Associated Press reporters Jennifer Dobner and Glen Johnson put together a doozy of a story that ran Saturday on the Mitt Romney family tree. The hook is the fact that several of his ancestors were married multiple times. At the same time. Of course, the supporters of the former Massachusetts governor are quick to note that of the three leading candidates, Romney is the only one to be married once:
Polygamy was not just a historical footnote, but a prominent element in the family tree of the former Massachusetts governor now seeking to become the first Mormon president.
Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, married his fifth wife in 1897. That was more than six years after Mormon leaders banned polygamy and more than three decades after a federal law barred the practice.
Romney’s great-grandmother, Hannah Hood Hill, was the daughter of polygamists. She wrote vividly in her autobiography about how she “used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow” over her own husband’s multiple marriages.
Unfortunately, Romney chose not to comment for the article, which is why this will remain a story.
Now the question is, does any of this matter in determining Romney’s fitness for the presidency? No, not at all. But a key voting bloc courted by the Romney campaign — evangelical Christians — remains deeply suspicious of Mormons. Many of those voters have said that they will not vote for Romney precisely because of his faith. That’s just the reality he is facing.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is quite familiar with political opposition based on faith due to her close association with the John Kennedy presidential campaign, about the parallels:
MS. GOODWIN: Well, in both cases it seems there are people who are worried. Four out of 10 claim in a poll about Romney that they’re worried that somehow the Mormon church will be controlling his actions, just as they were sure that John Kennedy was building a tunnel to Rome to have the Vatican control him. John Kennedy knew he had to take it head on, and he did it twice. I mean, West Virginia, originally, before the primaries, he was way ahead, 70 to 30. And then a few months later, after he got more publicity, they went down, and he had flipped with Humphrey, he was 30-70. He said, “What happened?” “Well, they didn’t realize you were a Catholic before this all began.” So he decided, he said right then, “I can’t believe that my country would deny me the right to be president from the day I was baptized.” But then it still didn’t go away, even though he won West Virginia, so he gave a speech in Houston to the ministers, which some people are urging Romney to do as well, to make a major speech in which he said, you know, “I will not speak for my church. My church will not speak for me. And if the finger of suspicion is pointed toward Catholics, some day it may be towards Baptists, some day towards Quakers,” or he may have said some day toward Mormons. So it may be that Mr. Romney’s going to have to deal with this issue head on, because it does seem like there’s a subterranean concern out there, not knowing much about Mormonism, and fearing he might be controlled by some hierarchy.
As the religious right struggles to find a candidate, Romney has an opportunity to change the public’s perception of his church. Right or wrong, many people remain skeptical of Romney because of his faith. Changing that will take more than asking the media to ignore it.