Tuesday, January 31, 2012

At ease

December 27, 2011

The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity

"It sucks to be Mitt Romney's chair bitch,"
said the original caption to this picture.
Poor guy looks a little worried he might get fired.
DAVENPORT, Iowa — When Mitt Romney introduces himself to voters, he has a peculiar habit of guessing their age or nationality, often incorrectly. (A regular query: “Are you French Canadian?”)

When making small talk with locals, he peppers the conversation with curious details. (“We stayed in the Courtyard hotel last night,” he told a woman at a diner. “It’s a LEED-certified hotel.”)

And when he encounters a question he particularly dislikes, he smiles politely and behaves as if it never happened. (“Will you put Ron Paul in your cabinet?” a man asked. The candidate turned away, inquiry left unanswered.)

Mr. Romney’s bid for president this year is a carefully crafted do-over, a chance to revise and retool a campaign that quickly fizzled out four years ago. He has lost the tie, overhauled his stump speech and hired far fewer campaign consultants.

But perhaps the trickiest part of this reinvention is changing who Mr. Romney is when he steps out from behind the lectern and wades into a roomful of voters: a cautious chief executive who is uneasy with off-the-cuff remarks, unnatural at chitchat and spare with his emotions.

At coffee shops and veterans’ halls, on sidewalks and factory tours, the reworked version, it turns out, is not all that different from the original.

A close-up study of Mr. Romney’s casual interactions with voters captures a candidate who can be efficient, funny and self-deprecating, yet often strains to connect in a personal way.

Even those who praise his style after meeting him sometimes do so in ways that feel backhanded: “I don’t mind stiff and formal,” said Holly Sirois, who spoke to Mr. Romney a few days ago at a pizza shop in Newport, N.H.  “I don’t want the guy sitting in the backyard drinking beers with his buddies. I want my president to act presidential.”

Mr. Romney has plenty of moments when he wins positive reactions and some when he seems to make a genuine link, undercutting his caricature as robotic. And he is hardly giving up on mastering the art of the soft sell: he personally insisted on spending more hours talking to voters this election and fewer sequestered in his Boston headquarters. The calculation may prove crucial in a year when a procession of rivals — Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — has roused the Republican base with colorful personalities and dynamic speaking styles.

The informal, humanizing interactions are so essential to the campaign’s image that Mr. Romney has scheduled back-to-back bus tours in New Hampshire and Iowa, the latest of which began here in Davenport on Tuesday, crammed with events like Coffee with Mitt, Pizza with Mitt and Spaghetti with Mitt.

“No one is an expert at it when they first do it,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, who has watched him ring hundreds of doorbells over the years. “There has been an improvement over time, just as you would expect.”

Here is a guide to Mr. Romney’s habits and quirks on the campaign trail:

For a candidate who is exceedingly risk-averse, Mr. Romney has developed an unlikely penchant for trying to puzzle out everything from voters’ personal relationships to their ancestral homelands.

“Sisters?” he asked. (Nope, stepmother and stepdaughter.) “Your husband?” he wondered. (No, just a friend from the neighborhood.) “Mother and daughter?” he guessed. (Cousins, actually.)

The results can be awkward. “Daughter?” he asked a woman sitting with a man and two younger girls at the diner in Tilton, N.H., on Friday morning. Her face turned a shade of red. “Wife.”

Oh, Mr. Romney said. “It was a compliment, I guess,” said the woman, Janelle Batchelder, 31. “At the same time, it was possibly an insult.”
Countries of origin are another Romney favorite. When a man in Bethlehem, N.H., stood and introduced himself as Randall Loiacono, Mr. Romney asked, “Now, is that a Northern European name?”

“Sicilian,” Mr. Loiacono said, before standing and spelling his name at Mr. Romney’s request.

Mr. Romney relishes meeting young voters and rarely misses an opportunity to guess their age.
“What are you, about 9, 10?” Mr. Romney asked a young boy, shaking his gloved hand in a parking lot in Lancaster, N.H. “Seven,” the boy’s mom said.

When another boy corrected Mr. Romney a few campaign stops later (he was 12, not 14), his aides burst into laughter at the familiar mistake. Mr. Fehrnstrom called his boss’s frequent questions “an icebreaker.”

“It’s better than going around and trying to guess people’s weight,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s safe.”

Mr. Romney likes to congratulate people. For what, exactly, is not always clear.

“Congratulations,” he told a grandmother at an event on Thursday night, presumably because she had a large brood.

Over three consecutive days last week, he congratulated a girl who said she was attending college, a woman who said she owned a small business and a mother who said she was going back to school. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed upon learning that a woman had three children.

Every candidate has default greetings, of course, standard lines that can be trotted out almost mindlessly, day after day, hour after hour, room after room.

“Good to see you,” Mr. Romney says.

“Hey, buddy, how are you?”

“Thanks for being here.”

Sometimes, when a voter brandishes a camera, his greetings become more elaborate: “Hi, there. You know how to make that work? Ha-ha.”

Mr. Romney, never much of a hugger or backslapper, stands with his hands straight down at his waist, tilting forward ever so slightly and turning from side to side as he searches for the next hand to shake or poster to sign.

In Bedford, N.H., he turned to find a man who proudly told him, “You already have my vote.” It was the kind of comment that might normally elicit an expression of gratitude, or an inquiry into the voter’s background.

Mr. Romney replied, “Well, that’s good.”

Dodging the Question
Few candidates are as deft as Mr. Romney at genially brushing off unwelcome queries and comments.

In Bedford, N.H., a woman walked up to him after a speech and declared: “I have a lot friends who say you are the robotic type. And I am like, no, you need to stay that way because you are a leader.”

Mr. Romney’s mouth arched into a somewhat pained smile as he rushed to conclude the conversation. “Nice to see you guys,” he said as he walked away.

A few moments later, a voter named David Rivers asked Mr. Romney whether there would be place for Mr. Paul, a Texas congressman, in a Romney White House. Mr. Romney treated the question as a joke, letting out a laugh and walking on by.

“I was actually kind of serious,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview afterward.

Sometimes Mr. Romney will engage in a back-and-forth with tough questioners; in Concord, N.H., a woman told him that she favored socialized medicine. “I’ve got someone for you,” Mr. Romney said. “His name is Barack Obama. He agrees with you. Ha-ha.”

Finding a Connection
Mr. Romney’s fascination with arcane, technical information can occasionally leave voters scratching their heads.

When he mentioned his hotel’s LEED designation — an imprimatur of energy efficiency — to the woman in Keene, N.H., she acknowledged that she had no idea what it meant. “Is it something to do with being green?” she asked after he had moved on.

But his inner wonk has at times endeared him to potential supporters, as it did at a farm supply store in Lancaster, when Mr. Romney began discussing the intricacies of cow milk with Jessica Hebert, an Obama voter who was at the store.

Mr. Romney delved deeply into the topic, with real curiosity and a barrage of questions, after Ms. Hebert, who has shown dairy cows, explained that a prize animal produced about 100 pounds of milk a day. He began a series of rapid-fire calculations to determine how many gallons are in a pound: “Eight-point-three pounds per gallon. So 8 into 100 is going to be about 13, 14, gallons. Oh, 12 — there you go.”

He beamed with satisfaction at solving the puzzle — and Ms. Hebert said she liked what she had heard.

“That is a lot of milk,” Mr. Romney said.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Eyes without a face

Photo-illustration by Darrow 

Who in God’s Name Is Mitt Romney?

His greatest passion is something he’s determined to keep secret.

By Frank Rich

Back in the thick of the 2008 Republican presidential race, I asked a captain of American finance what he had made of Mitt Romney when they were young colleagues at Bain & Company. “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player,” he ­responded without missing a beat. Then came the CEO’s one footnote, delivered with bemusement, not pique: “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”

Here we are in 2012, and nothing has changed. What Romney’s former colleague observed of the young Mitt at close range decades ago could stand as the judgment of most Americans watching him at a cable-news remove now. That’s why his campaign has so often been on the ropes. That’s why, in a highly polarized nation, the belief that Romney is a phony may be among the very last convictions still bringing left, right, and center together. As a focus-group participant evocatively told pollster Peter Hart in November, Romney reminded him of the “dad who’s never home.” Nonetheless, this phantom has spent most of the campaign as the “presumed” front-runner for his party’s nomination. Amazingly, this conventional wisdom held up throughout 2011, even though 75 percent of Romney’s own party was searching so frantically for an alternative that Donald Trump enjoyed a nanosecond bump in the polls.

Now much of the 75 percent has identified the non-Mitt candidate who really does express where the GOP is today. Newt Gingrich is proud to stir a dollop of race into the vitriol he hurls at Barack Obama, “the food-stamp president.” He’s a human Vesuvius at spewing populist anger at all elites; attacks by the press or by Republican Establishment talking heads like Karl Rove and Joe Scarborough only make him stronger. And unlike any other GOP leader, he can boast that he actually realized the tea party’s goal of shutting the government down. The morning after Newt shut Mitt down in South Carolina, Rich Lowry, the editor of the pro-Mitt, anti-Newt National Review, channeled the horror of GOP grandees everywhere. “If Romney can’t right himself,” he wrote, then “every major elected Republican in the country will panic” and “every unlikely scenario to get another candidate in the race will be explored.” The names once again being floated—Mitch Daniels! Jeb Bush! Paul Ryan! Bobby Jindal!—have not been known to raise the pulse rate of anyone beyond the 25 percent of the GOP embodied by elite conservative pundits in Washington and New York.

What’s more likely is that the party’s panicked Establishment, and its Wall Street empire, will succeed in their push to crush Gingrich and prop up Romney in any way they can. They still see Mitt as the best available front man for the radical party the Republicans have become—the dutiful Eagle Scout who can hold down the fort as the right’s self-styled revolutionary rabble threaten to overwhelm today’s GOP elites the way the Goldwater insurgents once did Nelson Rockefeller and Romney’s father, George. Some of the same Beltway types who have reinforced Mitt’s presumed victory march since last summer believe he can be rebooted for the fall merely with some stern course correction.

As this narrative has it, Americans are at least comfortable with old, familiar Mitt—heaven knows he’s been running long enough. He may be a bore and a flip-­flopper, but he doesn’t frighten the ­horses. His steady sobriety will win the day once the lunatic Newt has finished blowing himself up. As one prominent Romney surrogate, the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, has it, Romney is “the most vetted candidate out there.” Maybe—if you assume there will be no more questions about Bain, the Cayman Islands, the expunged internal records from Romney’s term as governor, or his pre-2010 tax returns. Or about the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October: Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But you can also construct an alternative narrative—that the vetting has barely even begun, and that the “Mitt Romney” we’ve been sold since 2008 is a lazy media construct, a fictional creation, or maybe even a hoax.

For four years now, Republicans have been demonizing Barack Obama for his alleged “otherness”—trashing him as a less-than-real American pushing “anti-colonial,” socialist, and possibly Islamist ideas gleaned from a rogue’s gallery of subversive influences led by his Kenyan father, Saul Alinsky, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And yet Romney is in some ways more exotic and more removed from “real America” than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow. He can come across like an android who’s been computer-­generated to be the perfect genial candidate. When forced to interact with actual people, he tries hard, but his small talk famously takes the form of guessing a voter’s age or nationality (usually incorrectly) or offering a greeting of “Congratulations!” for no particular reason. Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times. Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.

Next: “A man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes but past them.”
That missing human core, that inauthenticity and inability to connect, has been a daily complaint about Romney. To flesh out the brief, critics usually turn to his blatant political opportunism and rarefied upbringing—his history of ideological about-faces and his cakewalk as the prep-school-­burnished, Harvard-educated son of a fabled auto executive. But the hollowness of Romney is not merely a function of his craven surrender to the rightward tilt of the modern GOP or the patrician blind spots he acquired at too many fancy schools and palatial country clubs. If that were the case, he’d pass for another Bush, and receive some of the love that Bush father and son earned from the party faithful in their salad days. Some think he can get there by learning better performance skills: As Chuck Todd of NBC News put it, he “has to learn how to connect, how to speak emotionally … more from the heart.” If Nixon could learn how to sell himself in 1968 under the tutelage of Roger Ailes, and Bush 41 could receive coaching from the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in 1980, there might still be hope for Romney under the instruction of, say, Kelsey Grammer. But Romney is too odd, too much a mystery man. We don’t know his history the way we did Nixon’s and Bush’s. His otherness seems not a matter of style and pedigree but existential.

We don’t know who Romney is for the simple reason that he never reveals who he is. Even when he is not lying about his history—whether purporting to have been “a hunter pretty much all my life” (in 2007) or to being a denizen of “the real streets of America” (in 2012)—he is incredibly secretive about almost everything that makes him tick. He has been in hiding throughout his stints in both the private and public sectors. While his career-long refusal to release his tax returns was damaging in itself, it resonated even more so as a proxy for all the other secrets he has kept and still keeps.

Just as Republican caucus votes were being (re-)counted in Iowa, the first serious and thorough Romney biography was published, to deservedly favorable reviews. The authors, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, are Boston Globe investigative reporters who have tracked him for years. Their book, The Real Romney, is manifestly fair and nonpartisan, giving him full credit for his drive and smarts as a pioneer in the entrepreneurial realm of private equity. But it’s a measure of how much voters view Romney as a nonentity that they have shown so little interest in reading it. Not even a rave in the Times the week before the South Carolina primary could catapult The Real Romney into the top 500 of the Amazon list, despite the serious possibility that its protagonist could be the next president of the United States.

The book has no bombshells, and the very lack of them is revealing. For all the encyclopedic detail its authors amassed, and all the sources they mined, their subject remains impenetrable. “A wall. A shell. A mask,” they write at the outset, listing the terms used by many who “have known or worked with Romney” and view him as “a man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes but past them.” Former business and political colleagues are in agreement that he has scant interest in mingling with people in even casual social interactions (in a hallway, for instance) and displays “little desire to know who people are.” He so “rarely went out with the guys in any social venue” that one business associate dubbed him the Tin Man for “his inability to bond.” During his one term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was inaccessible to legislators, with ropes and elevator settings often restricting access to his suite of offices. He was notorious, one lawmaker explained, for having “no idea what our names were—none.” A longtime Republican, after watching Romney’s vacuous, failed senatorial campaign against Teddy Kennedy in 1994, came to the early conclusion that Mitt’s “main cause appeared to be himself.” This was borne out in 2006, when Romney spent more than 200 days out of Massachusetts ginning up a presidential run rather than attending to his duties as the state’s chief executive.

Aside from his ability to build Bain Capital and pile up profits there, Romney has remarkably few visible accomplishments to show for his 64 years. He can’t prove that he actually generated any jobs as a venture capitalist (beyond those at Bain itself), which is why he constantly revises the number of jobs he claims to have created (or, as he carefully hedges it, “helped create”). His sole achievement as governor was the Massachusetts prototype for the Obama health-care law—a feat he now alternately fudges or runs away from. The state’s record of job creation on his watch was the fourth worst of the 50 states.

Next: How faith is key to the Romney mystery.
Known for being frugal to a fault, Romney does not seem to particularly relish spending his fortune. He likes data, and his piles of dollars seem to be mainly markers to keep score of his success. Though he now tries to wrap himself in Main Street brands like Staples and Domino’s Pizza that passed through Bain’s clutches, he was not intellectually or managerially engaged in the businesses that Bain bought and sold; he didn’t run any of them. He seems to have no cultural passions beyond his and his wife’s first-date movie, The Sound of Music. He is not a sportsman or conspicuous sports fan. His only real, nonnumerical passions seem to be his photogenic, intact family, which he wields like a weapon whenever an opponent with multiple marriages like John McCain or Gingrich looms into view—and, of course, his faith.

That faith is key to the Romney mystery. Had the 2002 Winter Olympics not been held in Salt Lake City, and not been a major civic project of Mormon leaders there, it’s unlikely Romney would have gotten involved. (Whether his involvement actually prompted a turnaround of that initially troubled enterprise, as he claims, is a subject of debate.) But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns. When the Evangelical view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult threatened his 2008 run, Romney delivered what his campaign hyped as a JFK-inspired speech on “Faith in America.” This otherwise forgotten oration was memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once.

In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to “the same church.” But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. Which leaves him unable to talk about the very subject he seems to care about most, a lifelong source of spiritual, familial, and intellectual sustenance. We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

His campaign is intent on enforcing the redaction of his religion, not least, one imagines, because a Gallup poll found that 22 percent in both parties say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. (Only 5 percent admit feeling that way about an African-American.) A senior adviser explained the strategy of deflecting any discussion of Romney’s Mormon life to Politico: “Someone takes a shot at the governor’s faith, we put a scarlet letter on them, RB, religious bigot.” Good luck with that. Like Romney’s evasions about his private finances, his conspicuous cone of silence about this major pillar of his biography also leaves you wondering what he is trying to hide. That his faith can be as secretive as he is—Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend the religious ceremony consecrating her marriage to Mitt—only whets the curiosity among the 82 percent of Americans who tell pollsters they know little or nothing about Mormonism.

Weeks before his death, Christopher Hitchens, no more a fan of LDS than of any other denomination, wrote that “we are fully entitled” to ask Romney about the role of his religion in influencing his political formation. Of course we are. Romney is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an ­American-born faith that has played a large role in the public square. Since his youthful stint as a missionary, he has served LDS in a variety of significant posts. The answers to questions about Romney’s career as a lay church official may tell us more about who he is than his record at Bain, his sparse tenure as governor, or his tax returns.

The questions are not theological. Nor are they about polygamy, the scandalous credo that earlier Romneys practiced even after the church banned it in 1890. Rather, the questions are about the Mormon church’s political actions during Mitt Romney’s lifetime—and about what role Romney, as both a leader and major donor, might have played or is still playing in those actions. To ask these questions is not to be a religious bigot but to vet a candidate for the nation’s highest job. Given how often Romney himself cites his faith as a defining force in his life, voters have a right to know what role he played when his faith intersected with the secular lives of his fellow citizens.

Next: Why Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president.
As we learn in The Real Romney, Mitt Romney has performed many admirable acts of charity for members of his church in dire straits. But the flip side of this hands-on engagement is whether, in his various positions in the church, he countenanced or enforced its discriminatory treatment of blacks and women, practices it only started to end in earnest well after he had entered adulthood. It wasn’t until 1978, when he was in his thirties, that blacks were given full status in his church—an embarrassing fact that Romney tried to finesse in his last campaign by speaking emotionally on Meet the Press of seeing his father join Martin Luther King on a civil-rights march. (The Boston Phoenix would soon report that this was another lie about his past.) In the seventies, Romney’s church also applied its institutional muscle to battling the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women. And these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans. Its actions led Stuart Matis, a faithful graduate of Brigham Young University who’d completed his missionary service, to commit suicide on the steps of a Mormon chapel in 2000 in anguished protest of his dehumanized status within his religion. Unchastened, the Mormon church enlisted its congregants to put over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Mormons contributed more than $20 million to the effort and constituted an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the campaign’s original volunteers. Romney, who endorsed gay rights when running as a moderate against Kennedy in 1994, has swung so far in the other direction that he ridiculed gay couples when pandering to South Carolina Republicans a few years ago. (“Some are actually having children born to them!” he said with horror.) Did some of his yet undivulged Mormon philanthropy support the Prop 8 campaign?

Even if these questions yield benign answers, we know that Romney’s faith has contributed to his self-segregation from the actual “real streets of America.” His closest circle comes from within his faith, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the fact remains that today the American Mormon population is still only 1 percent black. (Those recent television promo spots marketing LDS as a fount of diversity are a smoke screen.) Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as “not very much” (to take just one recent example of his cluelessness about how the other 99 percent lives), so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll. When he’s forced to interact with the America beyond his hermetically sealed Mormon orbit, we get instant YouTube classics like his attempt to get down and rap with black voters on Martin Luther King Day four years ago by quoting “Who Let the Dogs Out?

Given Romney’s maladroitness as a retail politician, the failure of even his own fans to convey any enthusiasm for him, and the 75 percent of his party that questions his conservatism, it’s hard to fathom how he kept being judged inevitable by so many observers just as he was losing two of the first three election-year contests. Even a normally hardheaded, data-driven analyst like the Times’ poll maven Nate Silver couldn’t resist being swept up by this narrative, going beyond the numbers to write in a January 16 post that the 90 percent odds given a Romney nomination by the betting market Intrade “may if anything be too conservative.” (Six days later, after South Carolina, Silver wrote, “Perhaps, then, there is profound resistance among Republican voters to nominating Mr. Romney after all.”) Much of the Romney inflation, naturally, has to do with his good fortune in having such a splintered and screwy scrum of opponents. Often we’re told that he “looks like a president” (that would be a pre-Obama president). We also hear constantly about his message discipline, his organization, and his money—attributes that matter more to political consultants and the pundits who pal around with them than to an angry electorate trying to dig out of a recession. To the political class, Romney is the most electable candidate because his mealy-mouthed blandness is what will lure that much-apotheosized yet indistinct band of moderates and independents to his side. But as Michael Kinsley long ago joked that Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, so Mitt Romney is a political hack’s idea of an electable conservative president. Voters may have another view, and certainly did in South Carolina, where exit polls found that those who most valued a candidate’s electability rallied to Newt.

But if the power of Mitt’s money and the power of pack journalism helped contribute to his status as indestructible, the power of denial at the higher reaches of the GOP did even more so. The Republican Establishment has been adamant in insisting that economic populism and class warfare do not infect their own ranks, and that economic inequality is strictly a lefty and Democratic gripe. If that’s the case, then Romney’s strong identification with the one percent stigmatized by Occupy Wall Street would indeed present no problem. But a January Pew poll found that a majority of both Republicans and Independents now join Democrats in feeling that there are “strong conflicts” between the rich and poor in America; a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey found that Republican voters were just as likely as Democrats to blame “Wall Street bankers” most of all for the country’s economic problems. It’s hardly a stretch that some of that blame might attach itself to Romney, especially after Gingrich turned a spotlight on his Bain résumé.

Next: “This race is getting to be even more interesting.”
When the battle over Bain broke out in New Hampshire, both the Romney campaign and the right were blindsided. “Perhaps the most striking thing about the current fight over Mitt Romney’s career in private equity is how little we knew about it,” wrote Byron York, the conservative columnist at the Washington Examiner, adding that Romney’s “business experience has not been the topic of long and detailed public examination and debate.” He, like many of his cohort in the Fox echo chamber, seemed unaware that Romney’s Bain record has been debated for nearly two decades, starting with his 1994 battle with Kennedy (who engaged “truth squads” of downsized workers from a midwestern Bain-owned company to stalk Romney). That record has been examined repeatedly by mainstream journalists ever since.

Even as the Republican Establishment continues to prop up Mitt, it remains in denial about his long-term prospects. Romney rationalizers argue that Gingrich’s blunderbuss assault on Bain was a blessing in disguise, for it will force Romney to come up with an airtight defense before the fall. But Romney has been trying since 1994 to formulate answers to questions about his Bain career, his vast wealth, and his leadership role in his church. If he hasn’t found them by now, it’s because he doesn’t have them. And so his preferred route has been just to avoid tough questions altogether—and confrontation in general—by sticking to manicured campaign events as immaculate as his Brooks Brothers shirts. He tries to shun mainstream-news-organization interviews, and dropped the “Ask Mitt Anything” sessions with voters that were a staple of his 2008 campaign. Even straightforward interviews with sympathetic interlocutors like Fox News’s Bret Baier and the radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham throw him into a tizzy, if not a hissy fit. Remarkably, he received high marks for months for his steady demeanor and discipline in the Republican debates, but as we now know, all it takes is a tough question about his own biography to prompt a stammering answer and robotic herky-jerky head movements suggestive of a human-size Pez dispenser. His belated efforts to go on the attack against Gingrich often make him sound like an adolescent tattletale. In Romney’s best debate, last Thursday, he was still outshone by the also-ran Rick Santorum.

To escape the twin taints of Bain and his one-percenter’s under–15 percent tax rate, some Republican elders are urging Romney to “stake his campaign on something larger and far more important than his own business expertise” (The Wall Street Journal editorial page) or, as Fred Barnes suggested more baldly, to find “a bigger idea to deflect attention from Bain.” But even Mitt’s own spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, once described him (to the Des Moines Register) as “not a very notional leader.” Romney is incapable of an arresting turn of phrase, let alone a fresh idea. Running on empty, he resorts to filling out his canned campaign orations with lengthy recitations of the lyrics from patriotic anthems. (“Believe in America” is his campaign slogan.) Take away the bogus boasts about “job creation” at Bain and the disowned Romneycare, and what else is there to Mitt Romney? Mainly, his unspecified service to his church and his perfect marriage. That reduces him to the stature of the Republican presidential candidate he most resembles, Thomas Dewey—in both his smug and wooden campaign style and in the overrating of his prospects by the political culture. Even the famously dismissive description of Dewey popularized by the Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth—as “the little man on the wedding cake”—seems to fit Mitt.

No Republican has ever won the nomination after losing the South Carolina primary. No incumbent president since FDR has won reelection with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent on Election Day, and ours currently stands at 8.5 percent. No candidate with a 58 percent disapproval rating—especially Newt—is likely to win a national election, even for dogcatcher. But surely someone has to be nominated by the Republicans, and someone has to win in November.

“This race is getting to be even more interesting,” said Romney when conceding to Gingrich in South Carolina. As always, it’s impossible to know whether he really meant what he said or not, but this much is certain: He will continue to be the least interesting thing about it.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Published: Thursday, July 5, 2007 12:09 a.m. MDT
In March 1999, Mitt Romney strode into the corner office of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance president David D'Alessandro, seeking help from one of the leading sponsors of the Olympics — and urging him to renew his faith in the 2002 Salt Lake Games despite its taint of scandal.

Romney had decided to gamble his future on the chance to save the 2002 Winter Games. Tapped by Utah's governor to step in as chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which had embarrassed itself by lavishing gifts on International Olympics executives to get the Games, Romney portrayed his decision as an act of charity.

He had "won the lottery" through his work at Bain Capital, Romney told reporters. Now, he made clear, it was time to give something back to his country and to a city inextricably tied to his beloved church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

But standing in D'Alessandro's office on the 59th floor of the Hancock Tower, with miles of Massachusetts sprawling beneath him, Romney offered a more personal reason for taking on the Olympic challenge. Having been defeated in his Senate race against Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Romney knew his political future hung on the fate of the Games.

"If this doesn't work, I can come back to private life, but I won't be anything anymore in public life," he confided, according to D'Alessandro.

Thus began an experience that cemented Romney's reputation as a "turnaround artist" — a manager so competent that he could turn deficits into surpluses and who might one day be able to guide the nation. Romney would run the Games with a strong hand, personally lobbying business leaders such as D'Alessandro to maintain their Olympic contributions and helping bring new financial backers on board. Along the way, he managed to remove the stink of scandal and replace it with the glow of success.

"Through an extraordinary effort by Mitt Romney and the staff he put together, they not only avoided a very difficult time for the Olympics, but put on the greatest Winter Games I have ever seen," said William Hybl, then the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But Romney's other agenda — buffing his own image for a political career — was never far from the surface, according to many former associates.

The man who was famous at Bain Capital for letting others take the credit suddenly was giving his permission for a series of Olympics promotional buttons bearing his own likeness, accompanied by slogans like "Hey, Mitt, we love you!" and "Are we there yet, Mitt?" There was even a superhero pin depicting Romney draped in an American flag.

His determination to present himself as a white knight came at a cost: Some colleagues now say he magnified the extent of the Olympics committee's fiscal distress, risked some possible conflicts of interest among board members and shunted aside other people whose work had been instrumental in promoting the Games.

"Mitt could have been a hero if he had just come in and been polite," said Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former Salt Lake City Council member and a longtime critic of Romney. "What turned me sour was his demand to get all the credit and ignore everybody who put in thousands and thousands of hours before he arrived."

That day in March 1999, the success of the Games was far from assured. Scanning the memorabilia in D'Alessandro's office, Romney sought inspiration from a signed copy of a memoir by Winston Churchill, the British statesman who epitomized resolve in the face of grave threats.

Taking over the Olympics would be Romney's personal crucible.

"He had done what he wanted to do in business and was looking to leapfrog into the world of public service," said Robert Garff, the chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, who has known Romney since childhood. "This was the thing he could do to propel himself into the national spotlight, which I believe was all part of his overarching plan of his life."

A tainted prize

Romney communicated his intention to take full command of the Olympics on his first day on the job in February 1999. A century and a half after his ancestors trudged through Emigration Canyon to help pioneer the valley as a land of the righteous, Romney arrived in a cheerless ballroom in a Salt Lake City hotel. Immediately, he raised a rhetorical scythe at the trustees of the scandal-tainted organizing committee.

"There is no justification for compromising integrity," Romney warned the 53-member board. "I will expect that if any of you casts a shadow on the Games, even where no wrong may have been done, you will stand immediately aside."

It mattered little that Romney lacked any Olympic experience. A week earlier, he had received "a 101 course in the Olympics" from Andy Baldwin, then vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Romney learned about the three factions that had been created to serve the world's finest athletes: the USOC, the International Olympic Committee, and the local organizing committee. The groups had all but destroyed one another in a convulsion of territorial infighting.

Much of the damage seemed to stem from decisions made by two previous executives on the Salt Lake City organizing committee, chief executive Thomas K. Welch and vice president David P. Johnson, who embraced the tacit form of influence peddling that greased the international selection process former Olympic sites.

After Salt Lake City lost its bid for the 1998 Games to Nagano, Japan, Welch and Johnson concluded they had failed to lavish enough largess on members of the IOC, which chooses host cities. While Nagano had plied IOC members with about $540,000 worth of souvenirs, including laptop computers, Salt Lake City had handed out little more than cowboy hats.

Vowing not to be defeated again, Welch and Johnson funneled through the committee more than $1 million in gifts to numerous IOC delegates for the 2002 Games — a stunning trove of booty that included cash, college tuition, medical-care payments, jobs, lodging, beds and bedding, bathroom fixtures, Indian rugs, draperies, doorknobs, dogs, leather boots and belts, perfume, Nintendo games, Lego toys, shotguns, a violin and trips to ski resorts, Las Vegas and a Super Bowl in Miami. Almost no request from an IOC member went unmet.

Then came the comeuppance. After Salt Lake City won its bid for the Games, a local ABC affiliate received a news tip about college tuition payments the organizing committee had made for the daughter of an IOC delegate from Cameroon. Soon, investigations were launched by the U.S. Justice Department, Congress, Utah's attorney general, the USOC, the IOC and the Salt Lake committee.

Shamed by the scandal — in which 10 members of the International Olympic Committee would resign or be expelled for accepting gifts, the Olympics chiefs wanted a Salt Lake CEO wise in the ways of business, the law and Mormonism.

They fast settled on Romney, whose ties to the state ran deeper than his ancestral roots. Romney had visited Utah as a child, married his wife, Ann, at the great LDS temple in Salt Lake City, and attended Brigham Young University in Provo, where two of his sons were enrolled at the time. Ann, struggling with her recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis, was finding some relief in the mountain air of Park City, Utah, where she and Mitt had just built a magnificent vacation home, now assessed at $5.2 million.

"He had high credentials in and out of the church," said Garff, a member of one of the church's presiding councils, the Quorums of the Seventy, and a former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. "It would have been a disaster if we just picked a stranger and they didn't understand the mores of this community."

Anxiety in LDS role

Almost as soon as Romney took the job, however, the LDS Church's role in the Games became a source of contention — a dispute exacerbated by Romney's request for an additional $8 million in loaned property and cash from the church, among other contributions.

With Romney having been chosen in part because of his LDS credentials, some people in Utah — including some LDS leaders —feared that the church could be the next target of scandal-mongers.

After all, the church had played a significant role in the Olympic movement. In a state where nearly every political leader and an estimated 70 percent of the population was LDS, President Gordon B. Hinckley made no secret that he viewed the Games as a vehicle to fulfill pioneer Brigham Young's prophesy that Salt Lake City would "become the great highway of the nations."

"Kings and emperors and the noble and the wise of the Earth will visit us here," Hinckley said, quoting Young.

Church leaders had traveled the world with the Salt Lake City organizing committee. Documents in Garff's archives at the University of Utah show church officials recommended employees to the organizers, commented on committee policies, and sought direct public relations benefits from the Games. An LDS leader, Elder Robert Hales, also met privately with an NBC executive in New York to offer the church's cooperation in the television presentation of the Games.

Romney's initial decisions, including the request for greater church contributions and the hiring of another prominent Mormon as his top assistant, Fraser Bullock, a former colleague at Bain & Co. who now serves in the church's Quorums of the Seventy, made some people anxious.

Utah's wealthiest businessman, Jon Huntsman Sr., the father of Utah's current governor, assailed Romney for exploiting his ties to the church. Huntsman himself is prominent in the LDS Church.

"'We've got a chairman who is active LDS, now we've got a present CEO who is active LDS," Huntsman was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying of Garff and Romney. "They claim they're going out (to) really scour the world to find the best person, and Mitt brings in one of his cronies to be the COO. Another broken promise. Because we've got three LDS folks who are all cronies. Cronyism at its peak. ... These are not the Mormon Games."

Huntsman, who later made peace with Romney and now serves on his campaign finance committee, did not respond to interview requests.

Wary of appearing to dominate the Games, church leaders asked Romney to scale back his requests for aid, which he did. They also curbed their ambitions to use the Games to promote awareness of Mormonism — with a few exceptions, among them a book one of the church's publishing companies released for the Games, "Why I Believe," in which the Romneys joined about 50 other prominent Mormons in expressing their religious faith.

"It all worked out beautifully after the church backed off and the prophet (Hinckley) said we won't have any missionaries on the streets proselytizing," Garff said.

Crunching numbers

Behind Romney's funding request to the church was a larger concern about the budget for the Games.

Three years shy of the opening ceremonies at the University of Utah's hillside stadium, Romney inherited a $1.45 billion budget. Then Romney crunched the numbers and concluded that the trustees needed to raise more than $400 million to cover the budget. He cast the challenge as a monumental crisis, one that would require extraordinary efforts from everyone involved.

"We could be liquidated by our creditors and shamed," Romney told then-Gov. Michael Leavitt, according to Romney's memoir, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games."

Fund-raising had stalled as companies feared becoming enmeshed in the scandal. Sponsors had retreated, scared off in part by D'Alessandro, who told reporters that any chief executive who signed sponsorships without reforms in the Olympic movement "should be fired."

"The best way I can describe what (Romney) faced is, trying to rebuild an airplane while it's flying," D'Alessandro said.

Romney trimmed the budget to $1.32 billion, launched marketing campaigns and established an austerity program whose symbolic features included abolishing free lunches for the trustees. In lieu of grand buffets, Romney ordered Domino's pizza and required board members to pay $1 a slice, plus 25 cents per soda.

While Romney's moves energized the committee, some people familiar with the budget insist his dire forecasts were overstated. A Globe review of archived records showed the organizing committee already had secured commitments of nearly $1 billion in revenues, including $445 million as its share of the NBC contract and nearly $450 million in contracts for sponsorships, before Romney arrived.

In addition, the Utah Legislature already had loaned $59 million in sales tax revenue to the Games and Congress was prepared to provide hundreds of millions in direct support. Direct federal aid for the Games ultimately totaled $382 million.

"In fact, most of the federal money was already in place before Mitt came on," said Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican who supports Romney and served as point man for the federal funding. "The Clinton administration was completely supportive in saying these are America's Games, we will do whatever we can to make sure they are successful. The one concern I had was whether we would get the same degree of support from the Bush administration, which we did."

Romney has since touted his economic rescue of the Games as a hallmark of leadership: "The tsunami of financial, banking, legal, government, morale, and sponsor problems following the revelation of the bid scandal swamped the organization. It was the most troubled turnaround I had ever seen," Romney wrote in his book.

But he failed to convince even some key members of the organizing committee that the budget was in peril.

"Yes, we were out of balance, but we had (three) years to organize that," said Garff, the chairman. "In my mind, there was no sense of panic."

Fixing balance

Even if the finances were fixable, there were real doubts about how to fix the reputation of the Games — and of Salt Lake City.

Romney moved quickly to remove the taint of the scandal, partly by blaming his predecessor, Welch, and by suggesting there had been only a few bad apples on the organizing committee.

Welch and his legal team held an opposing view. Facing bribery charges punishable by up to 75 years in prison, Welch said everyone involved in the process, including Leavitt, knew favors were being given to members of the international selection committee.

Romney joined Leavitt in insisting the organizing committee was the victim in the case. Prosecutors alleged that Welch and Johnson and a few cohorts had defrauded the committee of more than $1 million in gifts given to IOC delegates.

"We amassed significant, undeniable information that everybody involved in the process was knowledgeable about what was going on, all the way to the governor's office," insisted Max Wheeler, one of the defense attorneys.

"The governor could have stopped (the prosecution) in the very beginning if he had just said, 'Look, this is the way the game was played. We knew about it and maybe we went overboard, but it's just like what goes on in every other bid city.' The whole case would have gone away because there would have been no victim. But the governor denied everything."

Leavitt, now U.S. secretary of health and human services, declined to discuss specifics of the case.

"I don't want to go into it in a lot of detail because it resurrects a lot of old history," Leavitt said. "I wish I or others had known (about the alleged improprieties) and if others did know I wish they would have acted sooner."

Romney went so far as to encourage Welch to accept a plea bargain for the good of the Games, angering those in the community who believed Welch and Johnson had not acted alone and were unfairly targeted. Romney's request looked even worse when a federal judge threw out all 15 felony charges for insufficient evidence and praised Welch and Johnson's contributions to the Games.

"I can only imagine the heartache, the disappointment, the sorrow that you and your loved ones suffered through this terrible ordeal, "U.S. District Judge David Sam said, according to a court transcript. "My hope is that you will now be appropriately recognized and honored for your efforts."

Yet Romney had stigmatized Welch and Johnson, including barring their names from appearing with more than 20,000 other committee staffers and volunteers on a Wall of Honor at the city's Olympic Legacy Plaza.

"Mitt's objective was to look as good as he could," Welch said. "He showed a mean side as well as a competent side."

Romney angered lawyers on both sides of the case after the charges were dismissed by continuing to express doubt about Welch's innocence and describing the federal prosecutors in his book as "inept."

"Mitt Romney, as far as I know, was never in the courtroom, didn't review any of the evidence, and never asked the prosecutors for a summary of their case," said Richard Wiedis, the government's chief prosecutor. "I don't see how he was in a position to make a judgment as to the competence of the prosecution team."

Making the sale

As a businessman, however, Romney knew that nothing was more important than regaining the trust of potential sponsors. Raising money, and fast, was more important than winning court sanctions of Welch and Johnson.

Romney cast himself as the anti-Welch, the clean businessman who would restore integrity to the Games. Thus, the Olympics became a showcase for Romney's entrepreneurial abilities.

He personally won over D'Alessandro and then criss-crossed the country in helping to reap more than $300 million in additional sponsorships. Prohibited from soliciting companies in marketing categories that already had been claimed — Pepsi could not sponsor the Games, for instance, because Coca-Cola already had committed — Romney created more than 20 new categories, including an official Olympic cake mix (General Mills) and official meat (Certified Angus Beef).

"I have no doubt whatsoever, as the representative of the chief investor in the Salt Lake City Olympics, that Mitt Romney was single-handedly responsible for those Games being the immense success they were," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. "The list of people who could have pulled it off began and ended with Mitt Romney."

But despite his overall insistence on high ethical standards, Romney himself risked the appearance of conflicts by soliciting companies such as Staples and Marriott International that listed him on their boards of directors. As a director, he was responsible for protecting the companies' interests; as CMO of the organizing committee, he had promised to get the best deal for the Olympics.

Romney dismisses any conflict. "It is not a conflict of interest for the Olympics for its chief executive to be soliciting sponsorships from anyone I could find," he said in an e-mailed follow-up to an interview. "That was my job — to use every personal association I had to raise money."

To be sure, Romney's entanglements were nothing like those of the trustees who resigned when he took over, including Alan Layton, whose construction company received a $29 million contract from the organizing committee, and Earl Holding, whose ski area signed a $13.8 million dean with the committee.

But Romney did allow some trustees whose companies engaged in relatively small business with the committee to remain on the board.

"They removed the people who were the poster children for conflicts of interest," said Glenn Bailey, a leader of Salt Lake Impact 2002 and Beyond, a coalition of community groups. "But they still had conflicts."

Romney tolerated little dissent from trustees who aggressively questioned his decisions. While his many admirers in Salt Lake City viewed him as pristine, amiable and self-effacing, he developed an alternate image among a group of dissenters: petty, vindictive and self-aggrandizing.

His chief foe was Ken Bullock — no relation to Romney's friend and COO Fraser Bullock. Ken Bullock served on the organizing committee and also was executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. Bullock believed his job with the league made him an official watchdog for the state's $59 million investment.

"He tried very hard to build an image of himself as a savior, the great white hope," Bullock said of Romney.

"He was very good at characterizing and castigating people and putting himself on a pedestal."

The two clashed often, never more publicly than when Romney went nose to nose with Bullock at the state Capitol after Bullock failed to support Romney's request to defer repaying the state its $59 million.

"You don't want me as an enemy," Romney said in the corridor outside a conference room, according to Bullock. "Ted Kennedy and I get along. Why can't you and I?"

"I'm doing my job," Bullock replied.

To which Romney repeated, "You don't want me as an enemy."

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat who also served on the organizing committee and remains a Romney friend, said Bullock had long played a "very destructive" role in the Olympic movement.

"We were all running out of patience and were pretty proud of Mitt that he finally put Ken in his place," Anderson said.

Yet Garff, the organizing committee chairman whose association with Romney went back to childhood, believed Romney inappropriately tried to silence Bullock.

"Mitt saw him as an agitator," Garff said, "and I saw him as a watchdog who needed to be heard."

Romney showed little sympathy for another trustee who criticized his performance. When Lillian Taylor, a small-business consultant, questioned why the committee continued to retain a pricey law firm that had acknowledged losing documents related to the scandal, Romney, who at the time said he had no problem with her raising the issue, sat silently while the board's attorney aggressively dismissed her complaint.

"Shame on Mitt for that one," Taylor said.

Sharp elbows sting

The Olympics was Romney's first intensely public leadership role, and by his own account, it showcased the skills he believes made him an effective governor and will make him an effective president.

In Salt Lake City, some found him inspiring and others found him intolerant. Many tended to trace his strengths and weaknesses to his long business career. They said he focused single-mindedly on the task at hand, starting with reaching out to some of Salt Lake City's leading critics of the Games, including Stephen Pace.

"It was very clear he was blowing in my ear, but it was a smart gesture," said Pace, a health-care consultant who had protested the use of public funds for the Games.

But Romney also appeared insensitive at times.

JoAnn Seghini, the mayor of Midvale, Utah, said Romney once rebuked her for talking to someone while he was testifying at a legislative hearing.

"He almost fit the definition of a strict nun in a Catholic school," Seghini recalled.

Later, he clashed with Utah police after they alleged he twice used the f-word in berating Shaun Knopp, a volunteer who was directing snarled traffic at an Olympic venue. Police were angered that Romney denied shouting the expletive and were further miffed when Romney later offered a partial apology to a sheriff's captain but not to Knopp.

"There were a lot of people in public safety who were extremely angry," said Peter Dawson, a lawyer today who served as an intern in a communications center at the time. "The general consensus was, 'I hope he doesn't need any help from us because we aren't going to respond very quickly."'

Romney, in an interview, denied using the f-word and said two other witnesses — a Secret Service agent and an Olympic aide, Spencer Zwick — corroborated his denial. "I have not used that word since college — all right? — or since high school," he said.

Romney's strengths and weaknesses were both on display in how he dealt with the impact of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He worked closely with federal officials to enhance security and give the Games a new patriotic gloss as one of the first national events after the devastation.

Romney helped to secure an additional $34 million in federal aid for security and convince wary nations, Japan among them, not to pull out of the Games.

Romney had witnessed the horror of the attacks, having ridden through the smoke billowing from the Pentagon after hijackers plunged American Airlines Flight 77 into the building.

When he returned to Utah, Romney gathered hundreds of staffers and volunteers in an outdoor plaza and delivered a speech that several described as the most presidential moment of his Olympic tenure. While he addressed the fears many harbored of terrorists striking again during the Games, Romney invoked the glory of patriotism, public service and facing down danger.

He delivered a similar message in an e-mail to the staff.

"In the annals of Olympism and the history of Utah, this may stand as one of the defining hours," he wrote, according to his book. "I am confident we will all perform with honor."

Zianibeth Shattuck-Owen, who served as a trustee and later as luge manager, said of the speech, "By the end, he had everybody singing 'God Bless America,' but not in a 'Kumbaya' kind of way. ... It was leadership."

Romney later successfully lobbied the IOC to drop its opposition to the U.S. team carrying into the opening ceremonies a tattered American flag found in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

But he angered safety officials when his office denied free or discounted tickets to widows and orphans of firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. Romney's executive assistant, Donna Tillery, twice rejected the requests, citing a policy barring ticket giveaways, according to e-mails she sent to former Salt Lake City firefighter A.J. Barto. Romney's staff says he was unaware of the request.

Six weeks later, the committee found itself with unsold seats and Romney approved distributing 100 tickets valued at $885 each to Utah legislators.

"I was outraged at the hypocrisy," Barto said. "In less than two months, he went from saying we're going to run a tight ship to throwing out free tickets to a group of people who could help him politically."

Savoring success

On Feb. 8, 2002, Mitt Romney and President Bush marched together amid heavy security to the center of Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium in Salt Lake City to mark the arrival of the flag from the World Trade Center and open the Winter Games.

Over 17 days, 2.1 billion people around the globe watched the competition, with the United States winning 34 medals.

In overseeing the event, Romney helped to clear Brigham Young's "great highway of the nations" for the kings and queens, presidents and nobles, elite athletes, and everyday people who converged for the Salt Lake Games. -->
In the end, Romney helped to generate nearly a $100 million budget surplus for the committee and a trove of political goodwill for his next endeavor.

There was no need for him to return to private life. Before the Zambonis had cleared the last ice shavings from the Olympic rinks, Romney was racing to make another change.

On March 17, 2002, Mitt and Ann Romney stepped off a plane at Hanscom Field wearing matching leather jackets adorned with Olympic logos. They headed home to Belmont, where more than 200 supporters encouraged Romney at a rally the next day to continue in public service.

There was a job on Beacon Hill to pursue.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

USOC: Athlete-Americans are special

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
Canadian native Tanith Belbin, left, won a silver medal in Turin in 2006.
She was granted expedited citizenship by President Bush in 2005.


Swapping Passports in Pursuit of Olympic Medals 

Published: June 15, 2008

* Correction Appended

Marching into Beijing Stadium under the American flag this August will be a kayaker from Poland, table tennis players from China, a triathlete from New Zealand, a world-champion distance runner from Kenya and a gold-medal-winning equestrian from Australia.

All newly minted United States citizens.

Foreign-born and trained stars have been contributing to the United States’s Olympic medal count since 2000 in a modest but growing trend that blurs the national boundaries of the competition.

“We call them migrant laborers,” said Kevin B. Wamsley, a co-director of the Canada-based International Center for Olympic Studies.

“Certainly, there’s a value for nations on medals.”

The United States is a magnet for attracting accomplished veteran athletes to switch citizenship, according to analysis by The New York Times. Since 1992, about 50 athletes who had competed in international events for their home countries — including 10 for China — became United States citizens and Olympians, winning eight medals, records show. This practice has implications for American athletes who are shut out of precious Olympic berths and has also been cause for conflict among competing nations.

Nine new citizens are on track to secure spots on the 600-athlete United States team for Beijing, including the distance runner Bernard Lagat, who won a medal for Kenya at the 2000 Sydney Games and another at the 2004 Athens Games.

The United States Olympic Committee says it does not recruit. “We think it’s just an offshoot of where athletes want to train and where they want to live and for whom they want to compete,” Jim Scherr, the chief executive of the committee, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a good thing. Nobody’s out there trading for athletes or offering financial rewards for an athlete to jump from one country to another.”

The International Olympic Committee imposes a three-year waiting period for an athlete who switches countries, although it will grant a waiver if the athlete’s native Olympic committee and international sports federation give permission. Two new Americans received the I.O.C. waiver this year: the equestrian Phillip P. Dutton, who won two gold medals for Australia; and the canoeist Heather Corrie, who is also a British citizen. (The Times’s statistics did not include dual citizens and athletes who immigrated as children.)

American-born competitors have grumbled about losing Olympic opportunities to newcomers and have been especially vocal when government officials have gone out of their way to expedite the eligibility of foreign athletes. Such fast-tracking does not appear to be happening for this Olympic cycle.

Few of the immigrants said they came here exclusively to continue their athletic careers. Mostly, they said, they came for love, opportunity, freedom and education. Nearly all have been welcomed by United States athletic federations.


They take advantage of EB-1 visas for aliens of extraordinary ability — meant for renowned scientists, artists and athletes — which moves them swiftly to the front of the line for permanent residency. The United States government issued 2,749 of these visas to foreigners, their spouses and children in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, but the statistics do not indicate how many went to athletes.

An athlete who marries an American citizen can apply for citizenship three years after obtaining a green card as a permanent resident; it takes five years otherwise. Potential Olympians often miss the Games while waiting.

Filling in the Gaps

In years past, the United States had trouble competing in some Olympic sports but for immigrants, said Alicia J. Campi, a former research coordinator for the Immigration Policy Center in Washington. Among the sports she cited were field hockey and table tennis.

“This is an area where immigrants can help because they already have the skills they’ve developed through decades and centuries of culture that valued that particular sport,” Campi said in a phone interview. “One or two athletes can really change the possibility of the United States doing well in one of those nontraditional sports.”

Seven Olympic medals since 2000 have been won by five new citizens who had been elite performers for their home countries: the gymnast Annia Hatch from Cuba and the synchronized swimmer Anna A. Kozlova from Russia each won two in 2004; the sailor Magnus Liljedahl from Sweden and the tennis player Monica Seles from Yugoslavia in 2000 in Sydney, Australia; and the ice dancer Tanith Belbin from Canada in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

The Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon of the 1996 basketball Dream Team was the only foreign athlete to contribute to the United States medal count in the 1990s.

Kozlova finished fourth in the synchronized swimming duet for Russia at the 1992 Olympics and immigrated later that year. She missed the 1996 Games while waiting for a green card. “It was almost unbearable,” she said. She placed fourth for the United States in team and duet in 2000 and won two bronze medals in 2004.

“I came to live here,” Kozlova said in a phone interview. “I would have come here if I swam or not.”

The New Zealand-born triathlete Matt Reed, ranked 45th in the world, improved his chances of making the Olympics by becoming a United States citizen. New Zealand has two of the top four men in the sport, including his younger brother, Shane, ranked 35th. In Beijing, the brothers will be rivals.

While Shane struggles to make ends meet in New Zealand, Matt has found many corporate sponsors. He said, “I put in the hard work and sponsorships are definitely coming my way.”

In 2004, Matt Reed ran in both nations’ Olympic trials, finishing eighth in New Zealand and third in the United States, although he was not yet a citizen.

Reed moved here in 2001 for love, having met the American triathlete Kelly Rees. Married since 2003, they live in Boulder, Colo., with their two children. He became a citizen last December. Reed said that if he had not married an American, he would never have been able to qualify in time for the Games. “Being married is pretty much the only way I could have done it,” Reed said.

Hundreds of Chinese table tennis players have competed for other nations, but not all have changed citizenship. Since 1992, 9 of 18 members of the United States teams were foreign stars, including six from China.

Jun Gao, 39, is the best known. Once ranked third in the world and a 1992 silver medalist for China, she married an American in 1993 and left the sport.

Coaxed back to competition, Jun made the United States team in 2000 and 2004 but lost in early rounds.
Jun, ranked 27th in the world, calls Gaithersburg, Md., home, but she has lived virtually full time in Shanghai for six years.

“I come back twice a year, but not very often,” she said. “In China, there are so many world-class players. That’s why I am there. If I want to get a medal, I have to have world-class people to train with me.”

The International Table Tennis Federation instituted rules this year to restrict Chinese players from competing for other nations. It barred those 21 or older from competing in world championships but did not change its rules for the Olympics.

Congress Gets in the Act

Ice dancing, an Olympic event since 1976, produced the best-known Congressional maneuver, which eventually affected the overall standings at the 2006 Winter Games.

Three foreign-born ice dancers — the Canadian Belbin, and the Russians Maxim Zavozin and Sergei Magerovski — were granted expedited citizenship through special legislation signed by President Bush in December 2005.

Each had an American partner waiting to compete at the Olympic trials the next month.

Dean and Lynn Mitchell of Cortlandt, N.Y., the parents of on Olympic hopeful, wrote to their representatives in Congress in 2005 to try to block the special legislation.

Their objection fell short, and their son missed making the team when he finished ninth at the Olympic trials.

The Mitchells did not return phone calls for comment.

Belbin and her partner, Ben Agosto of Chicago, became the darlings of American figure skating.

Their Olympic silver in 2006 ultimately gave the United States one more medal than Canada in the overall standings for sole possession of second place behind Germany.

Zavozin and his partner, Morgan Matthews of Chicago, failed to make the Olympic team in 2006, then split up. Matthews has found a new partner, Leif Gislason of Canada.

Facing citizenship delays at home, they have each applied for fast-track citizenship in Azerbaijan to skate for the same country by the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Matthews, 21, followed a path carved by the American-born ice dancer Kristin Fraser, who represented Azerbaijan in the 2006 Olympics without ever visiting the country.

At least one athlete may yet turn to Congress to compete in the 2012 Games in London: the gymnast Charles León Tamayo, who won Cuba’s first medal at a world championship at age 20 in 2001. He defected to the United States in 2003 and, following advice from a pro bono lawyer, applied for asylum.

If Tamayo had waited one year after defecting and applied for relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act, he would have been eligible for a green card immediately, two to four years faster than the asylum process, said Amehd Camacho, a staff assistant to Representative Mario Díaz Balart, Republican of Florida.

Tamayo was ineligible for the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams. To qualify for 2012, when he will be 31, he needs Balart’s help to persuade Citizenship and Immigration Services to let him apply for the Cuban adjustment. Camacho said Balart could sponsor legislation as a last resort.

“I come here and all I’m asking for is the opportunity,” Tamayo, who coaches gymnastics in Grand Junction, Colo., said in a phone interview. “I want to fight for my spot. I want to do what I can. But I can’t do that because of my citizenship.”

Legislation is not the only way foreign-born athletes have become United States Olympians. Olajuwon received assistance from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor. Konstantin Starikovitch, a Russian weight lifter, won an arbitration case against the United States federation.

Greg Schouten, an American junior record-holder in weight lifting, just missed an Olympic spot because of Starikovitch.

“I was angry at the federation for a year or two,” Schouten said in a phone interview.

After the Olympics, he would see Starikovitch at a training facility in Colorado, but Schouten said: “We really never talked to each other. I never cared to.”

‘I Am International’

Yueling Chen, a 1992 gold medalist in race walking for China, gained a spot on the 2000 United States team after Bill Hybl, then the U.S.O.C. president, appealed to the Chinese Olympic Committee a month before the Games.

Chen said she was puzzled that China had wanted to block her. “I was a U.S. citizen,” she said in a recent phone interview. “The Games are international. I should belong to the whole world. I am international.”

But Joanne Dow, a national champion race walker from New Hampshire, disagreed with that concept. She said Chen’s immigration dashed her Olympic dream.

At the Olympic trials, Dow was recovering from minor knee surgery and finished fourth, missing the cutoff for the team. Chen, who finished second, made the team but performed poorly in Sydney.

“I don’t know her at all,” Dow said, “but to see her come in third to last — that disgusted me. There are a little bit of hard feelings.”

Dow finished second at the Olympic trials in 2004, but the United States was allotted one Olympic slot in her division. In July, the 44-year-old Dow, a three-time national champion, will try again to make her first Olympic team.

China is not the only country to express dismay over one of its athletes competing for the United States. Sports authorities in Kenya said they were upset to learn that Lagat was changing allegiance.

Lagat is expected to be the star of the United States track and field Olympic trials beginning June 27. Lagat, a resident here since 1996, gained his United States citizenship in 2004, three months before he won an Olympic silver medal in the 1,500 meters for Kenya, which does not allow dual citizenship.

Lagat has said he kept quiet about changing citizenship in 2004 because he would not have been able to run in the Olympics for either country.

* This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 18, 2008
An article on Sunday about the way that foreign athletes switch citizenship and compete for the United States in the Olympics referred incorrectly to the immigration process, gave an outdated title for an expert and misstated the years in which a top distance runner won medals.

An athlete can apply for citizenship three years after obtaining a green card as a permanent resident if married to an American, or five years otherwise. Those are not the waiting periods for a green card.

Alicia J. Campi, who described the potential benefit of having foreign-born athletes compete for the United States, is a former research coordinator for the Immigration Policy Center. She left the center in 2007.

The distance runner Bernard Lagat, now a United States citizen, won a medal for Kenya at the 2000 Sydney Games and another at the 2004 Athens Games. He did not win both in 2004.

USOC: Space for sale

NY DailyNews.com
Wednesday, January 27, 1999

THERE IS the need now, more than ever, to distinguish between the Olympics and the bozo officials who run the Olympics.

The Olympic Games were established more than 3,400 years ago, some time before the birth of Juan Antonio Samaranch, as a single athletic footrace. The competitions were moved later to the Olympia Stadium in Greece to honor Zeus, king of the gods.

It wasn't until the International Olympic Committee took over in 1894 that the Olympics began to honor Benjamin Franklin, god of the $100 bill, and household deities like Tom Welch of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, holy dispenser of more college scholarships than Kansas State.

In the same spirit of the ancient Greek religions, control among these bureaucrats was parceled out by realm. Before you can truly comprehend the lowliness of the long-distance IOC, you first must acquaint yourself with the local chapter, the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Here, in full pomp and ridiculous circumstance, sit the (mostly white) men and (precious few) women officials who theoretically supervised the now infamous bid of Salt Lake. They are brimming with proven or potential conflicts of interest.

The starting lineup:

At executive director, Dick Schultz. Schultz resigned from a similar post with the NCAA in 1993 after acknowledging that he used the NCAA's plane for personal trips, even though the NCAA told the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals the tax-exempt aircraft was used for official NCAA businees.

At president, William Hybl. Hybl headed George Bush's presidential campaign in Colorado in 1988. He was elected USOC president in 1996 over the objections of many athletes in the USOC, but was strongly supported by powerful bureaucrats from the major sports federations.

Hybl also has retained his position as chairman and CEO of the El Pomar Foundation, the 87th largest grant-giving foundation in the U.S. El Pomar is headquartered in Colorado Springs, also home to the USOC. The private foundation reports assets of more than $400 million, and hands out grants to applicants who will "strengthen the fabric and add to the richness of Colorado communities."

Then there are the powerful officials emeritus:

At former vice president, George Steinbrenner. Despite two suspensions from baseball once for illegal campaign contributions and once for his bizarre harassment of Dave Winfield Steinbrenner wasn't banished from the USOC. He resigned the position on his own three years ago, a perfectly honorable discharge.

Steinbrenner was the benefactor cited on national TV for his financial support by Tonya Harding, mere days after Nancy Kerrigan was attacked.

At former USOC president and IOC member, Robert Helmick. Helmick resigned in 1991, accused of conflict of interest for representing private clients with connections to the Olympics. Helmick, who is still a member of the USOC board of directors, actually had the nerve to write an editorial for The New York Times last Sunday demanding "systematic change" within the IOC, basically calling for Samaranch's ouster from the IOC presidency.

Worse yet, The Times printed it.

In truth, these fancy blazers are not very important people, as far as the Olympics of Carl Lewis or Michelle Kwan are concerned. Most of the bureaucrats could disappear today and would not be reported missing by the outside world until sometime in the next quadrennium.

They harumph a lot about drugs, then rarely have the nerve to act on a positive test if the athlete denies his guilt. They posture a good deal about the spirit of the Olympics, but then Samaranch wears a huge patch on his coat for Mizuno at the Nagano Games, wherever he goes.

The message, always: This space for sale.

The chief requirement of these officials is that they look vaguely interested when hard-working drones issue their reports and budgets in Lausanne, or Colorado Springs. And then there is the one and only thing both the USOC and IOC do that is very important to tax-paying citizens around the world: They decide which cities will host major sports events.

This simple task they have loused up with a vengeance. High up on their mountain, they have soiled the valley below.

AT THE 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, prestige was defined exactly by such altitude. The higher up in the Alps you slept at night, the more important you appeared. The IOC, of course, was bunked at the top of the world in its fancy hotel at Courcheval, looking down on the ski jumps.

Members have received this giddy sort of institutional bribery for decades from host committees. Now that the bribes have become more personal, nobody should act too surprised. We can only try to remember Picabo Street, and Michael Johnson.