Breaking: Massacre at Mountain Meadows

The Washington Post has a bit of a reputation for attempting to “macaca” conservative candidates.

The phrase is based on the many stories the Post ran to derail the campaign of George Allen for governor of Virginia after he called a campaign opponent’s staffer that word. It worked. Allen never recovered from the Post‘s coverage. But the Post‘s coverage didn’t sit terribly well with those readers who are not politically aligned with the more liberal elements of the news or opinion pages. So when the Post attempted to do the same thing against Republican candidate for governor Bob McDonnell back in 2009, it fell flat.

The newspaper still ran all those stories about the masters thesis he wrote in the 1980s on traditional family values — news stories, analysis, cartoons, columns, etc. And it ran those stories on the front page and pounded McDonnell for it day after day. But, well, the current governor of Virginia is named Bob McDonnell, so the counter-McDonnell campaign wasn’t a huge success. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t legitimate, in my view — that’s what I argued at the time — but that it received a level of coverage and was done with such a partisan fervor that it reflected poorly on the paper.

Now the Post has written two stories about Mitt Romney that his supporters say are tendentious, biased and unfair. I’m not putting out a “macaca” watch yet, but let’s call it a “macaca” warning. The first story was the 5,000-word piece about a bullying incident from Romney’s high school years. Some might say that’s a good word count for a 50-year-old story from a candidate’s teen-aged years. Others might suggest it’s a wee bit of overkill.

The latest story, though, is just really weird. I don’t even quite know what to say about it. It’s headlined “Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith tangles with a quirk of Arkansas history” and it ties the presumptive Republican nominee to, um, something that happened 155 years ago. I’m not going to do the math but I’m almost certain that was before Romney was born.

The piece is written by Sandhya Somashekhar, with contributions from polling analyst Scott Clement. Here’s the purple prose lede:

On the wildflower-studded slopes of the Ozarks, where memories run long and family ties run thick, a little-known and long-ago chapter of history still simmers.

Simmer down! Thankfully we get right into the facts. People in a wagon train from Arkansas were slaughtered by a Mormon militia in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The descendants of the victims still ponder it and have negative feelings about Mormons as a result of the violence their family encountered years ago:

There aren’t many places in America more likely to be suspicious of Mormonism — and potentially more problematic for Mitt Romney, who is seeking to become the country’s first Mormon president. Not only do many here retain a personal antipathy toward the religion and its followers, but they also tend to be Christian evangelicals, many of whom view Mormonism as a cult.

And yet, there is scant evidence that Romney’s religion is making much difference in how voters here are thinking about the presidential election and whether they are willing to back the former Massachusetts governor.

And that, my friends, is the story in a nutshell.

We’re told that in the town that launched the wagon train that got destroyed in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, voters are still more anti-Obama than anything else. So how is this potentially problematic for Romney again? Is this a real story? Or is it a hamfisted attempt to link Romney to a massacre? Or was it a legit story that was executed poorly?

I mean, Obama could lose his own primary in Arkansas next month and we’re told that the state could be a problem for Romney? Come again? The reporter says it’s impossible to know how Romney’s religion will play in the November election (it’s not impossible to predict how the media will play it, however). Some numbers are provided showing that a third of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Mormon church but then other numbers are provided showing that this doesn’t necessarily translate to people’s voting decisions.

Indeed, many here say their political values will be more important to their vote than religion or history. A rural and deeply religious community, many cite the cultural issues of abortion and gun rights as foremost on their minds. The weak economy has deepened their dislike of President Obama, who received less than 40 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2008.

Still, Romney’s candidacy has prompted some soul-searching in this area, where a historical group estimates that more than half the residents can trace their ancestry back to the wagon train.

Are you wondering what I’m wondering? How this angle got chosen for a story about Mitt Romney’s religion?

I mean, I’m truly interested in the massacre. So are many of my Mormon acquaintances. But I just don’t see it as being a major campaign issue for Mitt Romney. Am I missing something? After we learn how little a role Romney’s Mormonism will play in people’s voting decisions, we learn much more about the massacre. It’s all really interesting:

The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of Mormonism. The church has apologized for the incident, and Romney addressed it during his 2007 presidential campaign in response to a reporter’s question.

“That was a terrible, awful act carried out by members of my faith,” he told the Associated Press. “There are bad people in any church, and it’s true of members of my church, too.”

Violence erupted between Mormons and non-Mormons elsewhere, such as Carthage, Ill., where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. And in Independence, Mo., site of the “Missouri Mormon War,” a conflict that resulted primarily in Mormon deaths.

Yes, we have to wait until midway through the story to learn that Mormons in the mid-19th century were also victims of violent mobs. No word on whether that 150-year-old reason is why they’re not inclined to vote for Obama. Heck, that issue isn’t even raised, for some reason. We learn more about how the descendants of the dead in northwestern Arkansas are still holding a grudge. And then back to more details about the massacre.

Then back to the northwestern Arkansas folks. Didya know that they teach their kids to hunt raccoons and relatives are referred to as ‘kin’? Sounds so scary. We’re told that they are so extremely Christian that even former Gov. Mike Huckabee calls them “Shiite Republicans.”

I’m telling you, the story is just weird. After giving so many details about the massacre, the story kind of glides over the murder of an ancestor of Romney’s named Parley Pratt. Oh no. I just realized that they’re probably saving that juicy story for next week.

Here’s how the story ends:

None of that history, though, including the massacre, may make much of a difference at the polls.

“That was 200 years ago,” Doug Steele, 45, a Republican insurance agent related to some of the massacre victims, said over a chicken sandwich at Granny’s Kitchen in Huntsville. “It’s been a long time. You can’t hate forever.”

When it comes to decades-old hit pieces, though, you can count on the Post, I guess.

Here’s the thing. I think a discussion of all candidates’ religious heritages and traditions is a good idea. Something tells me that by November, we’ll know more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than citizens in some portions of Utah do. And the story of Mormonism’s birth and difficult early years in the Americas is totally legitimate. Just as stories on the doctrines and teachings President Barack Obama learned as a member of the United Church of Christ are appropriate.

But these stories are much better when they’re less about a political horse race and more about an earnest attempt to illuminate the candidates and their views. I hope that as we get deeper into this campaign, we see more thoughtful journalism and less gotcha stuff. Or, at least, I hope the “gotcha” stuff they provide has more “gotcha” to it.

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  • Ben

    I took this story to be demonstrating the following: Even in the most Mormon-skeptic corner of America, people are talking about casting their votes based on party not on religion. The story broadened that point out with national polls saying much the same thing. I think this is a very interesting way to tell that story.

    I think it’s a wee bit cynical to claim the story is trying to associate the MMM on Romney. I mean, who would be remotely persuaded by that?

    As stories go that touch on MMM, this got the details right and put them in context — noting it was an anomaly for a church that has been the victim of violent persecution, and mentioning the war jitters and anger over Pratt that the Mormons were feeling. Bravo.

  • michael

    Obviously you didn’t grow up in Tornado Alley. Watches precede warnings, not the other way around.

  • Mollie

    Busted, Michael.

    Ben, that is the best construction I’ve seen anyone put on this story! I’m impressed.

  • Brett

    I agree with Ben that the story was probably conceived to indicate how much other issues are trumping Mr. Romney’s religion, but I don’t think it gelled very well and its lack of focus left it open to criticism.

  • Ben

    You sound unpersuaded, Mollie :-). I can agree with Brett that the story execution leaves it open to questioning. But as someone who has written on MMM it is a pretty tricky piece of history to deal with fairly.

  • James Gibson

    George Allen was running for re-election to the Senate when the infamous “macaca” incident happened in 2006. He was governor of Virginia from 1994-98.

  • Jerry

    cultural issues of abortion

    Abortion is a cultural issue? That particular phrase convicted the entire story in my book.

  • Jeff

    The Washington Post has a reputation for CACA, which is well-deserved in this case. The New York Times is slipping in its dotage; there’s competition out there and it needs to up its game.

  • Bill

    I read that story yesterday and thought it a clumsy, transparent attempt at guilt by association. I half expected the headline: Romney’s Ties To Bullying Go Back Further.

    Yes, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was an atrocity. But if you’re going to bring it up to illustrate Mormon history, you don’t need to reference Romney. And you should at least describe the situation the Mormons were in. They fled the United States because of religious persecution and settled in what was then, Mexican territory. After the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, i they found themselves again under the authority of the US Government. A year later, gold was discovered in California, and large numbers of travelers passed through their lands. Mormons were hated, and many of the travelers were not terrible respectful of Mormon property.

    For anyone interested, Mountain Meadows Massacre: A Search for Perspective is a slim, interesting volume written by David S. King, and published in 1970 by the Pioneer American Society Press, Falls Church, VA. Mr. King was a congressman from Utah in the early 60s and US Ambassador to Mauritius under Lyndon Johnson. He was Mormon, and the book reflects that. But it’s another voice.

  • Bill

    Sorry for the typos. Too hurry much.

  • Mollie

    Ben writes:

    You sound unpersuaded, Mollie :-) .

    I’m always open to the idea I missed something. And since I clearly didn’t “get” this story at all, I’m open to your best construction on it, certainly.

  • Will

    The story asserts that an unnamed “they” are in the habit calling Mountain Meadows “the first 9/11″

    I am afraid that, in the absence of any actual attribution, I simply don’t believe this.

  • Ben

    Will — The controversial and ham-fisted movie “September dawn” used the 9/11 date coincidence explicitely in its trailer:

    The film took a lot of its queues from the survivor’s relatives.

  • Ben

    Or I guess the victims’ relatives — the folks in Arkansas.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Some might say that’s a good word count for a 50-year-old story from a candidate’s teen-aged years. Others might suggest it’s a wee bit of overkill.




    That made my morning.

  • Jettboy

    Ben, if “they” are the ones you just mentioned then it would be nice for the reporter to actually name the group. Other than that, its conjecture.

  • Ben

    Jett – the sentence structure clearly indicates they refers to victims’ relatives. Tough crowd here.

  • Will

    But no actual quotation is given. How are we to know someone actually said so?

    I do not think pronouns floating around without antecedents honest reportage.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The literal war over whether Kansas Territory would be admitted to the Union as a slave ir free state led to violent attacks by both sides that led to the appellation “Bleeding Kansas”. In the years before the Civil War, some 65 people on both sides were killed, including unarmed civilians. Then in August 1863, Quantrill’s Raiders, on behalf of the Confederacy, attacked Lawrence, Kansas, and killed between 150 and 200 people. Quantrill’s men were primarily Missourian Southern sympathizers. No doubt they were Christians, too.

    The Mountain Meadows Massacre, as horrific as it was, was not unique in that era when people took the law into their own hands, especially in Missouri. It was even less unique against the background of American militias and regular Army troops killing American Indians by the dozens. Many Americans have ancestors who participated in atrocities of this kind, regardless of their religion. Many more participated in the mass atrocity of slavery for over three hundred years. We should be humble about trying to blame modern real people for the conduct of people 150 years ago.

  • Retrocon

    It is interesting that the MMM is so well known, apparently, by this author, and that when Romney was running previously for president someone even thought to make a movie of the event. I haven’t seen the same individuals and groups express much interest in bringing to light atrocities such as Haun’s Mill (where Mormons were slaughtered in a mass mob shooting) or in exposing the many other injustices perpetrated on the early Mormon faithful.

    In other words, Somashekhar’s original article was purely an agenda-driven piece which attempted to portray Mormons in a negative light, then tie it to the context of Romney running for president. The polling angle of whether people would let this supposed simmering vengefulness drive the vote is just meaningless fluff used as a mask of legitimacy.

    Note that Mormons, while they are aware of the history of the early Mormons, as a people they have not harbored long-simmering grudges nor wallowed in the self-defeating muck of victimhood.

  • Ben

    Retrocon, the movie was made because it was the 150th anniversary of MMM, not because of Mitt Romney. Movies take a few years to plan and conceive, long before Mitt came on the scene.

    Honestly, the amount of paranoia in this discussion is too much. How about if something doesn’t make sense or seems to come out left field we all avoid jumping to the worst possible assumptions about people’s motives? How in the world can we work together as Americans or as people of faith or as human beings if we don’t?