- - Monday, May 21, 2012

By Ronald B. Scott
Lyons Press, $16.95, 264 pages

Of all of the biographies of the de facto GOP nominee that come out this year, we can be pretty certain Ronald Scott’s “Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics,” is the only one that will have as its epigraph a letter from Mormon Apostle Parley Pratt to Queen Victoria. In the letter, dated 1841, Pratt informs the queen that the “world in which we live is on the eve of a revolution.” This was a revolution “on which the fate of all nations” was suspended and “heaven itself has waited with longing expectation for its consummation.”

Mr. Scott’s is the Mormon biography of Mitt Romney. It is a sympathetic book, but any critic who writes it off as fawning hagiography should be fish-slapped. Mr. Scott finds himself supportive of Mr. Romney after he once spectacularly misjudged the man. Before he was a politician, Mr. Romney was a Mormon bishop and then stake president. The temporary, unpaid positions might be said to be equivalent to being pastor and then bishop. (Mormon bishop equals pastor; stake president equals bishop.)

As Boston stake president, Mr. Romney was asked to resolve a dispute between two bishops that involved nonpayment of a large loan. Mr. Scott assumed Mr. Romney would do what many wealthy Mormon religious leaders would do in that circumstance: secure a private promise of repayment from the delinquent and write a large check to make one party whole and avoid scandal. Instead, the matter was delegated to a third bishop and then referred to civil courts.

This enraged Mr. Scott. He writes, “I spoke my mind on the matter. … My comments were harsh and blunt. Worst of all, they were witnessed by others [in church]. Instead of returning fire, Romney absorbed my verbal broadsides, nodded approvingly as if he understood and agreed completely with my assessment of the situation.” It was only years later that Mr. Scott learned that the stake president “had indeed offered to write the check that would have settled the matter. His generosity had been turned down.”

Mr. Scott tells the Mormon story right alongside the Romney story because the two are, in his estimation, inseparable. In the chapter on Mr. Romney’s mission to France, we get a glimpse of how Mitt the Mormon Missionary and Mitt the Turnaround Artist are likely related. A car accident in 1968 put Mr. Romney in a coma, but that barely slowed him down. He bounced back and had to run the whole French mission more or less single-handedly as his boss recuperated and took leave to bury his wife, who had died in the head-on collision with a car driven by a drunk.

Many missionaries would have looked at the changed and tragic circumstances and ratcheted down expectations. The young Mr. Romney decided to stick to the mission’s expanded goals for conversions. In the end, the whole mission met and surpassed those goals, making him something of a legend in Mormon mission circles. After his return to Michigan, his father, mother and girlfriend Ann Davies met him at the airport. Mitt proposed to Ann on the ride home. Three of their five sons would go on to serve missions in France.

Mr. Scott’s case for Mr. Romney is well written and sometimes surprising. “It seems that we, as a nation gravitate naturally to flawed characters, not the well-born who appear to have done everything right, by the book, since day one. We sing the praises of rebels with checkered reputations who redeem themselves: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Teddy Kennedy…” he writes. However, “We seem to forget that in times of significant crisis the nation has also been served by earnest, dogged leaders who know something about personal vision, teamwork and pragmatism.”

There are a few false notes struck in Mr. Scott’s argument. He tries to dismiss theological concerns about Mormonism as being “rooted in numbingly arcane differences of opinion over vague Christian teachings.” A great mass of American Christians, from Baptists to Methodists to Catholics to the Orthodox, believe in the Trinity: one God in three persons. Mormons reject this. That is not arcana.

Yet the author is undeniably right about one thing regarding Mr. Romney and Republicans. While concerns about the former Massachusetts governor’s religion have “not evaporated entirely” with the evangelical base of the GOP, “they seem to be of less importance today.”

Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books and Real Clear Religion, is writing a book about death.

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