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US Election

Romney's liaisons dangereuses

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has begun his six-day trip to Europe. As a young man, he spent two and half years abroad. So why don't we hear him talk about that time during the campaign?

US Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

Romney's years abroad are a touchy issue

Going door to door in southern France in the late 1960s trying to strike up conversations about Mormonism must have been a mind-opening experience for an American college student with limited French language skills.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Mitt Romney and other young Mormon missionaries from across the US - sent overseas to proselytize - often didn't even get a chance to talk about their faith to the mostly Catholic French.

"There were many people who were opposed to that involvement (of the US in Vietnam - the ed.) and were very vocal about that," Michael Bush, who met and spent time with Mitt Romney during their 30-month stint as Mormon missionaries in France, told DW.

Mixed reactions

Often the first thing they heard when they went house-to-house and people found out they were Americans was to get out of Vietnam, recalls Bush.

In this March 1965 file photo, hovering US Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops

Mormon missionaries faced questions about Vietnam

But it wasn't all bad. They also encountered many people who had a fond recollection of American support against the Nazis, says Bush, now a professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who also runs a pro-Romney blog.

"This was a very positive experience in lots of ways where people invited us in their home very graciously, who appreciated the fact that we were Americans."

Still, as Romney told the New York Times back in 2007, his missionary service were challenging years for him because it was the only period of his life when "most of what I was trying to do was rejected."

Deeper faith

Missionary life, said Romney, makes you either lose your faith or makes it deeper. "For me it became much deeper."

But how his missionary experience in France affected his world view and his perception of the US is less clear.

Romney told the Times that his time abroad gave him "a great appreciation of the value of liberty and the value of the free-enterprise system" and it made clear to him "that these things are not ubiquitous, that what we enjoy here is actually quite unique and therefore is fragile."

That may certainly be true, but it's pretty much the boilerplate rhetoric that might be expected from a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination which Romney was at the time and doesn't shed much light on how his French experience really shaped his view of the world.

Formative years

While Romney hasn't talked much publicly about his time in France, he has done so privately, Romney's oldest son Tagg told the Times in the same story back in 2007. More than any other period in his life, he said, it "helped him become who he is now."

So why does Mitt Romney not share more of his formative experience with the public?

First, because to certain American conservatives France is a four-letter word. For this group, the country epitomizes elitism, socialism and unreliability and a host of other things that it considers to be wrong with Europe.

Over the years and most recently during the Republican primary, Romney was repeatedly hammered for his connection with France and even for his ability to speak French.

Earlier this year Newt Gingrich in an attack ad called 'The French Connection' compared Mitt Romney to John Kerry, the liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

Speaking French a campaign issue

The ad climaxed in a sequence showing Kerry and Romney speaking a sentence in French and the narrator saying: "And just like John Kerry he speaks French too."

Republican presidential candidates former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (L) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during a debate

Gingrich hammered Romney's French skills

So it's understandable that Romney who still has trouble appealing to the Tea Party segment of his party has little appetite to chat about his time and life in France.

The second reason why Mitt Romney is reluctant to expound on his two and half years abroad has less to do with France and more to do with his faith, says Vincent Michelot, a political science professor and US expert at Sciences Po University in Lyon.

"It's not so much France as it's Mormonism. Mitt Romney has been downplaying his Mormon faith throughout his campaign in the primaries. Whenever France crops up in a conversation it's there to remind people that he was there as a Mormon missionary," he told DW.

Mormon missionary

And Romney's Mormon faith is still a problem for parts of his Republican constituency - particularly Evangelicals - who consider Mormonism a cult that isn't part of mainstream Christianity.

So again, it's understandable that Romney doesn't invoke his time as a Mormon missionary in France for fear of alienating possible voters.

"If he's reluctant to talk about it, maybe it's because he wants to keep the focus on the challenges we face and not have it be on these side issues," is how Romney's fellow missionary in France, Michael Bush, puts it.

That's why we shouldn't expect to hear much more about his time in France from Romney himself during the rest of the campaign, says Michelot.

The political calculation is simple: France coupled with Mormonism is a political double-whammy for many Republicans. Bringing it up as an election topic wouldn't win Romney any votes, but could potentially cost him support

While that makes strategic sense, it's also too bad.

Because it's unlikely that we will now find out how those formative years really helped make Romney the man he is today as those who know him claim and how it influenced his view of the world.

Clinton's experience

Interestingly, exactly 20 years ago another presidential candidate's stint abroad was dissected mercilessly.

Bill Clinton spent two years at Oxford University in the UK during pretty much the same time Mitt Romney served as missionary in France.

For that, President George Bush senior - himself an ivy leaguer and the personification of a member of the US elite class - dubbed Clinton an 'Oxford man' who chose to spend time with British liberals while his countrymen were fighting in Vietnam.

During the 1992 campaign Clinton constantly had to defend his scholarship years in Oxford and his absence in Vietnam.

France omitted

The Elysee in Paris

Mitt Romney's planned foreign trip won't include a stop in Paris

As the Republican presidential candidate (endorsed by George Bush senior) 20 years later, Mitt Romney won't face the same scrutiny of his time in France and his absence from Vietnam as the Democratic presidential contender Clinton did.

Despite that, the Romney campaign certainly sees no value in highlighting their candidate's French exposure.

Mitt Romney's official biography on the campaign homepage simply doesn't mention his two and half years in France.

And according to the candidate's preliminary itinerary for his upcoming trip abroad, Mitt Romney will visit Britain, Poland and Israel.

A stop in France is not planned.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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