How Hateful Was Robert Jeffress's Mormonism-Is-a-Cult Line? Very, If You Know History.

How Hateful Was Robert Jeffress's Mormonism-Is-a-Cult Line? Very, If You Know History.

Alfredo Corchado has a story in today's Dallas Morning News about Mitt Romney's Mexican relatives: "Mitt Romney's relatives in Mexico are supportive but wary." It's a topic that has been in the back of my mind ever since Dallas's own Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of Dallas First Baptist, tried to help Rick Perry by calling Mormonism a cult.

Mormons settled in the mountains of Northern Mexico in the 1880s. The popular version is that they went down there to practice polygamy, but I think that's a little muddy. Back then people in the United States were still murdering Mormon families for being Mormon. Mexico offered a tolerant refuge. Anyway, the family of Mitt Romney was of the non-polygamist mainstream of Mormonism.

Corchado's piece touches on a part of Romney history that I know just a little bit about -- the family's return to the United States during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Corchado writes:

"The bloody Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 prompted many Mormons to return to the United States and divided the Romney clan. Young George (Mitt Romney's father) followed his parents and settled in Idaho, Utah and later Michigan. While many of the Romneys returned to Mexico, George Romney charted a different course."

I interviewed George Romney in 1973 or '74 not too long after he came back to Michigan from his post as Richard Nixon's secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A former governor of Michigan, he had left politics then and retired to his large home in the affluent suburb of Bloomfield Hills. I was a reporter for The Detroit Free Press, and I was already 93 years old, so go figure. Or please don't.

Every time I hear people make jokes about Mitt Romney's impeccably neat appearance, I remember that interview and smile inwardly. Man, I know where the neat thing came from. The Romney home was the World High Temple of Neat. George Romney himself always had that combed-back, starched, bulletproof personal neatness that was, back then, commonplace among corporate chief executives, which he had been before politics. Think Robert McNamara. Or don't, if you're not 150 years old.

I drove out to Bloomfield in a car with a rusted-out hanging tailpipe. The pipe scraped loudly on George Romney's pebble driveway as I came in. I remember the driveway as having been combed like a Japanese garden, which may or may not be true.

I wound up writing a huge biopic masterpiece, I thought, about George Romney, which has been utterly forgotten as far as I can tell. But I did get a call from a political reporter in 2008, when Mitt Romney was running for president. He asked me about an anecdote I had brought back to the Free Press newsroom after that interview a zillion years ago. How does this stuff survive? I do not know.

Mitt Romney, deep in the heart of Robert Jeffress's Dallas
Mitt Romney, deep in the heart of Robert Jeffress's Dallas

In the interview I wanted George Romney to spill his guts about Nixon and HUD. Everybody has forgotten now about the HUD home-loan guaranty debacle of the '70s, a very Republican precursor of today's Fannie Mae disaster. Vast swaths of older cities were devastated when Nixon pushed HUD to finance white flight: He got HUD to make the federal government a co-signer on hundreds of thousands of transparently worthless mortgages.

Anyway, that was my quest. George Romney, a supremely confident and experienced politician by then, talked over me and swatted me away like a gnat. He never gave me a syllable about HUD. Instead, he was worried about my tailpipe.

In fact after the interview he followed me out to the car with a wire coat hanger and was down on his knees about to make a field repair. This is the former CEO of American Motors. I don't remember exactly how it ended, but I think in embarrassment I got the wire away from him and tied the damned thing up myself. Sheesh.

Anyway, I told the tailpipe story back in the city room. Somebody remembered it. A politics reporter from somewhere, not the Free Press, called me about it more than 30 years later. I can't find any mention now of the tailpipe story in anything anybody ever wrote in 2008, so maybe the reporter, whose name I forget, decided to go get some anecdotes from somebody else who could remember something. If so, good move, sir.

As head of American Motors, George Romney was sort of the original green CEO. He personally led a big national advertising campaign vaunting the Nash Rambler as a fuel-efficient car up against the "gas-guzzling dinosaurs" of Detroit. That was true heresy in Detroit back then, and it rubbed the rest of the industry the wrong way, but the public loved it, and Romney became a popular centrist Republican governor throughout the '60s.

I did tweak a little personal memory out of him in that interview. I say I tweaked it out of him. Maybe it's in 100 other George Romney interviews, but I did read about him pretty extensively before driving out to his house that day, and I never saw it anywhere else.

George Romney sat back at a point in our talk. He was in a big chair in a big den decorated with elephant-related sculpture and memorabilia -- the retirement throne-room of a great man. He told me he remembered sitting on top of a boxcar with his mother when they fled Mexico by train.

He had only a picture in his mind, scant detail. He would have been about 5. He told me the women and children were on the tops of the boxcars. The Mormon men, armed and on horseback, rode escort alongside. Gazing out the big picture window that day, he could still see the Mormon men riding their horses with rifles across the pommels. Unfortunately, the memory didn't last, because he could also still see my car out on the driveway.

He told me his father made and lost three fortunes in the construction business. As a young man George Romney worked in Washington as a lobbyist for the aluminum industry. I came across an anecdote somewhere from an author who had spotted the young George Romney out on the congressional links very early one morning, teaching himself this important power-game before reporting for work that morning. The author said George Romney was literally grabbing up his clubs and running as fast as he could from green to green in order to get in the maximum practice time before work. And I bet his hair was perfect.

In 1975 I interviewed John Ehrlichman, who had been assistant to the president for domestic affairs in the Nixon White House. He had just been convicted of perjury but had not yet reported to prison. He was coming through Detroit to promote a book. I met him at the airport. He made me carry his bags. He did not answer a single one of my urgently important questions about the Watergate scandal. It turned out I was his damn driver for the day. Welcome to the life of a general assignment regional market city desk reporter.

But he did get sincere, almost emotional at one point, very unexpectedly. He had been gazing out the car window in a long very determined silence, ignoring me, I thought. He turned and asked me if I had ever met George Romney. I said I had.

I can't quote much of what he said by now, but I remember the gist. He said that of all the people he had seen come through the White House and the cabinet in his years there, he thought George Romney was maybe the finest one -- a man of real integrity and decency. I do remember these words: "A truly good man."

So I thought of all this when I read Jeffress's hateful words designed to summon bigotry against the Mormons. I thought of what this kind of talk must call up in the hearts and minds of Mormons. These are people whose family lore includes death at the hands of torch-wielding mobs -- not in Mexico, here. In the stories they tell around the dinner table are sharp memories of political instability and flight. They have reacted to all of this in their own lives with hard work, family stability and personal integrity.

It seems so terribly ruthless, coarse and immoral to stir the pot of bigotry against them only to gain an edge for a favored candidate at the polls. If a man can do that to the Mormons, what would keep the same man from doing the same thing to any other minority, if he thought he could earn two bits by it?

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