Monday, November 21, 2011

'Pennies From Heaven'

When I joined Monitor Company (now Group) in the spring of 1992, the first party its directors, my new colleagues, invited me to was at Mitt Romney's mansion in Belmont. Romney was at the time still with Bain Capital, but his political ambitions were clear. The party, in fact, turned out to be a fundraiser for a friend of his, a Harvard Business School professor, who was planning a run for the U.S. Senate, as (of all things) a centrist Democrat, in Utah.

As my new Monitor friends whipped out their check-books, writing in numbers that elicited broad smiles from Romney and his special guest (Monitor directors were "kicking McKinsey's butt" at the old AT&T at the time, which was spending tens of millions on strategy consultants on its road to eventual oblivion), I gingerly took out my check-book, too. I wrote in $50, and mumbled some apology about being new. The smiles came anyway. (I did not mention I was a left Democrat, which would have been a little like admitting you were a Republican at my son's Bar Mitzvah.)

Make no mistake. Romney and his wife Ann could not have been more gracious--or attractive. Their sons (I think I met three out of the five) were about as good-looking as it was possible to be outside of a Land's End catalogue, yet they were warm, respectful, and the huge, imposing home-on-a-hill had an unmistakably lived-in air about it. Homework was being attended to around the kitchen table. You got the sense that they were good and grateful people, who simply assumed their wealth was earned, deserved, yet a blessing, something to be put to the fullness of life. They seemed middle class, only more so.

I should add that I had just finished five-year stint as the Harvard Business Review's technology strategy editor, and found the karma familiar. The Romney home seemed a kind of extension of the business school's architectural principles, not just the physical space, with its understated but firmly established elegance, but its implied social architecture as well.

YOU STARTED WITH a sincere and disciplined mind, erudition (though not too much, one is humble among Jewish intellectuals), a willingness to work hard, and the instinctive fairness needed to build teams; you then graduated to the company, a kind of nobler--because collective and stronger--citizen; and through the company you did the world good: brought new things to history, learned science and practical skills, forced all colleagues into excellence through good-faith competition, earned a nice living--all in all, the sorter of people in a meritocracy.

You needed government the way Derek Jeter needs the umpire. The idea that Jeter would not have been Jeter without government or, as Malcolm Gladwell writes, crazy good luck that governments can spread around, would never have entered your mind.

The heart of the architecture was the family. Raising children was a calling. Once, when I was in Salt Lake City, my ex, Susan, and I visited the home of a man who'd become a close friend at Monitor, Henry Eyring, scion of a famous scientific family, now himself an educator and senior Brigham Young administrator. We sat for hours on the Eyrings' living room couch, talking, gossiping: politics, companies, the politics of companies, the ways of families. Throughout this conversation, the Eyrings' daughter, 7 or 8 years old, sat quietly in a chair of her own facing us, listening, taking in what adults had to say, practiced at this, fascinated: reality television without the television. The younger son, whom I had never met, curled-up on the couch next to me, put his head on may lap, and fell asleep. The trust was poignant. Obedience had tipped into cultivation.

THESE WERE NOT my first encounters with the business school's Mormons. Kim Clark, who would go on to become the dean (and, later, president of a campus of Brigham Young), was one of the faculty who wrote often on technology.  I can't remember working with, or editing, a man of greater professionalism: smart, kind, prompt, constructive, inviting. The same could be said of his colleague, Steve Wheelwright, and my colleagues at HBR had similar feelings about the now renown Clay Christensen. (Editing Larry Summers was, let us say, another matter.)

I ran into the same good-natured professionalism with other Mormons at Monitor, which had the good sense to recruit a great many. Monitor's CEO, Mark Fuller, made a point of putting young Mormon associates on his personal staff, assured of their discretion, their appetite for long hours and tolerance for hierarchy. (One of Mark's assistants once asked to have lunch and revealed, almost as if this were an illicit love affair, that he ached to study political philosophy, as I had. But he felt vaguely ashamed of his ambition: the egocentric implication of it, the presumptuousness of taking liberties, the fear of appearing disloyal to Mark, or leaving him without support. I gave him permission to follow his bliss; he wrote five or six years later, out of the blue, to thank me, his Ph.D. in hand.)

I REALIZE THESE anecdotes do not amount to a scientific sample. Mormons, I guess, are no better or less tortured than human beings, who are not the greatest species. But when I hear Christian preachers or the magnificent Hitchens question Romney's fitness for office owing to his Mormon beliefs, or even hear responsible journalists raise this as an "issue" for the campaign, all I can say is that I know better. Original dogmas and founding myths are not some inner mind. They are the raw material minds work on, the stuff from which believers make beliefs--along with the practical cultures perpetuating their sense of goodness. The Oral Torah supersedes the Written Torah, as the Jewish sages said. (Besides, living as I do a few parched blocks from where Christ was supposed to have been resurrected around the year 33, I can say with authority that he might well have then preferred to try upstate New York in 1823.)

And yet. You don't need to be Max Weber to know that the political cultures of faith communities may be fair game. When you vote for Chuck Schumer you know (or should) that you are getting along with the person the communitarian proclivities of Eastern European Jews, the kind of worldview, so Michael Walzer would tell you, that makes the social safety-net of Democrats seem natural. When you voted for Obama, how could you not have the political morality of black churches ringing in your ears? ("You were born on second, Jeter; so don't think you hit a double.")

It's the same with Romney's kind of Mormons. The political culture evolving from their saga and sense of salvation is relevant to the evolution of Republican "values." Which brings me to the real reason for this post, to urge you to read this terrific piece in the October Harper's by Chris Lehman: "Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the G.O.P." (behind a pay-wall, alas, but at 16 bucks a year, Harper's is the best deal there is). The piece hasn't got nearly the attention it deserves.

What you are getting with Romney, Lehman shows, is not just a man but a political economic weltanschauung ratified by his faith community, something not weird at all, but rather all too complacent: the self-regard of business school meritocrats; the elevation of the obedient family to a sacrament; a genuine love of markets and enterprise and competitive self-realization; a belief that what might be seen as hypocrisy is just what market actors do to protect and refresh their brand. "Corporations are people," Romney called out in Iowa. Actually, Lehman shows, it is something like the other way around for him: it is people who compete to prove their worth and keep faith with their adorable little share-holders.

I want Obama to beat Romney badly, but the latter should not be underestimated. This will be, in a way, a clash of civilizations. Romney is probably as good an embodiment of the Republican gestalt as we are likely to see. His Mormon background, or his peculiar version of it, will not be a drag on his campaign but a kind of preparation for it. Obama will need Democrats to close ranks behind him, now, and without all the condescending qualifications that seem to be our specialty.