How America got used to his religion, and mine.
Image by John Gara/Buzzfeed
On the night of the South Carolina Republican primary in January, I sat near the front of a dark campaign press bus and listened to reporters talk about Mitt Romney's underwear.
Earlier in the day, one of them had happened upon the candidate and his wife doing laundry in the basement of our Columbia, South Carolina, hotel, and a small cluster of colleagues had now gathered to listen to him relate the anecdote, lapping up every mundane detail of this rare interaction with the closed-off couple.
Finally, another reporter interrupted.
"Did you see their underwear?" she asked, grinning mischievously as though she had just said something naughty.
"What do you think it looks like?" inquired another.
"I think you can see pictures online," someone chimed in.
The exchange prompted giggles from the group — some nervous, others indulgent — as I slid down in my seat and pretended to look at my phone, hoping it wouldn't occur to any of them I might be wearing the strange, exotic garment they were all gossiping about. It wasn't that their tone was antagonistic or insensitive; just uncontrollably curious — like virginal adolescents talking about sex during a sleepover. And as a lifelong Mormon, I had grown fairly used to hearing my religion talked about that way.
This was how much of the political class was treating Romney's religion at the start of 2012: too awkward to discuss in an open forum, yet too tantalizing to ignore altogether. Questions permeated hushed conversations and private e-mail chains: Does Romney really believe he will get his own planet when he dies? Does he baptize dead Jews in his temples?
And as one prominent journalist at Newsweek quietly asked a colleague in the run-up to the Republican primaries, "Would he actually wear that Mormon underwear in the White House?"
If Mitt Romney has one lasting political legacy, I think it will be that next time a Mormon runs for president, that question likely won't be asked.
As Romney's expansive campaign headquarters collapses into a pile of cardboard boxes in Boston, his aides and supporters are beginning to mull what place their failed campaign will have in the history books. And many have determined that Romney's political career may be remembered most for the role it played in mainstreaming a large minority religion, despite a concerted, strategic effort to avoid the topic altogether — something I witnessed with a front-row seat.
A couple days after the election, I spoke to Robert O'Brien, a campaign foreign policy advisor and avowed Romney loyalist. We'd spoken several times over the course of the campaign, and his surrogacy had always been marked by a sort of religious devotion to the candidate, and an undying faith that he was the man meant to save America from ruin.
Suffice it to say, he was crushed by the loss.
"I couldn't sleep on Tuesday night, which is unusual because usually I can sleep through anything," he told me from his office in Los Angeles. "I stayed up late and made a to-do list with like 80 things. I figured that was the best therapy."
He also began considering his friend's legacy, and as a Mormon who converted from Catholicism in his early twenties, O'Brien saw historical parallels between his current and former churches.
"I always thought Mitt Romney would be Al Smith," O'Brien said, referring to the first Catholic presidential nominee, who lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. "Now I think he's going to be Al Smith and JFK rolled into one person. Even though we didn't win the way JFK did, to come within a couple points of the presidency, I think makes a lasting impact on the faith... It's going to be a non-event next time a Mormon runs."
For a Mormon journalist who'd spent much of the past year examining the religious life of a candidate and coreligionist, his assessment was vaguely troubling. Was he saying editors won't be knocking down my door when Mia Love throws her hat in the ring in 2024?
But after a year of crisscrossing the country with Romney — pestering his campaign for answers about his faith, and writing countless Mormonism-for-dummies primers along the way — I couldn't deny that Romney's career had provided a national education on his young, American-born faith.
And if my experience was any guide, it's an education the country won't be unlearning anytime soon.
Even as his campaign turned him into the world's most famous member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney spent much of 2012 publicly evading the subject of his faith.
In speeches, he conducted all manner of rhetorical gymnastics to avoid uttering the word "Mormon." In interviews, he quickly changed the subject every time the topic came up. And to his staff, his instruction was to dodge and deflect all questions regarding his religious beliefs.
He regularly employed variations of the declaration, "I'm not running for pastor-in-chief."
His reluctance to engage the Mormon question was rooted, his aides privately told me, in a bitter 2008 Republican primary. Back then, Romney was trying to outflank John McCain and Rudy Giuliani on the right by presenting himself as a sort of culture warrior — hoping his staunch, conservative values would attract the party's religious base.
But as his staff and family fanned out across Iowa to win over Evangelical voters in the fall of 2007, they were met with rank anti-Mormonism. Local ministers preached sermons against "the Mormon cult" on Sundays, Christian voters routinely confronted the Romneys with Bible verses during retail politics stops, and some people even refused to shake hands with Romney's former Lt. Governor Kerry Healey because they thought she was Mormon.
Romney's first instinct was to try to persuade the religious right that Mormonism was just another Christian sect. He answered complicated theological questions on local talk radio, and delivered a major address at the George Bush Presidential Library titled "Faith in America," designed to emphasize the "common creeds" his church shared with Protestants.
But the more he tried to educate conservative Christians about his religion, the more intense the pushback became. And for the candidate's family, the rejection was deeply disheartening.
On the day after Thanksgiving in 2007, Tagg Romney phoned a longtime family friend, who asked how the effort was going in Iowa.
"It's brutal," the friend recalled a dispirited Tagg responding. "It's just brutal."
When Romney eventually lost Iowa in 2008, many in the Romney clan took it as a repudiation of their religion. And when he gathered the family together in the living room a few years later to discuss the possibility of another run, the wound was still too fresh for some of them, according to a family friend. More than one of his sons raised the concern that another candidacy would result in their faith being dragged through the mud again.
Mitt took their worries seriously, but the team of political strategists he had assembled insisted they could pull off a win without talking religion. The 2012 battle plan would be to present Romney as a stalwart — if one-dimensional — figure who understood business and could fix the economy by sheer force of will. No culture war, no big religion speeches, and certainly no engaging the press as they pursued the inevitable "Mormon angle."
That's where I came in. I joined the campaign's traveling press corps for BuzzFeed just before the New Hampshire primary in January, and I quickly found that my expertise in Romney's religion posed a distinct advantage — not in access or sourcing, necessarily, but in understanding the elusive candidate as an actual person.
When the "mommy wars" of the early spring shone a spotlight on Ann Romney's decision to stay home and raise her kids, I saw classic Mormon gender roles at play. And when critics raised questions about Mitt's participation in a church that barred black men from the priesthood until 1978, I innately understood the conflicted, sometimes tortured, position many devout Mormons found themselves in at that time. As a lifelong Latter-day Saint who grew up in the relatively close-knit Massachusetts Mormon community that Romney once led, I felt I had a unique window into the beliefs and experiences that defined an almost undefinable man.
And that, apparently, left the campaign deeply unsettled.
Multiple people in Romney's orbit — both inside the campaign and out — would later tell me that Boston tried to keep me at arm's length for a long time because they worried my knowledge of the candidate's faith would bait them into a conversation they were dead set against having.