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The Long Run

Romney, Searching and Earnest, Set His Path in ’60s

Mitt Romney, left, as a part of a Mormon Church missionary group serving in France in 1968.

Published: November 15, 2007

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 — In December 1968, Mitt Romney returned home from a Mormon mission in France to find a changed country.

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The Long Run

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This is part of a series of articles about the lives and careers of contenders for the 2008 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.

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Associated Press

Mitt Romney transferred to Brigham Young University to be near Ann L. Davies, whom he married in 1969.

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While assassinations, race riots, sit-ins and marches transformed his generation, Mr. Romney spent more than two years cloistered in a strict regimen of prayer and proselytizing.

The missionaries were discouraged from indulging in newspapers, radio, television or phone calls home. They spent twelve hours a day knocking on doors, often ending up defending the Vietnam War or American race relations against tirades by the French. Mr. Romney was so removed from the tumult at home that he was surprised to learn that his father, George Romney, had turned against the war while campaigning for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

“There had been this whole revolution while we were gone,” recalled Dane McBride, a close friend from the mission. “While we had gone from being adolescents to grown-ups with a lot of responsibility, our peers — from our perspective — were just tearing down the country, becoming dangerously childish.” He added, “It just seemed deplorable.”

It was the midpoint in a six-year immersion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — first as a missionary and then at the church’s Brigham Young University — that set the conservative course Mr. Romney would follow as a businessman, politician and now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

He left for France a 19-year-old freshman at Stanford, a sheltered child of privilege full of ideas about how to shake up the French mission. He could be goofy, quoting Sylvester the Cat this way — “Sutherickin Schatash! It’s humiliatin’!” — in letters to friends. He was considered the free spirit of his crowd, the one who sneaked off to movies (discouraged for missionaries) and ate coq au vin (controversial because of his church’s prohibition on alcohol). He was a half-hearted Mormon whose beliefs, as he recalled recently, were “based on pretty thin tissue.”

His sojourn through Paris and Provo, Utah, redoubled both his faith and his ambition. Missionary work gave him his first taste of power and responsibility, eventually overseeing the work of 175 peers. As president of the premier social club at Brigham Young, he first displayed a knack for fund-raising, bringing the university more than $1 million.

While eager to discuss national politics, he hung back from the ferment of the day, recoiling against the student unrest he saw in France and staying on the sidelines when protests broke out over Brigham Young’s all-white sports teams.

Instead, he settled comfortably into his studies on a campus so conservative that it banned most rock ’n’ roll bands, left-leaning speakers or student groups, long hair on men or bare shoulders or knees on women. By the time he graduated, headed for Harvard’s law and business schools, he was already a husband and a father.

“It was growing up fast,” Mr. Romney recalled, crediting his mission with inculcating the values and skills he displayed at Brigham Young.

“On a mission, your faith in Jesus Christ either evaporates or it becomes much deeper,” he said. “For me it became much deeper.”

His experiences “gave me a great appreciation of the value of liberty and the value of the free-enterprise system,” he added. “It brings home that these things are not ubiquitous, that what we enjoy here is actually quite unique and therefore is fragile.”

The Iraq war debate has given new relevance to the question of where presidential candidates stood during the Vietnam conflict — whether they were demonstrating on campus, tortured in a prison camp or trying to convert the French. For Mr. Romney, that chapter of his biography is also at the crux of the challenges facing his campaign. It helps explain the origins of the conservative convictions he has sometimes struggled to convey to Republican voters, and it underscores the formative role in his life played by a religion that remains mysterious to many Americans.

“He talks about it all the time,” said Tagg Romney, Mitt Romney’s eldest son. That period, more than any other, “helped him become who he is now.”

A Mission Flourishes

France was a humbling experience for Mr. Romney, who recalled it as the only time in his life when “most of what I was trying to do was rejected.”

Missionary work is a rite of passage for Mormon men, who are encouraged to volunteer when they turn 19. Mitt Romney’s grandfather, father and older brother had all served in Britain, so his assignment to France “came as a surprise,” he recalled.

His letters from the period are snapshots of his late adolescence, by turns earnest and silly. In one letter, he quoted Snoopy, referred to himself as “a lonely duck” and signed off, “Love & Kisses, Daffy.” He closed another with “May the Lord keep you until we meet again,” adding 17 exclamation points. In a mock news release, he called himself “His Holiness Monsignor Willard Mitt Romney.”

The son of a car company chief executive who later became governor of Michigan, Mitt Romney called his mission an “instructive” first experience of deprivation. He lived on about $100 a month, sleeping on cast-off mattresses and crowding into small apartments in groups of four. The only toilet was often down the hall and the only shower in a public bathhouse.

The 175 missionaries in France all rose at 6 a.m. each day, rang doorbells from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and turned in by 10. Each was assigned a “companion,” parting company only to go to the bathroom. Superiors would quiz each partner separately about the conduct of the other, to ensure they stayed in line.

Mr. Romney quickly stood out. His father was perhaps the best known Mormon public official of his day, and Mitt’s three years of French at the exclusive Cranbrook school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., had made him more fluent than his peers. He knew the names of French perfumes and could afford to hand over a pair of his shoes to a missionary whose soles had worn thin. He used his father’s friendship with Sargent Shriver, then ambassador to France, to arrange a meal at the American Embassy.

Like most missionaries, he did not win many converts. After reading Mitt’s demoralized letters, his father sent back a favorite motto: “Despair not, but if you despair, work on in your despair.”

Mr. Romney’s companions, though, recall only his zeal. In newsletters, he often led the lists recording contacts made or tracts distributed. He chafed at the door-to-door entreaties, pushing for new ways to market their creed, like an exhibition baseball game or staging an “American night” in a youth center.

And he was eager to move up. After a promotion in early 1968, Mr. Romney complained that he was still subordinate to a fellow missionary.

“I went into the president’s office and said: look president, ‘ith eitha you orh me that is goin to run thith place,’” he wrote to a friend, again imitating a cartoon character. He said he got nowhere, adding: “Really, it’s not that bad — it’s just that I feel like I’ve been broken.”

Mr. Romney’s counterpart, Joel McKinnon, now president of a mission in Montreal, recalled: “He just had a million ideas a minute and couldn’t wait to try something new all the time.” When his suggestions were rebuffed, “He was a little frustrated, like he was working with a garden slug,” Mr. McKinnon said.

Just a few weeks later, though, Mr. Romney and Mr. McKinnon were thrust into new roles. Mr. Romney was at the wheel of car involved in a head-on collision on a country road, killing the wife of the mission president. Mr. Romney, who was not at fault in the accident, was knocked out — even mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene — but quickly recovered. When the president went back to the United States, Mr. Romney and Mr. McKinnon were left in charge of the other missionaries for three months.

Mr. Romney quickly threw himself into firing them up. During their training, church officials had urged the young men to remember the “eight W’s” (“Work Will Win When Wishy Washy Wishing Won’t.”) They soon delivered similar exhortations, churning out bulletins with headlines like “The Key to Dynamic Leadership,” “Can You See It Happening?” and “It’s Yours!”

The War Reverberates

Their efforts were interrupted when France erupted into chaos in May 1968. Student uprisings and a general strike — fueled in part by anger over the Vietnam War — shut down the telephones, trains and mail. Trash piled up in the streets, while store shelves and gas stations sat empty. Mr. Romney, then a leader for the region around Bordeaux, carried empty soap containers of borrowed fuel on his moped, then drove to an American bank in Paris for food money. He saw student demonstrators turning over cars, setting fires, hurling cobblestones and battling the police.

Mr. Romney described it as “a very interesting firsthand view of a very volatile setting.” But his friends say the strikes were terrifying and reinforced their respect for authority. “The social system failed. The country came to a stop,” said Byron Hansen, another missionary and now a car dealer in Brigham City, Utah. “It affected me and I am sure it affected Mitt.”

The missionaries had often met with hostility over the Vietnam War. “Are you an American?” was a common greeting, Mr. Romney recalled, followed by, “‘Get out of Vietnam! Bang!’ The door would slam.” But such opposition only hardened their hawkish views. “We felt the French were pretty weak-kneed,” Mr. Hansen said.

Most of the missionaries, though, were also relieved that their service meant a draft deferment. “I am sorry, but no one was excited to go and get killed in Vietnam,” Mr. Hansen said, acknowledging, “In hindsight, it is easy to be for the war when you don’t have to worry about going to Vietnam.”

Mr. Romney, though, said that he sometimes had wished he were in Vietnam instead of France. “There were surely times on my mission when I was having a particularly difficult time accomplishing very little when I would have longed for the chance to be serving in the military,” he said in an interview, “but that was not to be.”

While many Mormons — and eventually, some of his fellow missionaries — enlisted, Mr. Romney got a student deferment after returning from France. When the draft lottery was introduced in December 1969, he drew a high enough number — 300 — that he would never be called up.

Many church leaders considered the war a godly cause, and Mr. Romney said at the time he thought that it was essential to holding back Communism.

“I was surprised,” Mr. Romney recalled, “when I heard my father, then running for president, say that we were wrong, that we had been told lies by our military, that the course of the war was not going as well as we thought it was and that we had been mistaken when we had entered the war. It obviously caused me to reconsider what I had previously thought.”

He added, “Ultimately, I came to believe that he was right.”

‘Glory Days’

Mr. Romney switched to Brigham Young from Stanford to be near his high school girlfriend, now wife, Ann. But the move also continued his isolation from the upheaval of the era. Brigham Young was one of the few places where students had demonstrated in support of the war in the mid-1960s. When Mr. Romney attended, the university president enlisted students to spy on supposedly liberal professors, and the handful of students who displayed peace signs in their windows were told to remove them. Although liberal groups were banned, a chapter of George Wallace’s American Independent Party flourished.

Mr. Romney describes the time as “his glory days,” Tagg Romney said. Mitt and Ann settled into a $75-a-month basement apartment. Studying with new discipline, he graduated at the top of the humanities college. He built wading pools for his wife and son out of rocks in a nearby river.

Mr. Romney had an avid interest in national politics, often fielding questions about his father’s perspective on events. But student government seemed small to him, his friend Dane McBride, now a physician, said.

Instead, Mr. Romney devoted himself to the Cougar Club, an exclusive all-male social club known for its sharp blue blazers. The group usually held Hawaiian luaus and other events to raise a few thousand dollars a year for the university’s sports teams. Elected its president his senior year, Mr. Romney applied the motivational skills he learned in France to lead a telethon that raised $1 million. “Mitt told us, ‘Guys, we can do better,’” Dr. McBride recalled. “He energized it.”

Eventually, the great debates of the day intruded even at Brigham Young. In the fall of 1970, the student government president and others distributed a pamphlet encouraging opposition to the Vietnam conflict by quoting past Mormon leaders on the evils of war, stirring a predictable campus fury.

Mr. Romney wanted no part of such things. “If we had asked Mitt to sign that pamphlet, he would have had a heart attack,” said Terrell E. Hunt, a fellow Cougar who signed it.

Civil rights became an even more insistent issue, when boycotts and violent protests over the university’s virtually all-white sports teams broke out at away games. The Mormon Church at the time excluded blacks from full membership, considering them spiritually unfit as results of a biblical curse on the descendants of Noah’s son Ham. (During their training, a fellow missionary of Mr. Romney took notes that read: “All men were created equal — No,” followed by “Sons of Ham. ”)

A handful of students and prominent Mormons — including the Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall and his brother Stewart, then secretary of the interior — called for an end to the doctrine. Some Mormons hoped the pressure would persuade the church to abandon its exclusion of blacks, just as it had stopped endorsing polygamy.

Mitt Romney had walked in civil rights marches with his father and said he shared his concern for racial equality. But neither publicly questioned the church’s teachings.

“I hoped that the time would come when the leaders of the church would receive the inspiration to change the policy,” Mr. Romney said. When he heard over a car radio in 1978 that the church would offer blacks full membership, he said, he pulled over and cried.

But until then, he deferred to church leaders, he said. “The way things are achieved in my church, as I believe in other great faiths, is through inspiration from God and not through protests and letters to the editor.”

Ben Werschkul contributed reporting.

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