As the Republican primaries drag on, some of Mitt Romney’s old friends are harking back to a time when, decades ago, the former governor honed his skills at winning over skeptics. That time was 1968, and the place, France, where Romney was stationed as a Mormon missionary. While the issue at that time was Romney’s religion, rather than his politics, his old friends say that Romney’s long slog to win delegates state by state bears some resemblance to the challenges he faced as a missionary in France, where every conversion was hard-won.
“It would be an understatement to say we were not universally loved,” says Dane McBride, a physician in Roanoke, Va., and one of Romney’s fellow missionaries in France, who remains a close friend and political supporter. “The most common fallback method in converting people was knocking on doors, and it was well known that for every 1,000 doors we knocked on, about two or four people would listen to our message.”
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Romney’s friends from his time in France, most of whom are now supporters of his presidential bid, paint a picture of a 21-year-old who tackled his missionary work in a methodical, goal-oriented way — even while the young men around him floundered, in a deep funk brought on by their work problems, homesickness and the political chaos around them.
The French, overwhelming Catholic, found Mormonism to be cultish and too American, made even more alien to a country of wine lovers by its edict of sobriety. Worse, one year after Romney arrived in France, riots in Paris exploded, bringing the country to a standstill and making it too risky for the young missionaries to venture into neighborhoods where non-Mormon contemporaries lived. “The missionaries were counseled not to go close to the riots and to certain places,” says Christian Euvrard, a French Mormon who met Romney at that time, and who now directs the Institute of Religion in Paris, the Mormon Church’s study center in France. “Getting money was a challenge because of the strikes. The mail was not delivered.”
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Then came the defining moment of Romney’s 2½ years in France. In June 1968, the car Romney was driving was hit by a vehicle head-on along a winding road in rural Bordeaux; the accident killed the wife of the mission president and severely injured the president, while Romney himself was knocked unconscious — and at first mistakenly declared dead by the French police. When the president returned to the U.S. to bury his wife, Romney was left in charge of the mission, relocating from the small Bordeaux town where he was stationed to the Mormon residence in Paris’ wealthy 16th district, a large house with chandeliers, servants and an art collection.
Despite the material comforts, the mission’s work was in disarray. Already hostile to the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, many French people became far more distrustful of Americans after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. France’s deepening political turmoil only added to that tension. By September of that year, the mission had converted about 80 French people to Mormonism, less than half the 180 conversions the church had set as its 1968 goal in France. Romney had clearly struggled from the start, as is clear from letters from his father George. In one letter to his son dated February 1967, George Romney quoted a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, saying, “work on in your despair.”
By McBride’s account, it was Romney who turned the mission’s dire situation around. In a brazen move, Romney convinced the missionaries to shoot beyond the church goal and aim instead for 200 conversions by year’s end, something that seemed impossible. He took as inspiration the pop-psychology book Think and Grow Rich — a notable choice, given his family wealth — which argues that accomplishments come from tenacious goal setting, rather than luck or circumstance. McBride says Romney then began pushing that message among the other missionaries. “We went around from city to city and taught those principles: Set goals, visualize it, think about them all the time,” he says.
McBride says Romney also worked out strategies to try to lift the missionaries out of their gloom, which he believed was crucial to improving their performance. “There was an obvious pall over the mission,” McBride says. “Mitt decided people had to have fun. He made up songs to poke fun at people.”
To win over the wary French, Romney helped organize “American soirées,” in which the missionaries invited locals to evenings of guitars, cowboy songs and hamburger dinners, a novelty in 1960s France. “A friend sent us a can of peanut butter, which was unknown in France at the time, and we’d have that on crackers,” McBride says. Romney had an especially good touch with locals, he says, speaking “pretty good French with relatively little American accent” (though recent footage shows Romney speaking with a pronounced accent). Romney’s tactics seemed to work. By Dec. 31 of that year, the missionaries had 203 conversions on their books, according to McBride.
In recent months, Romney has portrayed his experience in France with far less warmth, perhaps guarding himself against French-bashing from conservatives; some attack ads from his Republican rivals have included footage of Romney speaking French. When he was asked last December whether he had ever experienced austerity, Romney said he had lived in Bordeaux in the 1960s with primitive plumbing and heating systems. “It was a wake-up experience for me,” he said. Around the same time, Romney accused President Obama of wanting “to turn America into a European-style entitlement society.”
To some French people who befriended Romney during his missionary days, those words have left a sour taste. “I don’t like the way he is turning against France now,” says Nicole Bacharan, a Parisian whose parents frequently hosted Romney in their home during his missionary days, when she was a young girl. Now a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Bacharan says Romney left a deep impression on her. “He was handsome and charming, charismatic,” she says, hastening to add that she dislikes Romney’s politics. “He was at our home for lunch and dinner often. He would arrive with his friends, but he was the leader.” Asked what she knew about him at the time, Bacharan says, “He was introduced to me as someone who would one day be the President of the United States.” This time around, he has set aside the pop-psychology books as he toils methodically toward that goal.