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The Rethinking Man’s Candidate

Meet Jon Huntsman

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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If the announcement speech had a notable theme, it was that Huntsman would run a campaign based on civility. “We will conduct this campaign on the high road,” he said, drawing a stark contrast with those candidates who publicly vow to conduct their campaigns on the low road. With its own advertised civility at its core, Huntsman’s campaign will thus be a campaign about itself, in the Obamian fashion.

It’s not an exciting theme, but Huntsman is not an exciting candidate, by both nature and design. Consultants like Davis have tried hard to add drama and color to his—forgive the term—narrative, in an act of myth-building. Unfortunately for them and him, he is not a man who has lived a dramatic life. He grew up the son of a wealthy businessman and his homemaker wife in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He married early and once. He went to the Wharton school. He’s a Mormon. He made his millions working in the company his father built.

But reporters writing Huntsman profiles now know to include a handful of details that his campaign hopes will prove diverting. This isn’t just any Mormon! He rides Harleys and likes to eat at greasy spoon restaurants. He attends motocross events and listens to the Foo Fighters with sincere enthusiasm. He dropped out of high school, though he quickly earned his GED, and played keyboards in a rock band that specialized in playing REO Speedwagon songs (some colorful facts you’d think the handlers would want to keep quiet). He became fluent in Mandarin Chinese after spending two years on a Mormon mission in Taiwan as a young man. Before college he worked as a dishwasher and a busboy at Marie Callender’s, where he met his wife Mary Kaye. Two of the Huntsmans’ seven children are adopted, one from China and one from India.

Each of these bits of color has been duly noted in the press stories that have launched his campaign. The political tip sheet Politico even published an article called “Jon Huntsman, the Rock ’n’ Roll Years,” though a more accurate headline would probably say “the Rock ’n’ Roll Months.” Thanks to the careful mythmaking of Davis and others, you are much more likely to read that Huntsman worked as a fast-food drudge (worldly experience) than that he made Eagle Scout (typical Mormon). Anyone who still holds to the notion of a cynical press corps will have to dodge the puffers political reporters have lobbed at Huntsman in the months leading up to his announcement. 

“He just might be the most formidable standard-bearer the Republicans could field against Obama,” said New York magazine, without evidence. “The GOP’s Cool Uncle,” said the Atlantic (Harley, rock band). “Cerebral, cautious, civil, and, yes, cool,” said Newsweek (Harley, good looks). “Cool-and-cerebral,” said Time. If he had a deficiency, according to press reports, it’s that he’s too good for his own good. “Is there room for such civility on the national stage?” Time wondered.

This last point helps show why the mainstream press has found Huntsman so attractive. He’s a throwback to a golden era—that moment when the world was young, in late 2008 and early 2009. Obama had been elected and the Republican party had been repudiated. The consensus among the press was that the debacle of 2008 would require a great rethinking on the part of Republicans, and many Republicans agreed. So dire was the party’s condition that many Republican chin-pullers resorted to hyphens, calling themselves “progressive-conservatives” or “reform-minded Republicans,” anything but plain conservative Republican. Having just been reelected in Utah with a 58-point margin of victory even as other Republicans fell all around him, Huntsman was squarely with the rethinkers. It was back to the old drawing board, Huntsman said at the time. He called for “a broad discussion about the future of the party.” Huntsman is the rethinking man’s candidate.

“It’s like the world began in November,” he said in early 2009. “The old ethos world view—all that’s been decimated.” 

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