Q&A: Jon Huntsman

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TIME talked to former ambassador to China and Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman for a profile running in the May 23, 2011, issue of the magazine. Lightly edited excerpts from three separate interviews with Huntsman follow:

Candidates always start out saying they’re going to run a positive campaign and bring people together, but in the end, they get convinced by their consultants that they have to go negative or lose. Why won’t that happen to you?

Campaigns are an extension of the candidate and the candidate’s family. People who want to personalize and lead with negatives, I disassociate myself from them. Politics has become a business; these advisers in Washington force candidates into alleyways from which there’s no return. But the American public in today’s world is dramatically in need of serious debate, and I don’t think they feel there’s a lot of bandwidth left for personal attacks.

Every time I hear someone say they sure wished government was run more like a business, I think really, more like the financial industry or the auto companies we had to bail out? Is that really such a great thing to wish on government, or has that argument lost some of its…

The free market system is fragile; there is risk built in. Massive debt-equity ratios and the financial instruments made available by Wall Street got many businesses big and small into trouble, but we learn; Wall Street is learning from their own mistakes about what leverage can do. Everybody is learning how leverage can hurt you, and lots of forces are at work, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, trying to lead us back to financial health. Ultimately I hope we’ll balance the budget and deal with entitlements and the defense budget. And the states need to play stepped-up roles in health and education.

Just now in the [commencement speech at the University of South Carolina] you told the kids that they’ll never be really happy until they find their deepest passion; what is your deepest passion?

My deepest passion is public service and serving my country – besides my family that’s my deepest passion. My family all wore the uniform and that was important, and that’s what my relatives used to talk about it Fillmore, Utah.

Did you think of joining the military, then?

I thought about it, but it was in the post-Vietnam era and most people weren’t. For me, America does have great power in the world and we have to choose our involvements very carefully.

Which brings us back to Afghanistan and Libya; should we be there?

There will be more to say about that. I wanted to pursue public service more than anything on the public policy side; until only a year before we ran, it really hadn’t occurred to me that [running for office] was a sane thing to do. You make fun of people who run, but if you’re not willing to run, what kind of patriot are you?

Can you talk a little bit about how you came to favor civil unions for gay couples?

I’ve always been in favor of traditional marriage and thinking that you open Pandora’s Box when you start to redefine it. But we’ve had friends who are gay and we’ve heard horror stories [about hospital visitation and legal rights], and I thought it was an appropriate time.

You also believe in climate change, right?

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

Matt [David, Huntsman’s communications director,] says you’ve changed your mind about cap-and-trade.

Cap-and-trade ideas aren’t working; it hasn’t worked, and our economy’s in a different place than five years ago. Much of this discussion happened before the bottom fell out of the economy, and until it comes back, this isn’t the moment.

Will it ever be the moment, though? The environment never takes priority because it never seems like something has to be addressed this quarter or else, but if you look at what’s happening to our planet…

If anyone knows about the need to clean up the planet, we do; we’ve been living somewhere [Beijing] where you feel like you’re killing your kids sending them out to school every day. But putting additional burdens on the pillars of growth right now is counter-productive. If we have a lost decade, then nothing else matters. Ask Japan about that.

What don’t Americans understand about China?

The underlying fragility of the system, economic and social. It’s seen as this juggernaut but there are underlying fissures that could be quite debilitating; you see what inflation has done and the United States has a huge opportunity [to exploit that.]

Are Americans ready to elect a Mormon?

I think it’s a non-issue; it’s a religion that’s surprisingly heterogeneous. And let me say, I’m a very spiritual person; I can’t walk into a church or synagogue without getting a little emotional…

You’ve worked for several Presidents, including the last two, so you must know who really would be more fun to have a root beer with: W. or Obama?

I haven’t gotten to know them intimately on a personal level. Anyone who’s able to win probably would be an interesting dinner mate. I saw Reagan in private moments as an advance man, and he had an ability to project warmth – that’s what I loved most — and had a very compartmentalized – well-organized, I should say – world view that didn’t vary a lot. I learned from him that government is better done through a process of simplification; it isn’t rocket science.

And do you remember Nixon at all from when your dad worked for him?

I met him a few times – I was 11 years old. He was a man who probably suffered a bit in the way of insecurities but was a man of some courage, and I’d reflect on that in China. Flying to Beijing in the middle of the Cultural Revolution? If ever there was an unpopular decision, and he went without even a confirmed meeting with Mao! So there was an element of courage there, and you wonder today if that would even be possible. I remember meeting him in the Rose Garden and visiting my dad on the weekend and watching him on Marine One taking off, and I remember the ring of demonstrators around the White House; it was educational.

Each [President] had a goodness and a devotion. In the case of Bush Sr., his ability to build on the end of the Cold War; Reagan gets most of the credit, but lost in that, Bush was quite capable, putting together a post-Cold War world and in the first Gulf war he put together an unprecedented coalition. George W., he had to deal with 9/11, and what no one had heard of before, this war on terror. And President Obama is trying to pick up the pieces of our economy and make sense of a world grown more complex and confusing.