was deeply disheartening.
On the day after Thanksgiving in 2007, Tagg Romney phoned a longtime family friend, who asked how the effort was going in Iowa.
“It’s brutal,” the friend recalled a dispirited Tagg responding. “It’s just brutal.”
When Romney eventually lost Iowa in 2008, many in the Romney clan took it as a repudiation of their religion. And when he gathered the family together in the living room a few years later to discuss the possibility of another run, the wound was still too fresh for some of them, according to a family friend. More than one of his sons raised the concern that another candidacy would result in their faith being dragged through the mud again.
Mitt took their worries seriously, but the team of political strategists he had assembled insisted they could pull off a win without talking religion. The 2012 battle plan would be to present Romney as a stalwart — if one-dimensional — figure who understood business and could fix the economy by sheer force of will. No culture war, no big religion speeches, and certainly no engaging the press as they pursued the inevitable “Mormon angle.”
That’s where I came in. I joined the campaign’s traveling press corps for BuzzFeed just before the New Hampshire primary in January, and I quickly found that my expertise in Romney’s religion posed a distinct advantage — not in access or sourcing, necessarily, but in understanding the elusive candidate as an actual person.
When the “mommy wars” of the early spring shone a spotlight on Ann Romney’s decision to stay home and raise her kids, I saw classic Mormon gender roles at play. And when critics raised questions about Mitt’s participation in a church that barred black men from the priesthood until 1978, I innately understood the conflicted, sometimes tortured, position many devout Mormons found themselves in at that time. As a lifelong Latter-day Saint who grew up in the relatively close-knit Massachusetts Mormon community that Romney once led, I felt I had a unique window into the beliefs and experiences that defined an almost undefinable man.
And that, apparently, left the campaign deeply unsettled.
Multiple people in Romney’s orbit — both inside the campaign and out — would later tell me that Boston tried to keep me at arm’s length for a long time because they worried my knowledge of the candidate’s faith would bait them into a conversation they were dead set against having.
“The campaign really doesn’t like the religion stuff being out there, so that’s always a concern in dealing with you,” one adviser told me, bluntly.
At some level, I could understand their paranoia. I was fluent in a language that their candidate spoke without meaning to, and one that they would never understand. In their view, every seemingly innocuous question I asked had a “gotcha” lurking behind it, and even their most mundane answers might inadvertently signal, to me, greater meaning.
There was little effort to mask this concern as they dealt with me.
Whenever I managed to work the subject of Mormonism into the conversation while chatting with senior strategist Stuart Stevens, the operative’s philosophizing and movie-quoting would abruptly give way to a virtual stupor, as he stared at the ground for several seconds in silence before finally shrugging his shoulders. Meanwhile, my Mormon-themed email inquiries to campaign headquarters were almost universally met with the same curt reply, “Ask the church.”
(Interestingly enough, whenever I did ask the church — which spent the year working feverishly to assert political neutrality — I noticed a similar discomfort on their part in discussing Romney. The church’s public affairs department, I eventually learned, had a policy of never mentioning Romney by name while talking to reporters, referring only to an ambiguous “presidential candidate.”)
It was a credit, perhaps, to the campaign’s message discipline that in my entire year of covering the election, I never got a single on-the-record answer to a question about Romney’s faith.
But the push and pull often left me feeling conflicted. As a Mormon, I intuitively understood Romney’s desire to paper over our religion’s eccentricities, and disappear the darker chapters of our church’s history. The Latter-day Saint longing to feel normal is practically genetic, and I sympathized with the candidate’s practiced avoidance of uncomfortable questions. It was a habit I’d formed as an insecure adolescent — squirming in my cafeteria chair as friends asked me about polygamy — and a reflex I’d worked to get over when I was a Mormon missionary.
But as a journalist, I was now the one asking those uncomfortable questions. And as much as I wanted to believe Romney’s aides when they insisted religion should have “no part in this election,” I knew that couldn’t be true. My entire worldview had been colored by my faith; was I really supposed to believe the same wasn’t true of Romney?
Besides, there was plenty of evidence that Mormonism remained a very real part of his candidacy.
While Romney’s senior staff was composed largely of secular east coast strategists, his campaign offices in Boston were stocked with young, Mormon mini-Mitts, sporting impeccably ironed dress shirts and eager smiles as they filled various junior positions and internships. Some were taking time off from BYU to work for the campaign, others had recently returned from missions, and they quickly gained a reputation among the rest of the staff for bringing an almost baffling level of earnestness to the often cynical work of presidential politics.
The candidate himself also went to extraordinary lengths to observe the practices of his faith while on the campaign trail. Aides said he prayed daily, and was often spotted in moments of privacy — sitting alone on his campaign charter jet, for instance — with his head bowed, and his hands clenched in supplication. He would often take free moments to read the Book of Mormon or Bible on his iPad, and even on the longest, most grueling days, he never took a sip of coffee, which is forbidden by the church.
Reporters in his traveling press corps often wondered why, even as the general election kicked into full gear, Romney insisted on dropping off the campaign trail on Sundays, opting to spend the day with family in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire or La Jolla, California. Some speculated that it was a symptom of his distaste for campaigning, but one aide told me his motives were mostly religious. Even when he was obligated to travel, he made efforts to find a Mormon Sacrament meeting nearby. He also abided by the other Sabbath-related bylaws, abstaining from dining out and and shopping on Sundays.
“He actually follows all those rules,” the aide told me. “It’s hard to explain to [press] that, no, he’s not going to eat out on Sunday, or anything else.”
Of course, reporters likely would have respected a simple explanation of the candidate’s Sabbath-day observance. But if the Romney campaign had its own set of political commandments by which it lived, one of the most important was, “Thou shalt not discuss the boss’s religion.”
I often found myself watching Romney bound up the steps of his campaign plane on some midwestern tarmac, marveling at his religious stamina. My spirituality had, regrettably, faded amid the frenetic schedule of the campaign trail. My prayers had become shorter and more utilitarian — Please help me to stay awake during this stump speech — and while I’d managed to successfully eschew coffee, I became reliant on 5-Hour Energy capsules, an only slightly-less-sinful substitute.
But even as I allowed Romney’s righteousness to inflict a measure of religious guilt on me, I remained uncertain of whether he even knew that a fellow Mormon was lurking in the back of his plane. Romney wasn’t the kind of candidate to hang out with his traveling press corps, and his distance often gave him a sort of televised quality. Even from 50 feet away, he seemed more pixels-and-plasma than flesh-and-blood.
I sometimes thought about how I might bring up our shared religion if I had the chance. Name-drop our alma matter, perhaps? (We both went to Brigham Young University.) Mention a mutual acquaintance in Belmont?
The opportunity never arrived — BuzzFeed, alas, was not among the outlets to score a rare sit-down interview with the candidate — but I did once get the chance to mention it to his wife, Ann.
It was during the Republican primary in Puerto Rico, and Romney had just wrapped up a campaign stop in a suburban plaza. Afterward, a small number of reporters gathered around Mrs. Romney at the rope line, and listened as she praised the raucous mega-rally we had attended the night before.
“It was amazing!” she exclaimed. “Though I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. Do any of you speak Spanish?”
A few of the reporters shook their heads, before one of them volunteered, “McKay does.”
It was true; I’d become fluent while serving as a Mormon missionary in the Latino neighborhoods of Dallas a few years earlier. It would have been so easy to tell her that as she turned to face me, to let her know that at least one member of her husband’s traveling press corps understood this crucial chunk of their lives. But for some reason, I couldn’t.
Instead, I lamely muttered something to the effect of, “Yeah, I speak,” and let the conversation roll on without me.
Maybe it was because I didn’t want my colleagues in the press to think I was using my religion to curry favor. Or maybe I was worried that establishing that link would muddy the waters of the adversarial relationship I was supposed to have with the candidate.
But I think the real reason I hesitated was more simple: I didn’t want to feel different.
Around August, something began to change in the way the campaign dealt with the Mormon issue. Romney’s press pool was invited to start attending church with him on Sundays. Surrogates were instructed to cooperate with cable-news segments about the candidate’s faith. And in a move that initially shocked much of the political class — myself included — an entire block of programming on the final night of the Republican National Convention was devoted to testimonials from Romney’s fellow Mormons.
Yes, the stories that were shared dealt more with Mitt’s personal compassion than any specific tenets of his religion. But for a faith that had spent the better part of 180 years fighting to gain acceptance into mainstream American society, that night — which also featured an invocational prayer by a longtime Mormon church leader in Massachusetts — will be remembered as an historic one.
At one point, as a Belmont Mormon stood on stage recounting stories of Bishop Romney, I received a text message from my dad, who I think spoke for a lot of Latter-day Saints: “This is surreal.”
According to aides, Romney had recognized the historic nature of his nomination as they planned the convention, and it was he who’d insisted that Mormonism be made part of the biographical story the campaign was trying to tell.
Romney never became fully comfortable talking about his Mormonism in public, but the convention seemed to relieve a sort of tension — shrinking his faith from an elephant in the room down to a bite-sized bit of campaign trivia.
As the campaign moved into the general election stage, Republicans remained on guard, as some worried that a desperate Obama campaign might sic its surrogates on the Republican’s faith. (I heard the same concern from a number of Mormons.)
One RNC official told me they were prepared to release opposition research dealing with polygamy in Obama’s family tree — including passages from a little-noticed memoir by the president’s half-sister Auma — if the left tried to make hay of historical Mormon polygamy. But Chicago held its fire, and the issue never surfaced.
On the right, the long-feared Evangelical backlash to Romney’s faith never materialized, and there were signs that the religious right was finally accepting conservative Mormons into the fold. In one particularly potent gesture, Billy Graham removed Mormonism from a list of “cults” on his website. That may seem like a low bar to clear, but on election day, Romney ended up winning a larger portion of white evangelicals than John McCain did in 2008.
“This showed that having a common faith was not a litmus test,” Mark Demoss, an evangelical adviser to Romney, told the Washington Post after the election. He added that it was “something to feel good about, and there’s not a lot to feel good about.”
Meanwhile, as grassroots Mormon voters mobilized, some in the conservative movement began to see a real upside to keeping them engaged. The disastrous meltdown of the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort may have masked the fact that the Republican Party reported a substantial uptick in voter contacts over other recent presidential campaigns. Skeptics have claimed the numbers were juiced by counting messages left on answering machines.
But within elite GOP circles, speculation abounded that it was the Mormons, with their missionary zeal, who were driving the numbers upward.
“Bush had his evangelicals, McCain had the veterans who would do anything for him,” said one strategist involved in the party’s GOTV efforts. “In terms of a base constituency who goes and makes phone call for eight hours for Mitt Romney? It’s Mormons.”
The strategist added that, based on anecdotal evidence, Mitt’s Mormon army was exceptionally good at canvassing.
“If you’re someone who’s willing to walk around Temple Square and try to talk to people in Estonian, your level of skill in cold calls is probably above average,” the strategist told me.
As we neared election day, it became increasingly clear to me that Mormonism was being woven into the social fabric of the political class. Pool reporters began to see trips to church with Romney less as a tantalizing peek into the candidate’s strange religion, and more in the way Mormons sometimes view it: a dull chore to be fulfilled out of obligation.
And even some Republican donors — who had long viewed Romney’s religion as little more than a line to factor into the balance sheet as they determined how much to give to his campaign — were now becoming fiercely defensive of the faith.
One Romney friend told me about flying cross country on a private jet with a group of wealthy conservatives after an east coast fundraiser, and listening as the candidate’s religion came up.
“Mitt’s a good guy, a smart guy, but I can’t believe how he believes this Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon stuff,” one of the donors said, offhandedly.
The jet’s owner, a Catholic businessman with no ties to the Mormon Church beyond Romney, became indignant.
“There’s no difference between Joseph Smith receiving the Book of Mormon, and Moses going up to Mount Sinai and talking to a burning bush,” the jet owner argued.
When the first man half-heartedly disagreed, the owner proceeded.
“What’s the difference?” he demanded. “Mitt Romney’s a smarter guy than you are, maybe he knows something we don’t.”
Romney’s friend was amazed.
“This was the elite of America, and that conversation was taking place. It was almost surreal,” he said. “I mean, that guy was not converting to Mormonism. But what it tells you is that Mitt Romney, because of his example and who he is, has given people a different appreciation for Mormons.”
Of course, the rising relevance that Mormonism has enjoyed in 2012 cuts both ways for the church, which now faces the task of disentangling its public image from polarizing Republican politics.
I’m not sufficiently well-acquainted with presidential history to judge the validity of the Al Smith comparisons Romney’s supporters are now tossing around. But to determine whether his candidacy got the country more comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president, there’s one clear bellwether.
Toward the end of the election, I was sitting on another dark campaign press bus in another battleground state, when a correspondent flopped into the seat behind me and began making casual conversation. His topic of choice: Mormon underwear.
“So, do you wear them?” he asked at one point.
“What do they look like?” he inquired at another.
The questions were generally similar to the ones that had been naughtily whispered among the press corps nine months earlier, but this time the tone was entirely different. The reporter was speaking in full voice, gliding through the conversation with the same nonchalance he exhibited in his assessment of the pulled pork sandwiches we had just eaten for dinner. Romney’s underwear — and the faith it symbolized — was no longer considered taboo.
As the bus started up, and began rolling away from the site of the rally, the correspondent remarked, “I saw some pictures of the underwear online. They didn’t seem very weird to me.”
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