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Romney gets cheap tricked

It's not the religion, stupid -- it's whether he'd be a good president.

February 15, 2007|Zev Chafets | ZEV CHAFETS is the author of "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance."

ON TUESDAY, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney returned to Michigan, his native state, to announce that he is running for president. He delivered this earth-shattering news at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, posed between a model of the old Nash Rambler and the new Ford hybrid. The picture was meant to convey a message of "innovation and transformation," the motto of the Romney campaign. The venue had a local message too. Romney's father, George, a former Michigan governor, was the automotive executive who (temporarily) saved American Motors with the compact Rambler in the late 1950s.

Today, with Detroit hemorrhaging automotive jobs, Mitt would like to be remembered as his father's son and -- because he probably couldn't carry Massachusetts in a presidential election -- make Michigan his surrogate home state. And there's nothing that says Michigan more than the Ford Museum, a place every school kid south of Petoskey is dragged through at least once.

But Ford has other associations too. Romney was barely done speaking when the National Jewish Democratic Council attacked him for insensitivity. "Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite and xenophobe," the council thundered, and Romney had raised "serious questions" about his fitness to occupy the Oval Office.

The newly announced candidate responded by calling the council's criticism "absurd" -- which, of course, it is. Henry Ford has been dead 60 years, and his descendants have spent every day since atoning for the old bigot. There is no known Jewish organization or cause that hasn't benefited from Ford largesse. The family's only villain is William Clay Ford Sr., whose 43-year ownership of the Detroit NFL football franchise has done to the Lions what his grandfather wanted to do to Jews.

As for the Ford Museum, it is the most important historical institution in a city not overflowing with culture. It houses Thomas Edison's lab and the chair President Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. The tone of the place is one of bland, politically correct American self-celebration. If the racial prejudices of its namesake put it beyond the pale, what are the Democrats going to do about the Jefferson Memorial?

If attempting to link Romney with anti-Semitism is a cheap political trick, it is also something worse. Jews have real enemies these days, some of whom insist that a Jewish conspiracy has hijacked U.S. foreign policy on behalf of Israel. This is genuine Ford-ism, and it is found primarily on the "progressive" end of the political spectrum -- as the National Jewish Democratic Council knows very well. Crying wolf is always irresponsible, but doing it in the middle of a forest is truly dangerous.

The council's shot at Romney also feeds -- consciously or not -- a more generalized U.S. fear that there is something weird or sinister about the Massachusetts governor's Mormon religion. In Republican evangelical circles, there are some who regard the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a heretical cult that, despite its name, denies the divinity of Jesus. Romney has worked hard to assuage these concerns. Last year, he told TV's Charlie Rose that Jesus is his personal savior. More relevant, he convened a meeting of senior evangelical Republicans to whom he presented his Christian bona fides. But that meeting had, at best, mixed results. Recent polls suggest that more than a quarter of Americans won't vote for a Mormon.

I am unqualified to participate in a theological debate about what is, and isn't, real Christianity. But I do know something about Mormon government. I lived in Michigan for six years under the rule of Gov. George Romney, and I can attest that the wackiest thing about him was his belief that three holes of golf played with three balls is equivalent to a nine-hole outing. And, based on reports I have heard from Massachusetts, I doubt very much that Mitt Romney believes anything crazier.

It is possible, maybe likely, that Romney would make a lousy president. His opponents need to make that case, however, without relying on spurious charges of bigotry by association or ugly whispers about his religious affiliation. That sort of thing was supposed to have been settled by the election of John F. Kennedy back in 1960 -- 13 years after the death of Henry Ford.

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