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News » Cover Story

Mitt and Me: The Sequel

Mitt Romney's political journey keeps one reporter hanging on.

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I just can't quit Mitt.

Whenever I think I've finally escaped the gravitational pull of his orbit, somehow, Mitt Romney pulls me back in.

It all began on Nov. 24, 1998. I was reporting for a Salt Lake TV news station and held up a single piece of paper in front of the camera. This document alleged questionable financial dealings involving Utah's 2002 Olympics. Specifically, that Salt Lake's Organizing Committee (SLOC) had paid the college tuition of the daughter of a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

This was a no-no because IOC members voted on which cities got to host the Olympic Games. All in all, about a million dollars was reportedly paid out by SLOC to improperly influence IOC voters. Well, long story short, the report ricocheted around the world, a huge scandal ensued and several Olympic executives lost their jobs. I was also fortunate enough to win the nation's top broadcast awards for my work. This made my late father, Sander Vanocur—a former network correspondent—very proud.

But most importantly, as far as this article is concerned, the scandal brought Mitt Romney to Utah. In February 1999, Romney took over as head of Salt Lake's troubled Olympic effort. Romney was quickly able to attract much needed sponsors, boost morale and eventually right the ship. In the end, the 2002 Winter Games were a huge success, propelling Romney into the governorship of Massachusetts.

In following years, Romney and I continued to cross paths. In 2003, I covered a Fourth of July celebration in Boston where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed. Gov. Romney was there in proud attendance.

I also covered both of Romney's presidential campaigns. I was there in snowy Detroit in 2007 when he first announced he was running for the nation's highest office. I then traveled to sunny California for a Republican presidential debate. There, Romney impressed viewers, voters and reporters with his crisp answers and presidential bearing. I also attended both the 2008 and 2012 Republican national conventions, the latter of which was when he became the GOP presidential nominee. That same year, I even ran into him at campaign event in Nevada. He recognized me when he was shaking hands in the crowd and gave me an enthusiastic greeting.

The year 2012 was also when I also wrote about our symbiotic relationship in a City Weekly cover story titled, "Mitt, the Mormons & Me." This story also chronicled the evolution of my dealings with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In so doing, I discussed how Mormons were once viewed as outsiders in this country and how Romney's presidential bid helped push the religion more into the American mainstream.

In that City Weekly piece, I also quoted a man I'd met at a party. It's possible he had consumed a few adult beverages before we talked. Somewhat snarkily, he said, "So, I suppose we have you to thank if Mitt Romney becomes president?" He went on to explain how my breaking the Olympic story had brought Romney to Utah, which set Romney on his path to the White House. This was something I'd heard from others, too, including someone in the Romney presidential campaign.

And while Romney wasn't elected president, the article got some attention nationally and won an award from the local Society of Professional Journalists. But all that now feels like it happened back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And speaking of dinosaurs, I am now retired. Romney, however, has a much better work ethic than I do. In 2018, Utahns elected him to the U.S. Senate. All of which brings us to this new article.

A“Thank you, Mitt” gathering on the state Capitol steps in February 2020 - CHRIS VANOCUR
  • Chris Vanocur
  • A“Thank you, Mitt” gathering on the state Capitol steps in February 2020

"Faith is at the heart of who I am"

In early February, Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator who voted to convict the president during Donald Trump's impeachment trial (on one count of abuse of power). But he voted no on the question of obstruction of justice. Romney immediately came under fire for his pro-impeachment vote. Republicans in Utah and around the country called for his censure and/or resignation. Poll numbers actually showed Romney with a higher approval rating among Democrats than Republicans. Romney was suddenly an outsider yet again.

With Mitt back in the news and fortuitously headed back to Utah, City Weekly asked if I wanted to come out of retirement and write a sequel to my 2012 piece. After mulling it over for a spell, I decided it was a "calling" of sorts and agreed to the assignment.

So, on Feb. 28, 2020, I walked the two blocks from my house to the Utah Capitol. It was a Friday and several Romney events were scheduled to take place that day. In a tweet, I referred to it as "Mitt Mania."

When I arrived, a "Thank You, Mitt" rally was just getting underway on the front steps of the Capitol. Dozens of Utahns gathered to express their gratitude to Romney for having the courage and character to vote for an impeachment conviction. They held handmade signs proclaiming things like, "Brave + Honest = Mitt."

At the rally, these supporters toasted Romney with chocolate milk, which is what the senator famously drank during the impeachment trial. One of the rally's organizers said the chocolate milk was symbolic for dissolving the vicious partisanship in Washington.

I specifically sought out an interview with a member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, also in attendance, because of something that had been on my mind ever since Romney voted yes on abuse of power.

When Romney gave his emotional eight-minute speech on Feb. 5, 2020, from the Senate floor, explaining why he was voting yes on the one impeachment count, he said, "As a senator-juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am."

At this point, Romney paused. He seemed to be on the verge of choking up. But after a dozen seconds of silence, he regained his composure and said, "I take an oath before God as enormously consequential." He also declared, "The president's purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust."

Two things struck me as I watched this historic speech. First, this seemed like the Mitt Romney I had come to know and respect when he was leading Salt Lake's Olympics. Letting his guard down in this senate speech, he came across as honest, anguished and human. It stood in stark contrast to the many other political speeches I had heard him give in later years when he blathered on like any other run-of-the mill politician.

The other thing that caught my attention about the speech was its decidedly spiritual tone. For me, as a non-Mormon, as he spoke about his faith, a single yet crucial question immediately popped up in my "gentile" brain: "Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?" This, as I understand it, is one of the standard questions asked when a church member is being interviewed for a Latter-day Saints temple recommend.

But in October 2019, I'm told that the church slightly changed the question to, "Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?" Regardless of how it is asked, the question's intent and meaning seem crystal clear: Are you being honest and telling the truth? It seems to me that Romney (who has a Harvard law degree) knew Trump had been involved in some hinky and possibly illegal stuff. This presented the senator with a delicate and difficult decision: He could either be loyal to his faith or to his political party—but not both. One of my most reliable sources told me Romney deliberated and prayed for several weeks before deciding which way to vote.

But I wanted to test my religious reasoning with those whose understanding of it is greater than mine. At the "Thank You, Mitt" rally at the Capitol, I asked A'Lissa Olson, a member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, if she thought the temple recommend question might somehow be connected to Romney's vote.

She thought it was, adding, "I am so grateful that he was prayerful and thoughtful in his decision. I think that breaking from the party is not a sign of disloyalty—it's a sign of having character and being able to honestly assess the information that was presented in front of him."

Silent censure

But, apparently, not all LDS members saw Romney's actions and words in the same divine light. Another of my longtime political sources told me Romney's religious rhetoric bothered some of the LDS faithful, both in Utah County and around the state. According to my source, Romney's remarks implied that if other Mormons didn't share the senator's view of Trump's guilt, then maybe they weren't being sufficiently righteous or moral.

This line of thinking also made me wonder about the other Republican LDS members of Utah's Washington, D.C., delegation. Since they voted to acquit the president on the impeachment counts, did this mean they weren't being truly honest in their dealings with their fellowmen?

After the "Thank You, Mitt" rally, I made my way inside the Capitol. My first glimpse of the senator came when he met with the Utah Senate Minority Caucus. I hadn't seen Romney in person since his 2012 presidential campaign. Eight years later, he didn't initially appear to have changed all that much. But upon closer inspection, I thought I detected a bit of an older and slightly slower gait.

Utah's Democratic state senators thanked Romney for standing up for his impeachment beliefs. This was not unexpected. But Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne did surprise me with her remarks. The Senate Minority Leader from West Valley thanked Romney for rescuing Salt Lake's 2002 Olympics, saying, "I think you should be commended over and over and over again because you saved them."

Sitting behind Romney as I was, a small smile crossed my face. There was that whole Olympic scandal thing again. Mitt and me once more. I must admit Sen. Mayne's kind words to him hit me right in the feels.

Next came Romney's meeting with the Republicans of the Utah House Majority Caucus. This was where things were supposed to get interesting. After all, it was a Republican state representative who introduced a resolution for Romney to be censured because of his impeachment vote.

Far from being greeted with scorn, however, Romney instead got a resounding ovation. In fact, when addressing the group, the subject of impeachment wasn't even discussed. Romney certainly didn't bring it up and not a single legislator dared mention it.

This silence puzzled me. So, later, I asked a Capitol Hill source why Romney hadn't been confronted at the caucus about his anti-Trump actions. This source said legislators were simply being passive-aggressive. While some may be angry at Romney, I was told, they weren't going to confront him about it in public. So, instead of censuring Romney, Utah's legislative leadership decided to show support for the president by sending Trump a letter of citation commending him for his work on a national level as well as those affecting Utah specifically.

Fathers conversing: George Romney, center, speaking with network correspondent  Sander Vanocur, right, in the 1960s - COURTESY CHRIS VANOCUR
  • Courtesy Chris Vanocur
  • Fathers conversing: George Romney, center, speaking with network correspondent Sander Vanocur, right, in the 1960s

Like father, like son

As "Mitt Mania" day concluded at the Capitol, Sen. Romney spoke with Utah reporters. Romney himself seemed to be in a passive-aggressive mode. He talked both about the impeachment vote and his good relationship with Trump, saying "I've known the president a long time. We get along personally, have been collegial for many, many years. I support the president probably more than most senators do on policy matters."

This press gathering gave me my first chance to engage Romney directly. I started by asking him if, in light of the harsh criticism he received, whether he had any regrets about his impeachment vote. He said no, adding, "I've lived long enough to know that you've got to be able to sleep with your conscience. You can't have your conscience be indicted by mistakes that you've made when you don't vote your conscience."

For a moment, I was briefly transported back in time. Twenty years ago, when Romney was running the 2002 Olympics, I would sometimes engage him in this kind of give and take. I would ask him tough but fair questions, and he usually deflected them easily. I enjoyed this back and forth and sensed he did, too. However, this 2020 exchange with Mitt at the Capitol also reminded me of another on-going part of our history.

In my 2012 City Weekly article, I didn't just write about Mitt and me. The LDS church was also a big part of that story. With him being a devout member and with me being a longtime Utah reporter, it always seemed that religion—like a river—ran through our relationship.

As I reported in that 2012 article, a key source told me that the late church President Gordon B. Hinckley had not been pleased with my initial reporting about the Olympic scandal. According to this source, Hinckley had wondered why I hadn't just kept the original incriminating Olympic document to myself. Being second-guessed by the church's prophet did give me pause.

But after the 2002 Games ended successfully, President Hinckley publicly proclaimed they had been a very positive experience both for Utah and the church. This praise cleansed me of any sin, making me feel as if I had been absolved.

Fast forward again to 2020 and Mitt Romney's visit to the Capitol. Given that he had brought it up in his impeachment speech, I thought it was appropriate to ask Romney about his faith—specifically, in regard to a comment made by Trump shortly after the president's acquittal. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, the president said, in apparent reference to Romney, "I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong."

I asked Romney if he any had reaction to this. The senator responded, "I really don't pay a lot of attention to the tweets and the comments that are associated with politics these days." I'd expected Romney to speak out more forcefully in defense of his religious beliefs, but he took the high road instead. Perhaps he simply felt his religious remarks on the Senate floor spoke strongly enough for themselves.

Shortly afterward, the news conference ended, and Romney was poised to leave. But before he headed off to the airport, Mitt and I had a bit of unfinished business to take care of.

COURTESY CHRIS VANOCUR
  • Courtesy Chris Vanocur

I approached him before he left and quietly told him I had a present for him. I then handed him a blue folder with an old photograph inside. This photo showed a distinguished looking politician talking to a 35-year-old dark-haired reporter. The politician was Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt's father. The NBC News reporter he was talking to was my dad, Sander Vanocur.

After Dad passed away last fall, I was going through his political memorabilia. There was no shortage of photographs: My father with President John F. Kennedy in the White House, with Senator Robert F. Kennedy shortly before RFK was assassinated, and also Dad with likes of senators Hubert H. Humphrey and John Glenn.

But among these photos, I was also pleased to discover this old image of Romney Sr. talking to my dad. I decided it would be a nice gesture to give this keepsake to Mitt. For me, it was a subtle way of acknowledging our 20-year relationship and, to be honest, my way of thanking him for his brave impeachment vote.

But there was something on the back of the photo that also caught my attention. In very small and faded red ink was the date the picture was taken. In some ways, this was a clue which revealed something new about Mitt Romney—another hidden link between us.

The photo was taken in the 1960s, a time when Governor Romney emerged as a vocal supporter of civil rights. He proclaimed racial discrimination to be one of his state's most urgent problems and even joined with black leaders and activists in a protest march in a Detroit suburb. For his outspokenness on this issue, Romney was criticized by other Republicans and even among Latter-day Saints. But he remained unfazed and continued to be an advocate for racial equality.

Until I saw this picture and began studying George Romney in more detail, I didn't know about his courageous civil-rights stance. But it immediately fascinated me and did so for two noteworthy reasons: First, it was hard for me not to connect the bravery George Romney showed on this issue with his son's mettle in the impeachment proceedings. It made me wonder whether the two Romneys shared an admirable gene for righteousness and bravery. I couldn't help but think that Mitt Romney has lately made his dad proud, not only with his impeachment vote, but by marching in a recent Black Lives Matter protest, for which he was criticized just like his father was, and by President Trump himself.

Secondly, on a more personal note, I was curious about what Romney Sr. and my father were talking about in that picture. My dad's favorite all-time story was covering the civil rights movement and his favorite interview was the one he did with Martin Luther King Jr. The thought that Mitt's father and mine might have been talking about civil rights and politics struck a familiar chord. Like fathers, like sons.

When I gave Mitt this picture after his news conference, he immediately spied his father, "Oh, look at that. I know that guy." He seemed genuinely pleased at the gift. He also said it was nice to see me again. But in politics (and in life), these moments can be fleeting. After thanking me for the picture, Romney suddenly vanished. It's quite possible this will be the last time I talk to him or see him in person.

Political heroism

As I left the Capitol and walked back home, I thought about Mitt and me. When he took over the troubled 2002 Olympics, most Utahns (including me) were impressed with him, his leadership and how triumphant the Winter Games ultimately were. But in the blink of an eye, he left us to become the governor of Massachusetts. Romney would return to Utah a decade or so later, though, as a defeated presidential candidate. Then, like a political phoenix, he rose once more to become a U.S. senator.

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To me, the Utah-based reincarnation of Romney has been a decidedly mixed bag. I respected him for speaking out against Donald Trump in early 2016. But then there was that horrifying photograph of Romney and Trump having dinner after the election. Romney was supposedly being considered for secretary of state. However, I've always believed Trump never intended to give Romney that cabinet job. I think the president-elect just wanted to publicly humiliate Romney by dangling the job in front of him—but not giving it to him. The absolutely pained expression on Romney's face at that dinner remains anguishing to see even years later.

And when Romney spoke to legislators at the Capitol during Mitt Mania, there were also some irksome moments. When he hinted to Utah lawmakers that there might be entitlement cuts coming, I was disappointed by this conservative trope but decided to give him a pass on that and other minor political transgressions because of his impeachment heroics.

Regardless of exactly why Mitt Romney voted to convict the president—either because of his LDS faith or as an extension of his dad's courageous history or some combination thereof—his senatorial moment of clarity should never be forgotten. This was a singular act of heroism. For his valiant impeachment vote, I, too, toast Mitt, but likely with something stronger than chocolate milk.

And because he voted not to acquit, I still cannot quit him.

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