Review – Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, the Huntsmans and the Pursuit of Power by Matt Canham and Thomas Burr

Review - Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, the Huntsmans and the Pursuit of Power by Matt Canham and Thomas BurrMormon Rivals: The Romneys, the Huntsmans and the Pursuit of Power is an engrossing political drama, an in-depth look at the lives, families, history of and connections between two of the biggest names in politics to come out of Mormon ranks in a generation. Authors Matt Canham and Thomas Burr are masters of their subject, weaving a fascinating look at how the two families took parallel paths to rise from pioneers on the American frontier to leadership on the national political stage.

For political junkies, Mormon Rivals, published by the Salt Lake Tribune, is like opening a bag of Cheetos: You promise yourself that you’re going to just read a page or two and then put the book down, turn off the light and go to bed. Hours later, you’re still reading, gripped by a saga that is as dramatic as that of any modern political dynasty. Before you know it, morning light is filtering through the bedroom windows and you realize that you’ve got orange dust up to your elbows and the Cheetos are gone.  Oh, and you know far more about the Romneys and Huntsmans than you ever thought to ask.

Canham and Burr carefully document not only the family history of both of the former presidential candidates, but detail the path that each took to political prominence, and the combination is both fascinating and informative.  Here are the “saloon keepers and rabble rousers” in Jon Huntsman’s past on father’s side and the “ministers and proselytizers” on his mother’s. We watch Mitt’s father’s quest for the White House and the poorly conceived comments that ended that campaign for the Republican nomination. And there’s more, with the authors tracing both families’ history into their past as pioneers of the American west. I thought I had done a pretty decent job of following the presidential race in 2012, reading numerous stories about both Mitt and Jon, but I found much that I had missed, or had been unclear, a more thorough and less loaded picture than most accounts provided of the candidates during the heat of a presidential campaign.

It’s also clear that Canham and Burr know their subjects, if not personally, well enough to provide appropriate context, whether the reader is a political debutant or veteran. As if it weren’t clear from the title, a major part of the friction between Huntsman and Romney that the authors are examining is the common religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Mitt and Jon come at their religion differently from each other, with Romney seeming, apparently sincerely, the more orthodox of the two, while Huntsman’s dedication to the LDS faith seems at times to be more cultural. The authors are able to use a deft hand to explain the faith to non-believers or the uninitiated, demonstrate how the faith impacted and was demonstrated by both Romney and Huntsman (and their families), but without the mistakes or faux pas that often characterize the writing of journalists from outside of the mountain west. It’s a style that neither flaunts not flogs the faith. Instead, it merely explains Latter-day Saint history and doctrine with sufficient information to provide a framework for the world from which Romney and Huntsman emerged.

In many respects, the Romney and Huntsman families come from different places and have made distinct choices that set them apart. Both have strong good looks, beautiful wives, and large families, but similarities fade from there. Romney may be culturally closer to Utah, but is more a child of Michigan and Massachusetts. Huntsman, a Salt Lake City native, often seems to have more in common with an east coast prep school crowd than with the social and economic conservatives of his home state.

There are other differences, as well. Both owe much to their fathers for help in building their careers, but Huntsman career seemed to rely more on his father’s connections, and large financial donations, to political elites. Whether in his appointment to the USTR or employment with Huntsman Corp, Jon’s biggest benefactor has always been his father Jon Huntsman, Sr.  It’s hard to argue that Romney was as reliant on his father for Mitt’s immense success in business or in politics.  On the other hand, the influence of George Romney on his son’s choices in life cannot be underestimated. However, it was an influence that is born of Mitt’s admiration for his father, not based on his father’s money.

And, of course, there is the 2012 campaign for the White House. Canham and Burr tell the story that is still fresh in the public’s mind with a thorough look at the ups and downs of the campaign.

As Mormon Rivals draws to a close, Canham and Burr look at the scions of the Romney and Huntsman clans, evaluating how the next generation has participated in their fathers’ political lives and whether a second generation of rivalry might continue the rivalry. Whether Abby Huntsman and Josh (or Tagg) Romney will enter politics, though, remains an open question, and the book closes with an eye on the future.

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