9:41 a.m. October 22, 2012

Why Is Romney Such A Dick?

“From now on, it’s me, me, me.”Mitt Romney, 2005

Looking back from our mid-October vantage point on the vapid malice that was the Republican Convention in Tampa, the purpose of the confusing messaging—part bootcamp motivational rhetoric, part spite, and part-the-lamest-attempt-at-insincere-compassion that the Republican Party has ever put on— now, it all makes awful sense. Especially since we’ve finally got to know the "real" Mitt Romney in our guts.

Gov. Chris Christie, in his keynote speech, summed up the purpose of the convention, and what they calculated would be Romney's voter appeal, better than anyone: “We have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved,” Christie said, introducing the Republican nominee for president of the United States. “Tonight, we choose respect over love.”

In other words, we choose a dick.

With only a few weeks left before the vote, we are belatedly becoming aware of just how three-dimensionally dickish candidate Mitt Romney really is. And yet Romney still remains a mystery, he's still not so easy to pigeonhole, which makes pigeonholing him frustrating—not just for your humble correspondent, but even to some people who know Romney well.

One person who got to spend a lot of time with Mitt Romney is former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson, who ran Utah’s capital from 1999 through 2007, a period that includes the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics that launched Romney’s political career.

I met Rocky at Tony Caputo’s, the popular and insanely delicious Italian deli across from Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City. The owners know him well— in this small town of under 200,000 (about a million in the larger Salt Lake Basin), Rocky Anderson’s presence and his influence are everywhere. It takes awhile to get used to this Utah paradox: the strange hybrid of reactionary Mormon Church headquarters influence, and yet one of the most progressive civilian administrations and communities of any city in the country.

It’s hard to believe it but, in a state with the most consistently right-wing, pro-Republican voting record, the capital -- Salt Lake City -- has transformed into a kind of progressive biosphere, a safe haven for sanity and decency. You feel it here in the high desert air, the unique absence of malice that heats your blood in just about every city and town across America.

When Anderson was mayor of Salt Lake, he passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush for war crimes—the only mayor of a major American city to do so. He tells me that he tried to get Berkeley and Santa Monica to join him, to build momentum to go after Bush for his obvious crimes — but he was surprised to learn that the once-radical cities had gone conformist. “They told me, that’s not really what we think a city should get involved in,’” Rocky relates with a laugh. “Can you believe that? Salt Lake City too politically radical for Berkeley?”

Utah's capital city attracts refugees from Mormon Country well beyond the Salt Lake Basin—from towns like Provo, Ogden, Logan, and the polygamist “fundamentalist” communities down south near the Arizona border, in canyon country. I’ve never seen so much body art per capita as I have here. Troy Williams, a local radio producer, tells me it’s all part of the rebellion here against the reactionary politics that rule the state and the Mormon church; Salt Lake is a sort of refugee, and those who escape brand their rejection of the Mormon world beyond on their arms, their shoulder blades, their lower legs... especially their arms.

Before Anderson’s two terms as mayor of Salt Lake City, he worked as a high-profile trial lawyer, and he has a long public career in human rights activism, including sending food and medicine to Nicaragua during the Reagan years, when American-backed death squads wreaked havoc in Nicaragua’s provinces. When he first ran for office here, his opponents tried using his activism against him, smearing him as a communist, and worse.

Today, Rocky Anderson, a former Democrat, is running for president of the United States on the newly-formed Justice Party ticket. Disillusioned with Obama’s presidency and the Democratic Party’s failures, Anderson is fighting to establish a political space for the sort of left-liberal populism that is incompatible with the Democratic Party’s brand of “soft Republican” centrism.

In other words: No one could possibly be more unlike Mitt Romney than Rocky Anderson. Not just in politics, but in religion as well: Whereas Mitt Romney played a powerful role in the Mormon Church, rising up the LDS Church hierarchy to “stake president” in Massachusetts in charge of thousands of church members and scores of bishops, Rocky Anderson rejected the Church of Latter-Day Saints as a teenager growing up in Logan, turned off by Mormonism's racism, and its emphasis on unquestioning obedience to authority.

There’s much more that separates Romney from Anderson—and that is what makes my interview with Anderson about his own personal experiences with Mitt and Ann Romney so unexpectedly poignant as much as it is infuriating.

* *

The first time the two men met was in 1999—the year Mitt Romney was brought in as the “CEO” of the Salt Lake City Olympics replacing the scandal-plagued committee leadership... and the same year that Rocky Anderson was first elected mayor of Utah’s capital city on an unusually radical progressive platform.

“When I first met Mitt in 1999, I didn’t know what to expect,” Anderson tells me, speaking more slowly than usual, as if he’s channeling his memories now for the interview, rather than merely reciting a past event. “I remember driving up to their vacation home, a huge place, like a ski lodge, up in Deer Valley [an exclusive enclave in Park City]. On the way up, I called somebody and asked him to Google Mitt because I didn’t wasn’t quite sure who he was, other than ‘George Romney’s son.’

So I got there, and seeing this huge place [9,880 sq feet], and not knowing much about him, I expected to meet an aloof, arrogant, out-of-touch person. So I approached the front door with some others who’d just arrived. And this almost boyish, very engaging, friendly guy answered the door, and says, ‘Oh, come on in!’ He took our coats, and he was very friendly, very down to earth. And I thought: he’s either the paid help or one of his sons. And it was Mitt!”

Here I burst out laughing, but listening to the tape, I can hear the confusion in the laugh. I came to Anderson’s to hear a simple linear story about Mitt Romney, portrait of a dickhead as a not-young CEO. Instead, I was getting this friendly-dad neighbor, and it was confusing me.

For Anderson, however, the shock comes later. Now, sitting here recalling the Mitt Romney he once knew and spent time with, slowly choosing his words not out of caution but out of a sense of precision and faithfulness to the memory of that Mitt Romney: “He was warm,” Anderson says. “They were very, very likeable. And I remember talking to Mitt and Ann about his experience running against Ted Kennedy [in 1994], and they were both clearly still upset.”

Anderson’s voice almost trails off: “They talked about how tough it was, and how they felt like, at the end of the campaign, that there were a lot of dirty tactics used against Mitt.” Like what? I asked. “Oh, for example there was somebody who said they lost their child because of Bain taking over the company. And Mitt and Ann, they felt it was—you could tell there was a lot of pain there.” Anderson pauses again. “And I think it’s because they were—well, I used to think and feel quite certain—essentially very decent people...”

Anderson’s voice slows again as soon as he talks about the past, and not the present-tense disappointment and sense of disgust: “I worked with Mitt very, very closely when I was mayor. We developed a good friendship, as I did with Ann. I found them to be—Mitt was extremely bright and competent, he immersed himself in the details, and he had a very competent and loyal staff. People who worked with him genuinely liked and respected him...as did I! It seemed that he...” Anderson’s voice trailed off— “never had any bit of elitism or arrogance in dealing with people, whether they were legislators or volunteers. At least in my experience, he seemed very respectful towards everybody.”

I asked for an example; Anderson leaned forward over his desk and smiled: “Well—I had a group of animal activists who wanted to meet with the Olympic committee about a rodeo that the county here was going to throw, and they wanted to call it an ‘Olympic Rodeo’ which the animal rights activists objected to. And Mitt came over himself to my conference room to meet with them. And they were very pleased that he listened so respectfully, and seemed so... earnestly interested in what they had to say.

“You know, Mitt didn’t have to reach out to me the way he did. He seemed very thoughtful, and about as opposite as can be from the way he’s coming off in this campaign.”

Anderson pauses, thinks for a moment, then throws up his hands: “Maybe I was fooled? Maybe I... worked with him in such a public sphere, that maybe in our private interactions I saw him through a different lens. But...I don’t think so. Because they knew how marginalized I am in Utah. Mitt could have sucked up to all the Republicans and Mormons here, and didn’t need to—he would have even benefited from not treating me as well as he did. So there was no incentive... And I know—he and Ann used to tell me all sorts of things I don’t think they would have shared with some of the right-wing Mormon types—”

Anderson stops himself here—I ask him to share those private Romney confessions, but he gruffly refuses. Anderson he may have abandoned his Mormon faith, but he retains some of their better character traits: trustworthiness, discretion, and that Boy Scouts earnestness, which many Mormons seem to absorb into their motor functions.

“So that’s why I assumed on some level that we had a lot more in common than Mitt had with some of other right-wing Republicans we had to deal with here during the Olympics. And Ann!” Anderson lights up remembering Ann, which is an even greater surprise to me—all I know about Ann is her convention speech, which, for lack of a better word, was downright scary. Au contraire: “Ann was much more laid-back. She’s a really — my impression of her was that she’s a really good, solid, down-to-earth human being.”

And now?

“Even though I knew him before, the Mitt Romney that I see now I find incredibly unlikeable, and out of touch... the sort of arrogant elitist that is completely incapable of relating to ordinary people, especially working men and women.

“Ultimately, he, Mitt, was the one that made those decisions. That after his handlers told him he’d have to change his positions on all these issues, Mitt was the one who decided he would do that in order to win the Republican nomination. That in and of itself is indicative of a person very different from the man that I thought I knew.”

So the obvious question arises: What happened to this Mitt Romney? Rocky Anderson is hardly the first person to attest to Mitt’s once-impressive character and personality. The Boston Globe reporters who wrote “The Real Romney” quoted plenty of people who got to know the Romneys who reported having a similar impression of them—even on my flight to Salt Lake, the woman sitting next to me told me how, during the Olympics, she stumbled by accident upon Mitt as he was sitting in the bleachers at one of the less-crowded events, and she was still struck by how approachable and unpretentious he was in person.

So the question remains—how did Mitt Romney transmogrify from this unpretentious model-neighborhood-dad type into Bud the flesh-eating Randroid, promising four years of such cold-blooded cruelty that, if carried out, will make Dubya look like a squishy moderate by comparison?

“I’m not a psychologist,” Anderson says, “but my theory is that he has been forced in into changing entirely who he is, and what he stands for, on so many issues, that he is either so uncomfortable in his skin now that he simply can’t be who he was before... or he really has changed as a human being.”

Anderson doesn’t think one single factor is at fault, but rather a combination of factors, the Mormon Church being one of them: “When you grow up hearing repeatedly that you’re the favorite ones of the Only True Church [as Joseph Smith taught], and everyone else is not going to make it to the highest kingdom—that carries through in a person’s life, with a lot of negative implications. These people can be incredibly mean and judgmental, from a religious point of view. That’s not to generalize, but...there is this ‘Us & Them’ phenomenon. If you’re not part of this ‘Us’ group group—Mormon—then they can assign far more negative aspects to you. When I was mayor, and for example, I would support gay and lesbian rights—I’d get letters to the office, and letters to the editor, saying the only reason I was for gay and lesbian rights because I ‘used to be Mormon.’ It just got absurd, no matter what position I took, if I took positions they disagreed with.”

Unlike Anderson, Mitt Romney never seems to have had anything like a moral or intellectual crisis about Mormonism’s more authoritarian side, let alone its history of racism, sexism and its peculiarly vicious homophobia. Mitt comes from Mormon aristocracy—his great-grandfather Miles Romney was hand-selected by Brigham Young to both “seal” several wives to himself in “celestial marriage” and to set up one of the first Mormon colonies in Mexico in the late 1800s, to escape the US crackdown on polygamy. In Mitt’s own time, his first cousin/uncle Marion Romney rose to the number two spot in the LDS Church before dying in the late 1980s, while Mitt himself was appointed bishop in his upper-class Boston suburb, and later, to “stake president”—a top church figure heading thousands of Mormon church members and several bishops.

“It starts when you’re a child,” Anderson explains about growing up Mormon. “You go after school one day a week, with all-Mormon kids. That’s primary. Then as you get older you go to what’s called ‘Mutual’— that was one night a week. And that’s when you did Boy Scouts. The LDS Church is the largest Boy Scouts sponsor in the country. My son didn’t do the Boy Scouts because he didn’t want to go into the LDS church. Which saddened me, because I loved the Boy Scouts.”

"How about bishop?," I ask.

“Bishop, what Mitt Romney was—that is very time consuming, They put in a lot of time, it’s not just on Sunday. Helping with family problems... And then even more time-consuming is ‘stake president.’ [Billionaire] John Huntsman Sr. was a stake president, for example—which is a much higher bishop. If you’re serving as a bishop [or President of a Stake] —most of your off hours are going to be spent with Mormons.

“Anybody that’s so steeped in any religion—it’s going to have a huge impact on whatever they do and however they handle anything. But I think his out-of-touchness may be as much a result of his religious upbringing as it is that he grew up in a very wealthy and privileged household. I remember getting out and working hard labor jobs—and it created such a sense of not only empathy but solidarity. I doubt Mitt Romney’s ever had that sort of experience. I’ve taken people to hospitals when they’ve sawed off their fingers. I worked at a cabinet mill, I shingled houses, I worked construction, built buckfence at a ranch, I drove a Yellow Cab, I tended a bar...”

“Bartender?” I asked. “Did you mix a mean Mormon cocktail? How did that work?” “No, it was a beer bar, a ‘brown bag’ bar. Those were the days when people brought their booze with them in brown bags, and we provided the mixers. And beer, of course.” Anderson, incidentally, is credited with bringing Salt Lake City’s bar culture into the 21st century—no longer did you have to pretend your local bar was a “club” and you were a “private member” of that “club” in order to drink, thanks to Anderson’s reforms around the time of the Olympics.

There is a more serious side to the alcohol part of this story: As people who have worked with Mitt Romney, or served on his campaigns, have testified, there is a kind of alien detachment over the fact that Mitt doesn’t know how to party with his workers, and doesn’t seem to like to much either. It’s all part of the separateness that Anderson emphasizes: The concentric walled-off circles of experience that Mitt Romney doesn’t share with the rest of America or humanity: the experience growing up in one of the wealthiest families in the country, a father who is a Republican Party celebrity, a powerful name in the Mormon church hierarchy; attending BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s when most schools were boycotting BYU over the church’s racism... Harvard business, Bain capital, “stake president” of the Mormon Church...

“When you get to know people on a human level rather than as abstractions, your negative biases usually fade away,” Anderson says. He shrugs with a laugh: “Of course, sometimes they tend to be reinforced... But certainly when it comes to religious and racial and sexual orientation—those differences, being acquainted with these people really helps. And if you’ve never had that, as Mitt hasn’t...”

Anderson seems to be growing a bit more irritated at this point in the interview, after having revisited old, bitter-fond memories of the Mitt Romney he once knew and respected, and then seeing him turn his back on everyone and everything Mitt had been or seemed to be, in order to transform himself into today’s front-man for a sort of gratuitous Social-Darwinism that promises to be as reckless and extreme as anything the Republican Party has thrown at us.

“You know, I always thought Mitt was somebody who was more like my mom and dad as Republicans—that he might help bring the Republican Party back to some semblance of sanity,” Anderson says. “A moderate, reasonable person who could seemingly get along with everybody, and be a great leader for whom partisanship wasn’t a big deal. My god almighty, now look what we’ve got! (laughs) He’s as partisan and nasty and elitist and arrogant and unlikeable as anyone I’ve ever seen run for office. He makes Richard Nixon look like...” After a long pause, I suggest: “A human?”

I point out though, in Nixon’s defense, that despite his viciousness and his reputation, Nixon’s policies betrayed more humanity that a lot of presidents we’ve had since, Democrat and Republican: Nixon gave us the EPA, OSHA, Department of Mining, the largest expansion of Medicare of any president since Nixon, and he brought the Cold War to an end, for a few years at least: detente with the Soviet Union...

Anderson agrees— “And China, he opened up China. And Nixon gave us the Clean Air Act” He pauses. “I suppose that’s the only thing I can hope for with Romney: That he’s going to be a Nixon opening up China. And that he’ll be able to do some liberal things that Obama either wouldn’t or couldn’t. But I really don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think Romney’s all of a sudden going to see the light about climate change and say, ‘Okay we’ve got to be the world’s leader.’ Even though I know for certain that Mitt understands what’s at stake with climate change.” Anderson emphasizes this last point, making it understood that this is something he knows from first-hand experience.

“And that alone makes me so angry—that the man, for the sake of political opportunism, turns his back on future generations, to be the cause of the kind catastrophe that they’re in for. With a lot of these people, there’s nothing they would stop at.”

By the end of our interview, the conflicted emotion and sense of disappointment are thoroughly purged. There is no confusion or contradiction—it is as though Anderson has worked through this conflict between the Romney from his own experience as mayor, and the Romney who today threatens to take power. Bringing all the Mitt Romneys of this world together, Rocky Anderson concludes:

“This man who spoke among these very wealthy people with whom he’s obviously so very comfortable — and he spoke so derisively about almost half of the people in this country, as considering themselves victims and entitled to being taken care of by the government—that’s just so despicable. This is a man who really has no idea about the people of this nation. And that’s because he’s surrounded himself with the rich and the powerful. If we had something more closely resembling democracy, not plutocracy, where the focus is on serving the public interest and not those who are financing your political career—we would see more people who are authentically committed to the public good. But Mitt Romney seems only committed to making the very rich richer. Unfortunately that seems to be where the Republican Party is in general. It’s hard to understand how anyone could support them who isn’t as rich as Romney or his campaign funders.”

And here is the scary thing: What Rocky Anderson did for my interview was without a doubt the fairest, most thoughtful, patient, and reasoned attempt at understanding and judging who Mitt Romney is that anyone on the opposition left could possibly give.

Next, it’s my turn.