The most persistent refrain of the 2012 election has been a question: Who is Willard “Mitt” Romney? Columnists all over the political spectrum have called the Republican torchbearer everything from a robot to a human cipher. “Mustering up outrage over [Romney’s] nothingness,” Steve Erickson wrote in The American Prospect, “makes as much sense as mustering up outrage over a galactic black hole.” At points, the former leader of the Boston stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seemed unwilling to so much as utter the word Mormon.
In a last-ditch attempt to better understand the GOP nominee, I light out to where the Romney story begins: some 270 miles southwest of Chicago, in Nauvoo, Illinois. Once Mormonism’s principal settlement, today the tiny town stands as a sacred tourist destination and the ultimate historical example of anti-Mormon sentiment—with Romney’s ancestors on the receiving end.
In 1839, having been pushed out of New York, Ohio and Missouri by adversaries, Mormonism founder Joseph Smith led his followers to a swampy Illinois territory, christened it Nauvoo (pronounced “NAW-voo”), a Hebrew word for “beautiful place,” and got to work building a gleaming limestone temple atop a hill. In 1841, Mitt’s great-great grandparents, Miles Romney and Elizabeth Gaskell, among the earliest converts to Mormonism, arrived in Nauvoo from England. But just as the city was beginning to flower, Smith was fatally shot by an angry mob. The Romneys and the rest of the Saints fled to what would become Utah.
The Saints made their voyage in covered wagons, but I head to Nauvoo in a rented GOP-red sedan. Passing towns with more livestock than people, the five-hour drive is, as some have said of Romney’s performance on the stump, about as inspiring as a cornhusk with great hair.
Arriving in “Historic Nauvoo,” as the area of the original settlement is known today, I find a Disneyland for Mormons. The City Hall administrator has no data on how many of the residents are LDS, but nearly every person I meet practices the faith. The acreage is dotted with brick buildings that approximate the Saints’ quaint life: a brickyard, a print shop, the former homes of church notables like Brigham Young. Tours are given in an oxen-pulled wagon. Six nights a week, year round, the town elders mount musical revue Rendezvous in Old Nauvoo, their stab at a humorous play about their faith.
These sites are run almost exclusively by a pop-eyed bunch of Mormon service missionaries who wear plain clothes, permanent smiles and name tags that identify them with Latter-day Saint titles (e.g., sister, brother). All of them say Romney has their vote because of his conservative politics, not because he’s LDS. They are also aggressively nice.
“It’s like something out of The Twilight Zone,” a non-Mormon Nauvoo resident tells me. (The person requested anonymity; in a town of 1,100, everyone knows everyone.) “[The missionaries] work so hard to project a squeaky-clean image. That perfection, there’s something about it that’s inauthentic, almost robotic.” Perhaps Mitt’s mechanized persona is something ingrained in Mormon culture.
“We don’t drink coffee, don’t smoke, so people look down on us,” says Sister Madsen, a rosy-cheeked woman who helps me comb the Land and Records Office database for details on the Romneys. One file says Miles Sr., a carpenter, owned three plots in Nauvoo. Is this the 19th-century pioneer equivalent of Mitt’s six houses? “Oh, no,” Madsen says. “These are tiny portions” of land. As tough as it is to fathom that anything less than well-to-do ever grew on the Romney family tree, it’s true: Mitt’s ancestors were poor.
In this year’s The Real Romney (Harper, $27.99), authors Michael Kranish and Scott Helman describe the hardship Romney’s great-great grandparents (and his great-grandfather, then three) faced after Nauvoo’s disintegration: “They became part of a wayward band, moving from camp to camp, with few provisions and many malnourished Mormons in need of care. It would be four years before the family had enough money to load an ox-drawn wagon for the westward trek.” Voters love these kinds of bootstrap tales. Unfortunately for Mitt, his tribe’s rags-to-riches story is inextricably tied to the history of Mormonism, which he knows is campaign kryptonite.
Mormonism certainly didn’t aid the political ambitions of Joseph Smith. When the self-proclaimed prophet was shot to death in nearby Carthage in 1844, he was in the midst of a presidential run. Smith’s assassins believed he was a false prophet using his growing religious power to form a theocracy. For Mormons, Smith’s martyrdom served as an extreme example of what could happen if they were too candid about their faith, especially on the national political stage. Mitt, it seems, took note.
“As a basic rule within the church, we’re not out there putting our faith in people’s faces,” says Wes Fields, a small-business owner from Kansas City leading a group of adolescent Mormon boys out of the Nauvoo Temple, finally rebuilt in 2002 after being destroyed by an 1848 arson and an 1850 tornado. “But people want to know about Romney, and he hasn’t done a very good job of explaining who he is.”
A few blocks away, a mitt romney for president sign the size of a mattress is staked in the yard of Fred Coté, a Mormon Nauvoo resident of 25 years. In 1984, the year Mitt started Bain Capital, Coté had an encounter with Romney. “My 12-year-old son and I were supposed to drive a school bus from New Hampshire to meet up with another group of Boy Scouts in Massachusetts,” Coté recalls. “There was a communication breakdown and we were 12 hours early, so we were going to sleep in the bus. Well, Mitt’s son was in the troop, and when Mitt found out, he picked us up in his Lincoln Town Car, paid for a hotel, then brought us to breakfast in the morning.”
Like similar Romney-as-white-knight accounts that surfaced during the Republican National Convention and the debates, the anecdote begins to melt Mitt’s icy veneer. But again: The subtext of all these gushy stories seems to be Romney’s absurd wealth fueling his hard-line Mormon morality, both qualities that have proven to be the candidate’s most alienating.
“He’s a compassionate person,” Coté insists, inviting me to see things as a Nauvooian. In this place, at least, looking at Mitt Romney doesn’t feel like staring into the void.