In 1993, Mitt Romney was a successful businessman with an urge to enter public life and a plan to challenge Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat from Massachusetts.
Romney was also a high-ranking official in the Mormon church — in charge of all church affairs in the Boston area — with a dilemma over abortion. Romney was personally pro-life, and the church was pro-life, but a majority of the Massachusetts electorate was decidedly pro-choice.
How Romney handled that dilemma is described in a new book, “Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics,” by Boston journalist Ronald Scott. A Mormon who admires Romney but has had his share of disagreements with him, Scott knew Romney from local church matters in the late 1980s.
Scott had worked for Time Inc., and in the fall of 1993, he says, Romney asked him for advice on how to handle various issues the media might pursue in a Senate campaign. Scott gave his advice in a couple of phone conversations and a memo. In the course of the conversations, Scott says, Romney outlined his views on the abortion problem.
According to Scott, Romney revealed that polling from Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s former pollster whom Romney had hired for the ‘94 campaign, showed it would be impossible for a pro-life candidate to win statewide office in Massachusetts. In light of that, Romney decided to run as a pro-choice candidate, pledging to support Roe v. Wade, while remaining personally pro-life.
In November 1993, according to Scott, Romney said he and Wirthlin, a Mormon whose brother and father were high-ranking church officials, traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with church elders. Gathering in the Church Administration Building, Romney, in Scott’s words, “laid out for church leaders ... what his public position would be on abortion — personally opposed but willing to let others decide for themselves.”
By Scott’s account, Romney wasn’t seeking approval or permission; he was telling the officials what he was going to do. Scott quotes a “senior church leader” as saying Romney “didn’t ask what his position should be, nor did he ask the brethren to endorse his position. He came to explain, and his explanation was consistent with church teachings and policies.”
According to Scott, some of the leaders were unhappy with Romney’s plan and let him know it. “I may not have burned bridges, but a few of them were singed and smoking,” Romney told Scott in a phone conversation.
In Scott’s account, Romney displayed plenty of independence from church influence. But why did he feel the need to brief church leaders in the first place? The Romney campaign declined to comment on that or any other aspect of Scott’s book. A Mormon church spokesman said only, “I do not know of the meeting, but it is our policy not to comment on private meetings anyway.”
Scott has his own view. “(Romney) was not obliged to brief them,” Scott said in an interview. “He probably was obliged to let them know as a matter of courtesy before he would take some stands on various issues that would raise eyebrows, because he was a fairly important officer of the church.”
In any event, the episode points to a brief period in Romney’s life in which his roles as a church official and as an emerging political figure overlapped. (Romney declared his candidacy for the Senate on Feb. 2, 1994, and stepped down as a Mormon leader on March 20.) Romney went on to lose in a campaign that featured Kennedy attacking Romney’s religion. Romney pointed out the irony of Kennedy — whose brother John F. Kennedy faced attacks on his Catholicism in the 1960 presidential campaign — launching religion-based attacks, but to no avail.
If Romney is the 2012 Republican nominee, he will surely face similar stuff. Much of it will undoubtedly be ugly and unjustified. But there will also be simple questions about Romney’s role as a church official at the start of his political career.
Lately, Romney has begun to speak a little more openly about his church work. In a Dec. 12 Republican debate in Iowa, he mentioned his overseas missionary service and said, “I also spent time in this country, serving as a pastor in my church.” By all accounts, Romney did a lot of good in his time as a Mormon official, and that work was a significant part of his life. In the coming campaign, voters will want to know more about it.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.