Over the weekend, a YouTube video of Mitt Romney arguing with an Iowa talk-radio host began rocketing around the Internet. The 20-minute conversation was somewhat startling in that Romney talks about his Mormon faith in greater depth than he publicly has thus far. Predictably, the media have seized on the video as a glimpse into Romney’s psyche — over at The Politico, Jonathan Martin notes the “candidate reveals a private side that is at turns cutting, combative and sarcastic, but most of all agitated at being forced to defend what he and his church stand for.”
As Byron York notes, the truth is that Romney acquits himself fairly well. He shows himself to be a fierce debater, but he remains, for the most part, composed. His explanation of how you can be pro-choice and still be Mormon is unlikely to win over any Romney skeptics, but the former Mormon bishop and stake president does a remarkable job explaining some of the finer points of Mormon doctrine. This is no mean feat — as a former Mormon I can tell you that explaining the Mormon position on sensitive issues is often akin to showing a dog a card trick. (Though my wife highlights an excellent discussion of the intersection of Mormon doctrine and politics here.)
But while the media pick apart the video as a way of zeroing in on Romney’s controversial religious beliefs or debating style, the conversation is far more revealing about Romney’s conservative political beliefs, something frequently called into question by his centrist turn as governor of Massachusetts.
That’s because Romney’s argument with the Iowa talk-radio host starts with the two discussing their shared affinity for W. Cleon Skousen. “You and I share a common affection for the late Cleon Skousen,” the radio host says. The former governor agrees, affirming Skousen was his professor and when the radio host professes his fondness for Skousen’s book The Making of America, while he acknowledges he hasn’t read it, Mitt quickly says “That’s worth reading.”
Who is Cleon Skousen you might ask? In answering that question, it’s hard to even know where to begin. Skousen was by turns an FBI employee, the police chief of Salt Lake City, a Brigham Young University professor, consigliore to former secretary of agriculture and Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson and, well, all-around nutjob.
Of course he was also a prolific writer and likely brilliant, but Skousen is not an association a presidential candidate should loudly trumpet. Pulitzer-prize winning editorial cartoonist Scott Benson, grandson of Ezra Taft, has a well-sourced rundown of Skousen here. Bear in mind Benson admittedly has an axe to grind with the Mormon Church, but what he says is for the most part easily verifiable and the highlights of Skousen’s dubious achievements are worth noting.
As police chief of Salt Lake City, Skousen was such a law-and-order man he lost his job in 1960 after raiding a friendly card game that happened to include the mayor. On his way out the door, the mayor called Skousen “an incipient Hitler” and said that Skousen “ran the police department in exactly the same manner as the Communists in Russia operate their government.”
Which was kind of an ironic comment, considering that two years earlier Skousen had written a book entitled The Naked Communist, which even for 1958 is so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush. According to Skousen, The Manchurian Candidate was a documentary — he earnestly believed Communists sought to create “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.”
Skousen was active with the John Birch Society throughout the 1960s, even going so far as to write another book titled The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society, accusing those that criticized Birchers as promoting Communism. Lest anyone forget, notable critics of the John Birch Society in the 1960s included one William F. Buckley Jr. Skousen even managed to record this gem — a spoken word album about the dangers of LSD for the John Birch Society’s record label. (Forget acid — simply knowing that the John Birch Society had a record label is pretty mind-blowing in and of itself.)
Skousen’s Communist paranoia may have reached it’s apotheosis in 1970 when the Mormon church and BYU in particular began receiving a tremendous amount of external pressure to change the church’s policy on denying the Mormon priesthood to blacks. Skousen, then a professor at BYU, published an article entitled “The Communist Attack on the Mormons” and noted that critics were employing Communist tactics which were “distorting the religious tenet of the Church regarding the Negro and blowing it up to ridiculous proportions.” The Mormon Church reversed course on its discriminatory practices in 1978 and began ordaining black men to the priesthood.
Later in the 70s, Skousen accused the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefellers of puppeteering the election of Jimmy Carter to pave the way for One World Government, his new favorite topic. Things got so bad that the Mormon Church eventually issued an official communiqué distancing itself from Skousen’s organization, the Freemen Institute.
This was quite a reversal. In 1960, Mormon prophet David O. McKay had encouraged the entire church body to read The Naked Communist, during one of the church’s General Conferences. In 1979, the church issued a statement disallowing promotion of the Freemen Institute in LDS churches. According to the letter, “This instruction is not intended to express any disapproval of the right of the Freemen Institute and its lecturers to conduct such meetings or of the contents of the lectures. The only purpose is to make certain that neither Church facilities nor Church meetings are used to advertise such events and to avoid any implication that the Church endorses what is said during such lectures.” The letter was signed by the Church’s Office of the First Presidency, which included then-President and Prophet Spencer W. Kimball and then-Second Counselor to the president Marion G. Romney, Mitt’s second cousin.
Now pointing all this out might seem like tarring Mitt by association with his former BYU professor. But in the video Governor Romney demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with Skousen’s work. In Romney’s defense, if one were to dismiss every major Democratic contender based on the fact that they were once close to or, heck, currently have on staff a former Sixties radical — be it a Black Panther, member of the Weather Underground, or Cleon Skousen-approved Commie — the DNC would have to recruit candidates in Never Never Land.
I sincerely doubt that Mitt Romney believes anything near as outlandish as many of the things Cleon Skousen espoused, and to be fair Skousen wrote on numerous topics with wildly varying degrees of intellectual sobriety. In fact, as the radio host in the YouTube video notes, Skousen’s writings on original intent and the U.S. Constitution in The Making of America are compellingly argued, and to this day are often cited by conservatives unaware of Skousen’s more checkered writings. Further, Skousen’s scriptural commentaries are still very popular well-regarded within the relatively unradical world of mainstream Mormonism, insofar as Mormon theology can be considered unradical.
But if anything, Mitt Romney is still seen as a moderate by Republican standards — a perception that may hamstring him in the Republican primary. For better and for worse, Romney’s familiarity with Cleon Skousen does convincingly demonstrate that Mitt Romney is not far removed and indeed well-acquainted with a radical and firebrand conservatism — even if it is of the variety he might want to keep chained to a radiator in the attic.
–Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington, D.C.