So Much For Sobriety…
…on The Question, that is. Mitt makes the cover of Newsweek, in a bio piece that is alternately fair and frustrating. For starters, there is nothing new in the story. In fact, while telling essentially the same story, it is not nearly as well researched as Hugh Hewitt's book and comparing the two demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the power of an author's persuasions when "reporting." By sprinkling a recitation of the facts with breathless dives into Mormon practice, the Newsweek piece gives a sinister sheen to what is, simply, another man's religion. Yet at other times, the piece is quite sober and fair in its treatment of Romney, his faith, and his candidacy.
There are some odd, almost oxymoronic, passages as well. Consider:
Romney and his campaign wanted to deal with the Mormon question quickly and move on. The Massachusetts experience taught that Mitt the Mormon lost elections and Mitt the turnaround artist won them. In the first weeks of the campaign, Romney sat for lengthy interviews on his faith with The New York Times and USA Today; if the campaign could make the Mormon factor a tired story line, reporters would have no choice but to write about something else.
Fair enough, and as we have documented here, that strategy appeared to be working. And the article goes on to claim that it worked as well, as writers shifted to the "flip-flop." So why does Newsweek go to this extent to hammer a dead horse? Could there be an agenda at play?
In the end, despite its length and more depth than usual, I think the piece is is yet another challenge by the media to get Romney to say more on his faith – they smell a story and they are not getting it. Consider this passage, discussing Romney's Senate run, from the piece that seems ominous in its presentation:
From the start, Romney made clear that questions about his faith were out of bounds, and from the start, his faith was all anyone wanted to talk about. The Boston papers were filled with tales of his secret Mormon life. As bishop, he'd counseled a Mormon woman not to have an abortion. As stake president, he'd called homosexuality "perverse." (Romney denied making this comment.) The tales fed the notion that there was something sinister inside Romney, that beneath the mild-mannered moderate lurked a secret extremist. When Kennedy suggested that Romney should have to answer for the LDS history on race (until 1978, African-Americans couldn't hold the priesthood), Romney called an angry news conference to condemn Kennedy for forgetting his own brother's admonition that a candidate's religious beliefs had no place in the public sphere. George—who was shredded by the press during his presidential run, but not on account of his religion—stood behind Mitt as he made his statement. Growing impatient, George seized the microphone: "I think it is absolutely wrong to keep hammering on the religious issues." The high road turned out to be a problematic course.
They admit that Mitt is taking the "high road" upholding, if you will, the great traditions of the American understanding of religion and politics, and yet they "warn' him that such is "problematic." Could it be they are frustrated? In the accompanying Q&A, the talk presented is purely political, despite claims in the lead-in paragraph that Romney "touched on" his religion, there is no there, there.
Lowell and I are just amateur journalists here, but we do have a few interviews under our belt and they are not as easy as they seem. A good interview requires an enormous amount of preparation, and with that preparation the interviewer will develop an understanding of the subject that they will attempt to impose on the interview. If the subject refuses to allow that imposition, it is easy to grow petulant. That seems to be the case here. Back in the opening paragraphs of the bio piece:
Another presidential candidate, upon learning of a reporter's visit there, might jump on the opportunity to reminisce about the faith of his childhood, to trot out fond stories about his pastor and the inspirational lessons learned at his knee. But not Romney. Seated in a plane between campaign stops near the olive groves of northern California, Romney hears of such a visit and the wattage seeps out of his smile.
Too bad it wasn't on camera, because I am betting the reporter's face was far more downcast at the brevity of Romney's answers than Romney's face was at being asked. Besides, if you had been asked the same questions more times than the US Treasury has printed bills, you too might lose interest at the questions.
It is a fair observation that religion has been far more prominent in recent elections, but this is this election, not the last one. It seems increasingly clear that the MSM wants to frame this election by the old – something that just makes no sense – even though it appears "juicy" because of Mormon angle. These are different candidates and different circumstances. Not to mention that fact that, even from the perspective of this individual highly-religiously motivated voter, the role of religion may have grown to unwise proportions, and could easily step over the line into dangerous ones.
This country works, better than any in history, because we know how far to go, and how far not to go, with these questions. It used to the the MSM also understood that and worked to observe the line. Sadly that commonsense has long since left the building.
LOWELL: It would be interesting to know some of the goings-on from inside Newsweek's editing rooms on this story. One of the contributors was Elise Soukup. who was the lead author on a Newsweek cover story about the LDS Church that many critics of the Church found too positive. (Ms. Soukup is a Mormon herself.) I don't know which parts she wrote, but I'm guessing the story's last 3 paragraphs — hammering Romney for supposedly not knowing his own mind– weren't among them. Someone who really doesn't like the man wrote those. AND NOT INCIDENTALLY: Did anyone else find the cover headline offensive? “A Mormon’s Journey.” It is hard to imagine any other faith being highlighted that way. Isn’t it?
Compare and Contrast…
Interesting comments from Republican front runners, and one surging, but hopeless former leader on the religion issue.
Q: Is there any issue in this campaign that you think is off limits? For example, do you think that the personal life of a candidate is a legitimate thing to focus on in a campaign?
Romney: I think the American people will focus on whatever they like to focus on. I don't tell them, "Don't look at this, or don't look at that." I know they'll give every aspect of my life a full review. There are some things where I'm probably not the right person to respond to an issue, but I can direct them elsewhere. There are certainly topics where, if I'm asked about, I'll say, "Sorry, I'm not going there. I'm not going to get into that kind of personal matter." But that's true for every candidate. But that doesn't mean the American people are not going to get a full review of everything they think is important in their decision and that's the right of a democracy: Let people make their own choice.
In an interview with David Brody, Rudy Giuliani commented on his personal life:
"I'm guided very, very often about, 'Don't judge others, lest you be judged,'" Giuliani told CBN interviewer David Brody. "I'm guided a lot by the story of the woman that was going to be stoned, and Jesus put the stones down and said, 'He that hasn't sinned, cast the first stone,' and everybody disappeared.
"It seems like nowadays in America, we have people that think they could've passed that test," he said. "And I don't think anybody
And in a Beliefnet interview, John McCain comments:
In a wide-ranging interview about religion and faith with the Web site Beliefnet, McCain said he wouldn't "rule out under any circumstance" someone who wasn't Christian, but said, "I just feel that that's an important part of our qualifications to lead."
OK, for starters, McCain disqualifies himself, finally and completely, from serious consideration at this point. His comment is a de facto religious test, not to mention speaking with a forked tongue. Can't have it both ways, John! He tries to backpedal later in the interview but he has here dug a hole just too deep. Indeed, a lack of Christianity may be a political obstacle to election, but a qualification for leadership?!?!?! What about Joe Lieberman? What about Gandhi? There are a lot of non-Christian leaders in history. Give me a break.
LOWELL: A political observation: My biggest problem with McCain is that his standard operating procedure seems to be "ready, fire, aim!" This foolish religion comment is just another example.
Giuliani's comments are fascinating, and very reminiscent of the things I hear from the Christian left all the time. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton talks about religion being a marvelous construct that seems to have something for everyone. Specific enough to be useful, but vague enough to make claims to universality. Giuliani's comments, and those of the likes of Jim Wallis and Hillary Clinton, demonstrate Chesterton's contention quite well.
They also demonstrate why there are limits to religious discussion in a political setting, because it creates an inevitability to religious conflict. You see my natural reaction to Giuliani's comments are to rip out my Bible and exegete the passage in in its fullest context, demonstrating the difference between forgiveness and consequence of sin. Not to mention he is forgetting the passages of the Bible that talk about what is required from leaders. You see where this goes, very fast. Now we have sectarian squabbles instead of a discussion on the constitutionally defined duties of the state.
Which brings me to Romney. He works very hard to strike the balance between what people care about and his duties as a potential president. He understands that people are very concerned about religion and he does not want to negate that concern. But he also understands that he is applying for a job to carry out duties of state, duties that can be carried out by people of various faiths – John McCain's idiotic comments notwithstanding.
It is not that religion cannot be discussed in a political context, it has been throughout American history. It is how it is discussed that matters. In these excerpts, Mitt Romney demonstrates that he, despite our religious differences, has a much better handle on how to discuss, or not discuss, religion in a political context than the other two – by a long shot.
The Key To Political Irrelevancy…
Well, not really. If a group of "breakaway" conservative Evangelicals make good on a threat, reported by The Caucus, Jonathon Martin's Politco Blog, and Powerline, to go third party in the event of a Guiliani nomination, they will be far from irrelevant. They will succeed in virtually handing the election to Hillary. How stupid will they feel then?
LOWELL: They won't feel stupid at all. They will feel proud that they stood for principle. These are people, after all, who would rather be certain than right, and would rather be self-satisfied than have a Republican in office.
There is some delicious irony here. For one thing, the meeting happening in Salt Lake City of all places.
Most visible in the group was James Dobson. PowerLine contends that Dobson does not support Romney. For the record, he has never been that direct, the door is technically open for Dobson to declare he is a Romney guy, but in light of his prior comments he will need quite the epiphany to be able to walk through that dor. But then, the thought of contributing to a Clinton win sounds like one heck of an epiphany to me.
Most importantly, a move of this sort shows the political silliness of having a litmus test of any sort – issue, race, religion, you name it – when in comes to casting votes for candidates. The best odds in a such a situation are that you will end up on the outside looking in.
My initial motivation for this blog was because I was afraid my Evangelical brethren would shoot themselves in the foot this cycle becasue of Romney's religion. That self-inflicted wound is continuing to shape up, but not necessarily from the choice expected.
Interesting background info, with a liberal bent.
Speaking of how we discuss religion in politics – obviously reporters, in large part, do not get it.
Because, well, conspiracy theories regarding Mormonism are just not enough – now we have to bring the communists into the picture? Mitt Romney no longer works for Bain Capital, just in case anybody with two-brain cells doesn't get it.
Oh yeah, remeber how South Carolina was going to be THE primary where the question was played out? Check out these numbers. Maybe Newsweek really is barking up the wrong tree.
LOWELL: If those numbers are right, then there's been a major shift in Dixie. All I can say is, when it comes to political prognosticating, no one knows anything, especially the pundits. (Sorry, Hugh!)
Speaking of pundits, one final comment: This morning the Meet The Press wise men seemed to agree it's a Rudy-Mitt race. In the midst of that discussion, Pat Buchanan said the early primary schedule is so favorable to Romney "it looks like it was planned by the Mormon Church." Everyone laughed or smiled. Just think about that a bit. I am sensitive to the problem of being over-sensitive, but again, could Buchanan have gotten away with such a comment about a Jew or a Catholic?
John adds: Here's the MTP transcript. And Buchanan's exact comment:
But this thing almost looks like it was scheduled by the Mormon Church. Look the primaries—you got—Iowa’s coming in at the 5th of January as of now, New Hampshire’s the 8th, three days later. That’s not enough time to slow down the winner. Then you got Michigan seven days later. Now, I think the real question is, if Romney can run those three, does he go up enough in the national polls that he can take the negative attack ads? Who’s got the money for negative attack ads?
Well, Pat has never been known for his decorum.