Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mitt Romney, community organizer

Among the various predicaments that Mitt Romney finds himself in just now, perhaps the most politically toxic is the widespread perception that he is an out of touch tycoon who spent his entire life in Richistan and knows nothing about the lives of ordinary people. It's not true.

One irony compounds another. Seeking the nomination of a party that puts a premium on praying loudly in the public square, Romney is the only candidate with pastoral experience -- very substantive experience engaging with the spiritual and material lives of others, in his role as the Mormon equivalent first of a parish priest and then a bishop of the greater Boston area.  Yet this is the one aspect of his biography that Romney will not pawn or parlay for political gain. He has done all he can to pander to every Tea Party predilection except this one -- the thirst for intense commitments of faith.

Mormons do not have a paid clergy; church members rotate in positions of leadership.  Romney was first a "ward" leader in his home community of Belmont, MA and then a "stake" leader in the Boston area -- the Mormon equivalent of a bishop. The Real Romney, a biography by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, recounts several incidents that illustrate the extent to which these were hands-on leadership positions, particularly as executed by Romney.  Below, a sampling. The first three involve apparently wealthy or comfortable neighbors in Belmont. The last takes him into the immigrant communities of Boston.
Everyone who has known Romney in the church community seems to have a story...about him and his family pitching in to help in ways big and small. They took chicken and asparagus soup to sick parishioners. They invited unsettled Mormon transplants to their home for lasagna. Helen Claire Sievers and her husband once loaned a friend from church a six-figure sum and weren't getting paid back, putting a serious financial strain on the family. Suddenly they couldn't pay their daughter's Harvard College tuition. Romney, who was stake president at the time, not only worked closely with Sievers's family and the loan recipient to try to resolve the problem, he offered to give Sievers and her husband money and tried to help her find a job. "He spent an infinite amount of time with us, all the time we needed," Sievers said. "It was way above and beyond what he had to do."

On Super Bowl Sunday 1989, Douglas Anderson was at home in Belmont with his four children when a fire broke out. The blaze spread quickly, and all Anderson could think of was racing his family to safety. "There was no thought in my mind other than 'Get my kids out,'" he said. "I was not thinking about saving anything." He doesn't remember exactly when Romney, who lived nearby, showed up. But he got there quickly. Immediately, Romney organized the gathered neighbors, and they began dashing into the house to rescue what they could: a desk, couches, books. "Whatever they could lift off the main floor, Anderson said. "They saved some important things for us, and Mitt was the general in charge of that." This went on until firefighters ordered them to stop. "Literally," Anderson said, "they were finally kicked out by the firemen as they were bringing hoses and stuff in" (location 2174).
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Romney's acts of charity extended beyond just the church community. After his friend and neighbor Joseph O'Donnell lost a son, Joey, to cystic fibrosis--he died in 1986 at age twelve--Romney helped lead a community effort to build Joey's Park, a playground at the Winn Brook School in Belmont. "There he was, with a hammer in his belt, the Mitt nobody sees," O'Donnell said. Romney didn't stop there. About a year later, it became apparent that the park would need regular maintenance and repairs. "The next thing I know, my wife calls me up and says, "You're not going to believe this, but Mitt Romney is down with a bunch of Boy Scouts and kids and they're working on the park,'" said O'Donnell, who coached some of Romney's sons in youth sports. "He did it for like the next five years, without ever calling to say, 'We're doing this,' without a reporter in tow, not looking for any credit" (loc. 2188).
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The world map hung at the church's Boston branch neatly captured the growing diversity within the faith. Bright stars marked the countries from which branch members hailed: Haiti, Nigeria, Mexico, Lebanon, and many others. These immigrants were injecting fresh energy into Mormonism and remaking its face. They were also posing new tests for local church leaders. In his roughly eight years as Boston stake president, Romney oversaw a dizzying expansion. In the past, most area Mormons had been white and living in the suburbs. But the church had begun a major push to recruit new members from immigrant communities in urban enclaves in and around Boston. This had exposed Romney and other church leaders to poverty, lifestyles, and cultural traditions with which they'd had little experience. "It has been a great challenge to local members to provide leadership and support to begin six new branches in this stake in the past seven years," Romney said in 1991. "But it has also been a great source of joy to see so many people join the church and see them progress in the Gospel.

Romney and other Mormon officials made a conscious effort to take the church to the people, instead of letting the people come to the church. In the cities they created so-called storefront branches dedicated to certain nationalities and languages. Missionaries worked with Laotians, Cambodians, Portugese- and Spanish-speakers, Chinese, Haitians, and others. Area wards and branches became a potpourri of world cultures. "Love those people," Romney told Keith Knighton in calling him to be president of the Boston branch in the late 1980s. "Just simply love them."....Though Gillette's missionaries were the ones baptizing Mormon converts, Romney played a major supporting role in establishing new congregations, figuring out where they would meet and how to pair them with more established local wards and branches. Because he had learned French on his own mission, he was also able to personally counsel many Haitians, both in Boston and at suburban meetinghouses (loc. 2307).

There is a less admirable aspect to Romney's church leadership. Within a hierarchical organization, he sometimes came down as an authoritarian patriarch -- trying to push one unmarried woman into giving her child up for adoption, pressuring another whose pregnancy put her life at risk not to have an abortion. Repugnant as some might find his exercise of church authority in these incidents, they do not negate his very personal engagement with so many people, individually or collectively (to the extent that Kranish and Helman's account is trustworthy, and it seems as if it could be massively documented within the Mormon community).

Romney is almost universally regarded as the most calculating and cautious of candidates, molding his policies to accommodate what he thinks voters want to hear, unwilling to risk any unpopular stands or demonstrate any personal vulnerability. He seems to have calculated that his Mormon experience and beliefs will alienate GOP primary voters.

It seems to me that he has to unveil this part of who he is. It's the best part -- where his energy and attention to detail and competence have fused with a very real compassion and ability to engage with people in matters of intense personal import. 

Perhaps if he felt able to reveal a bit of 'the real Romney' on this front, he'd feel empowered to let go of a bit more of the fake Romney directing his policy prescriptions.

I've read about a third of The Real Romney.  So far I must say I am mystified. How could a person who appears who seems to combine not only discipline, intelligence, energy and competence but also generosity, warmth and personal integrity so transparency reverse every major policy position he's ever advocated or enacted, put forward a long-term economic plan that would massively cut taxes for the wealthy and reduce social spending by a third, and lie nonstop about his opponent, his own history, and the facts underlying current policies?  We'll see if the later parts of Kranish and Helman's account provide any clues.

If I knew nothing about Romney but what I'd read in this biography so far and what I've read about his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, I'd be serene about the possibility of him becoming president. But presidents are bound by the promises they make in campaign season.  And I think it's faux sophistication to discount evident untrustworthiness and willingness to deceive in a candidate. Would you buy a used car from this man? remains a relevant political question.

1 comment:

  1. One theory regarding Mitt's lack of principle in his political life says that he was shaped/ scarred by the manner in which Nixon turned George Romney's principled change of heart on the Vietnam War into a huge political liability during the '68 GOP nomination fight.