To watch Mitt Romney these days, he of the creased blue jeans and family that looks like it came from a Betty Crocker mold, circa 1957, it’s hard to see a product of one of the most radical social and sexual experiments in American history.
But it’s true. White-bread Mitt is the great-grandson of a man who married five women. At the turn of the last century, Miles Romney was sent to Mexico by the bearded patriarchs of the Mormon Church, there to start a colony for those who thought it was divine right to have as many wives as they wanted. Romney’s father, George, was born in Mexico, a descendant of outlaws with harems.
I started thinking about the extraordinary family past of the possible Republican presidential nominee after reading part of Janny Scott’s fascinating new book, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.”
Scott, a former Times colleague, tells a story of family dislocation and fierce maternal independence. In Hawaii and Indonesia, young Barry Obama stood out like a redwood on the prairie, and was taunted for his skin color. The father he never knew was from a Kenyan goat-herding family, and the stepfather he barely knew was an Indonesian whose main passion was tennis. Obama was raised mostly by white grandparents from Kansas, and a free-spirited mother with a passion for education.
It’s a miracle of sorts, given the drift a boy with that background must have felt, that Obama’s own family with Michelle now seems so grounded — and normal. It’s also startling that Romney, whose ancestry includes six polygamous men with 41 wives, is now considered an icon for traditional family values. Mitt’s great-grandmother, Hannah Hood, wrote how she used to “walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow” over her husband’s many wives.
The background of both men is telling, in one sense: how success can emerge from the blender of American ethnicity and lifestyle experimentation. But it takes a generation, or more, for many people to get used to the novelty, as the long, despicable sideshow over Obama’s birth certificate demonstrates.
This shameful episode has little to do with reality and everything to do with the strangeness of Obama’s background — especially his race. Many Republicans refuse to accept that Obama could come from such an exotic stew and still be “American.” They have to delegitimize him. So, even though the certificate of live birth first made public in 2008 is a legal document that any court would have to recognize, they demanded more.
No American president has ever been so humiliated, and those who think it has nothing to do with race are deluding themselves. Donald Trump owes Obama an apology for doing more to stoke these coded fears about the president’s origins than anyone. But don’t hold your breath: a man without class or shame will not soon grow a conscience. The only consolation is that Trump’s disapproval ratings have skyrocketed since he decided to lead the liars’ caravan.
Had Romney been running for president 100 years ago he would be facing a similar campaign, albeit one led by Mormon-haters and the Trumps of his day. Remember, the United States nearly went to war with the theocracy in Utah Territory; at a time when polygamy was equated with slavery, President Buchanan dispatched the Army against defiant Mormon leaders. The religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, had as many as 48 wives, among them a 14-year-old girl.
The church renounced polygamy in 1890, as a condition of statehood for Utah. But the past was not easily expunged. When Utah sent Reed Smoot to the Senate in 1903, Congress refused to seat him. Smoot was an Apostle in the Mormon Church, and as such a suspected polygamist — though there was no evidence of multiple wives. After a four-year trial, and more than a thousand witnesses who were asked about every bit of Reed’s background and that of his church, he was allowed to take his place in the Senate. This was thanks in large part to the backing of the nation’s first progressive president, Teddy Roosevelt.
Today, six members of the Senate — counting the appointment of Dean Heller from Nevada this week — and two potential presidential candidates come from a church once described as a devil’s cult by mainstream Christians. If Romney wins next year, and Democrats retain the Senate, Mormons would hold not just the presidency but the Senate Majority post, in Harry Reid from Nevada. Their religion is not an issue, except with the same intolerant crowd who have followed Trump into the gutter.
Janny Scott’s book reminds us that most Americans don’t come from Mayflower stock. When I started mucking around in my own Irish ancestry, I found some border-crossers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not unlike Romney’s people in Mexico. It looks like bootlegging, rather than extra wives, may have been at stake, but I can’t be sure.
At least one president, John F. Kennedy, came from bootlegging Irish heritage. It was always a side issue, the mist of his father’s past, though nobody ever forced Jack Kennedy to prove he wasn’t a criminal. He looked like most Americans, and that was enough.
By: Timothy Egan, The New York Times Opinion Pages, April 28, 2011