The latest HughTubes ads are in.
My friend Hugh Hewitt has written a political biography of Mitt Romney, and I can recommend it for one solid reason: this marks the second time in my life I have looked for my name in the index, and found it. Aside from that, I can recommend it on several levels.
I should preface this by saying I’m not a Romney guy. It has nothing to do with his creed. I think his accomplishments are impressive, his public persona solid and direct. I think he is what he seems to be. You could say that’s the case with many other candidates, and I agree; inasmuch as all politicians show us a polished carapace, I think Guiliani and Obama are the Genuine Article as well – in different ways, of course, but when they smile I don’t see the wires leading back to the Calculating Machine. Romney has all the hallmarks of a polished robot whose public persona is a buffed and tailored suit, a shell that hides something raw and convoluted. But I never got that impression. There are happy confident rich guys with great family stories, you know. [# More #]
I just never found him very fascinating on an immediate level. The difference between Rudy and Mitt’s personality, one suspects, is the difference between wandering around the Louvre with two glasses of red wine under your belt, or being handed a shoebox full of high-res Louvre gift-shop postcards, arranged by artist and date. (Then there’s Fred Thompson, who would nod politely while you described your visit to the museum, then tell you about the picture he has in his study. It’s dogs, playing poker.)
So I was interested in Hugh’s book. What makes him interesting to the author? Romney and Hewitt are not, to say the least, members of the same church, yet Hewitt is emphatically sympathetic to Romney’s candidacy. Since I began the book, Romney’s campaign has continued its attempt to climb out of the slough of despond; the media likes the Rudy – McCain dynamic, the social conservative base that might flock to Mitt seems either indifferent to anyone who can win, or has made a private deal to support Rudy on the half-a-loaf theory. Much of Romney’s 02 has been absorbed by Fred Thompson, who has basic bona fides, a satisfyingly saturnine persona, and some other intangibles. Like, HE’S NOT A MORMON.
Well, it had to be said. But that’s not all of it; Romney’s religion isn’t the main reason his campaign isn’t out front by 10 points. There’s something else at work; could be the YouTube flip-flop problem. But I think I know what it might be. He’s in a hard position: he’s too good to be true, but he’s truly that good.
Let’s step back.
If you’re interested in the upcoming campaign, and wish to enter any political debates with a certain amount of preparation, this book is a brisk and clear rundown of Romney’s private and political life. I had a glancing knowledge of the Salt Lake City Olympics story, but the chapter about Romney’s experience in private industry was news, and suggested – which I’m sure was the point – that Romney is a meritocrat above all. (One of the oft-noted characteristics of the Bush family – loyalty first – is one of my least favorite attributes.) His evaluations of Romney’s political positions are clear and fair; his analysis of the logistics of the election are typically canny, and the overview of Romney’s “Christmas card-perfect” family will annoy anyone who believes that any real life has be fraught with sixty-eight tons of complex parental issues. We learn about Romney’s experience with the Bainiacs – an interesting look into his private sector experience, but not, I suspect, something that will have much of a role in the Presidential campaign. Green eye-shade conservatives will view it as a comforting plus, social conservatives won’t care much at all, and economic nationalists will seem him as a pawn of Big Capital. In any case, it’s all prologue. What counts are the Mormon Chapters.
That’s the meat of the gist’s pith, after all. You can’t write a book about Romney without writing about his Mormonism, simply because he’d be the first Mormon president. It’s not the same as having a Catholic president; Protestant and Catholic beliefs branched out but attained parallelism over the course of centuries, whereas Mormonism seems to be a diagonal line that intersects with Christianity at a big crucial junction, then heads off in a different direction. The angle is low, but the line still diverges.
Hugh’s book isn’t a defense of Mormon theology. It’s a defense of the Mormons’ right to have their beliefs respected in the public sphere. Hewitt gives two reasons; religious tolerance is the first, obviously. The second concerns a bright line not yet crossed in the mainstream political arena, and it’s a line I’m sure will be erased in years to come. It’s the line that surrounds an individual’s belief in what some call the divine or the miraculous, and others call Magical Thinking. In short, it’s about the right to believe in something that lies outside the realm of empiricism.
Oh, we can all respect that right. We can all make public proclamations about the sanctity of individual beliefs. And we’ll all qualify those remarks in private, among friends. (Note: nothing I’m saying here reflects personal conversations with Hugh about the matter. Just so we’re clear.) People who have friends of different creeds can josh about the differences, as long as each knows that the each respects the other’s beliefs. But some beliefs are, well, out there; doesn’t it say something about a person if they’re a Raelian, or subscribe to the Church of Joe-Bob Briggs (a splinter group of the Church of Subgenuius, formed in the great Bob Schism Wars of the early part of this century) or pray to a plaster bust of St. Leibowitz? Yes. It does. That’s the problem for many: it does matter.
Privately, anyway. The public realm has different standards, and it should.
Or so we’d like to hope.
It doesn’t matter much to me, because I’m more concerned about the policies the candidate advances, and how well I think they’ll advance them. If Fred Thompson gave a speech about Iran I loved, and I also knew he believed that humans were seeded on earth by lizard aliens who will return in 3030 AD to construct a Dyson-sphere terrarium, I’d still be more interested in how his Iranian policy stacked up against the other candidates. Not to suggest that Mormonism is akin to the space-lizard belief-system or Raelianism or whatever, of course. But you get my point.
The point is made with greater clarity in Hugh’s book, which cautions against putting Belief into the mainstream pundit’s meat-grinder. Because once Faith is a fair target, every aspect of faith will be put under the microscope. If you can dismiss a candidate for his belief in the golden tablets, then transubstantiation is next on the list. You want to snigger about Mormon undergarments? Fine; the next time a Sikh runs for public office, quiz him about the same issue. You want to probe a Mormon for the ways in which their Jesus narrative varies, you’d best do the same to a Muslim candidate. And if you can’t see yourself standing up in a press conference asking a Muslim candidate whether Christians will have a problem with him because he doesn’t think Christ died on the cross, you’d best throttle back your zeal for digging into a Mormon.
I’m not comfortable with all beliefs, but I am comfortable with believers. I am not sympathetic to the tenets of Mormonism. But. Just last week I got a knock on the door on a rainy night, and there they were: two Mormon missionaries. White shirts, black ties. They explained their mission and asked if I’d like to talk. Well, lads, I’m what you call a hard sell. I told them that I appreciated their concern, though, and wished them well.
“Do you know anyone around here who needs some help?” said the shorter, dark-haired one. (The other was tall, which gave them a Napoleon-Pedro vibe.) I said that I didn’t, and they thanked me for my time and they went on their way.
If at that moment I had some sort of domestic emergency that required me to leave the house but also required someone to stay at the house – I don’t know, to watch a scientific experiment or take a cake out the oven (a cake – for the Pope!) – I would have trusted both of them to hold down the fort until I returned, and I know I would have found both of them sitting in the living room when I returned, with nothing in the house out of place or moved to a pocket.
Surely how one lives one’s life is as important as the things the curious things they believe, no?
Anyway. I hadn’t thought much about these matters until I read Hugh’s book, and I expect it will have the same effect on those who have a passing interest in the matter – or for Democrats as well, since the Senate Majority Leader is a Mormon as well. (If Romney’s fair game, so’s Harry Reid.) If nothing else, the book is a quiet refutation of all that “Christianist” nonsense; it’s a fair and respectful evaluation of a politician who happens to be Mormon from a commentator who happens to be an evangelical Christian, amply sourced, replete with other voices, and laid out with Hugh’s trademark clarity.
Plus, I’m on page 266.