I knew Mitt Romney. (Well, a little bit.) And Mitt Romney is no Mitt Romney. At least, he doesn’t seem to be the same guy who, in the wake of a vote-buying bid scandal, deftly marshaled the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics through a minefield of fears about terrorism, potential xenophobia and the usual Olympic headaches.
As organizing chief of those Games, staged just months after 9/11, Romney managed not only to restore global Olympic officials’ faith in American know-how and American humility—after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic poohbahs’ arrogant, slipshod performance—he also struck a blow for international understanding.
Whoever that fellow was who, during a 2012 presidential campaign, belittled 47 percent of the American citizenry and called upon undocumented immigrants to “self-deport,” the Olympic Mitt Romney preached that “we care about what the world thinks of America….It’s important that America no only enforce peace but also demonstrate that.”
At a time when many Olympic visitors worried there would be too much U.S. jingoism in response to the emotional wounds of 9/11, Romney invited Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid South African archbishop, and Polish labor activist Lech Walesa to be among the high-profile characters in Salt Lake’s opening ceremonies.
“Just as you find that you can’t fight terrorism on your own,” Tutu said, “you can’t have the Olympic Games on your own. You need help.”
Walesa admitted “thinking if I should be here, because you remember I was on the other side [in the cold war]. But now we have this new attitude….I hope we will now go to a different world of this good struggle.”
Now we have the disorienting Romney-Donald Trump tete-a-tete, which feels as personal as it does political, and I certainly won’t take sides in that squabble. (Except to say that the really, really little bit that I knew Trump—from a lengthy mid-1980s interview regarding his ownership of a team in the short-lived U.S. Football League—gave a clear glimpse of Trump’s struggle with facts.)
Anyway, leading up to—and during—the 2002 Olympics, the version of Mitt Romney on display was an open-minded, efficient manager with a manageable ego. After two former Salt Lake City Olympic organizing officers had been indicted for paying $1 million in money and gifts to International Olympic Committee members in exchange for votes to host the 2002 Games, Romney was recruited in 1999 by then-Utah governor Mike Leavitt to come to the rescue.
Wealthy enough to turn down $285,000 in annual pay for the gig, Romney saved the community from embarrassment and financial crisis by engineering a $400 million turnaround, slashing $200 million in expenses and raising $200 million from previously reluctant sponsors.
“There is no greater irony,” he said then, “than my being given this Olympic responsibility. I was not a great athlete and I’ve never been in the business of sports.” During his days as an investment banker in Boston, he said, he had become a New England Patriots football fan, but the Olympics generated “special feelings and emotions. I didn’t get teary-eyed when the Patriots won the Super Bowl. I do get teary-eyed when I watch Chris Klug [the snowboarder who won a bronze medal competing with a liver transplant] and watch Sarah Hughes’ performance [to rise from fourth place to win the figure-skating gold].”
Romney seemed genuine enough in that settling (with the possible exception of his black, perfectly groomed hair, though that may be jealousy on my part), and aware of his obligations as a public figure. He appeared to be all-in on the Olympic ideal of international peace and brotherhood. He said he “knew the power of one badly chosen word,” a reference to when his father, George, suddenly disappeared as a Republican presidential candidate in 1968 after saying he had been “brainwashed” on U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Months after the 2002 Olympics, Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts. And won. No surprise. He had spoken publicly of his political aspirations the day after the Games ended, when his name recognition was sky high. Then, out of mothballs to run for president in 2012, he wasn’t quite recognizable. Except for the hair.
Forty-seven percent and self-deportation just don’t jive with the Olympic spirit. Then again, what must Desmond Tutu and Lech Walesa be thinking about Donald Trump?