SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH (Reuters) - - By the late 1990s, Mitt Romney had succeeded in business, failed in politics, and reached a crossroads. The path he took was to the Olympics.
In 1999, three years before the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Salt Lake City games were mired in a bribery scandal and facing a $400 million budget shortfall. Utah’s capital city, home of the straight-laced Mormon Church, had won its bid to host the Games with a shower of cash and presents on International Olympic Committee officials, bringing disgrace upon itself and the global sports organization.
Then Mitt took over. When five gargantuan Olympic rings lit up the mountains around Salt Lake in 2002, they burned away the last hint of scandal, healed a nation recovering from the September 11 terrorist attacks, and made Romney into a household name. Massachusetts voters who had snubbed him in a 1994 Senate race elected him governor later that year, setting the stage for two presidential bids in which he has frequently invoked the Olympic turnaround.
“He salvaged the 2002 Winter Olympic Games from certain disaster,” Romney’s campaign Web site states.
An examination of the three years Romney spent in Salt Lake reveals a man somewhat different from the often-wooden candidate on the stump this year. Back then, according to interviews with colleagues and friends, he joked easily with his staff and showed a warm personal side.
But Romney also displayed sharp, even ruthless, political instincts as he worked to salvage the Games. Critics say he stage-managed these efforts to burnish his own image, at the expense of others. He calculated the effect of every action, from urging his senior staff to smile to cancelling the five-star lifestyle that went with Olympic management. He also worked behind closed doors to pressure the man who had organized the city’s bid for the games to plead guilty on charges that eventually were tossed out of court.
No one disputes that, in the end, the 2002 Winter Games were a brilliant success. But some argue that Utah’s deep tradition of volunteerism, widespread support for the Olympic bid in the state and in the Mormon Church, and the global outpouring of goodwill -- and cash -- that followed the tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks deserve much of the credit.
“Any well trained chimpanzee could have come in and had a successful Olympics,” said Doug Foxley, a Salt Lake City lobbyist and former adviser to Romney’s presidential rival Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Bob Garff, the Salt Lake City businessman and politician who chaired the Olympic Games, pursued Mitt even though he was something of an outsider. The Romneys, like the Garffs, are one of the old Mormon clans that helped build Utah, but Mitt’s father George Romney had made his career in Michigan, where he turned around tiny AMC Motors then became governor. Mitt settled in Massachusetts after taking his law and business degrees at Harvard.
According to the book he later wrote about his time in Salt Lake, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games, Romney wasn’t sure he wanted the job. In the aftermath of his failed 1994 Senate run against Edward Kennedy he returned to his investment firm. But, he wrote, “I kept asking myself, ‘Do I really want to stay at Bain Capital for the rest of my life? Do I want to make it even more successful, make even more money? Why?'” Romney was already well on the way to the fortune, worth as much as $264 million, reported in his presidential financial filing.
His wife, Anne, argued for taking the job, appealing to his sense of civic duty. The Senate campaign had also shown Romney that his business success was a double-edged sword when it came to politics.
Romney had gone straight from Harvard to a career as a business consultant. He landed at Bain & Co., then became wealthy starting a spin-off investment company, Bain Capital.
Along the way, Romney cultivated an image as Mr. Fixit, even averting a bankruptcy when his old firm, Bain & Co., fell on hard times. Romney convinced partners and creditors to cooperate, and extracted promises from key consultants to stay while the company righted itself, remembered Geoffrey Rehnert, a colleague at the time. “He’s good at getting people to deflate their egos,” Rehnert said.
Bain Capital, which was independent of Bain & Co., began by taking stakes in new businesses, helping to launch office supply giant Staples, for example. But it turned to private equity, which focuses more on improving or turning around existing businesses. Private equity firms frequently have the companies they buy take out massive loans to retool -- and pay back the new owners’ investments. Not every business survived the treatment, and when Romney made his first foray into politics, he was chewed up and spit out by the lion of the U.S. Senate, Teddy Kennedy.
Romney changed his registration from Independent to Republican in 1993 to take on Kennedy, and spent $3 million of his own money on the campaign. He lost the election -- and his polished reputation as a turnaround artist and job creator -- after Kennedy hammered him on job cuts by Bain.
In one particularly effective Kennedy ad, a laid off Indiana worker said, “If he’s created jobs, I wish he could create some here, you know, instead of taking ‘em away.” Bain-backed Ampad had bought the paper products plant and fired workers, while Romney was on leave from the firm. Striking workers trooped out to Boston and followed Romney’s campaign for days before he agreed to meet with them, the Boston Globe reported at the time. Kennedy “swept me up and off the floor,” Romney admitted in Turnaround.
When Romney arrived in Salt Lake City, federal officials were investigating whether bribes had been paid to get the Olympic bid, and staff and volunteers were demoralized. A budget review had found a $400 million shortfall, and potential sponsors had stopped in their tracks.
“It was really ugly, ugly, ugly there,” said Cindy Gillespie, who had worked for the Atlanta games - tarnished by disorganization and a homegrown terror attack - then moved on to Salt Lake.
Romney approached the job as both a consultant’s case study and a marketing exercise. He had to clean up operations and also clean up the image. Garff and local reporters remember an impressive performance at his first press conference, facing a barrage of questions with conviction and aplomb.
“We came away from that with the momentum changed,” said Garff, who felt that performance revealed Romney’s political savvy.
Ever the business consultant, Romney started with a basic question -- what is the mission of the Olympic Games? It was not to goose the local economy, and it was not to teach youths about peace and goodwill, he concluded. It was about the athletes, and the measure of success would be whether the events went off well for them, Gillespie said.
With that decision, the team had a clear goal -- and Romney could proceed to methodically separate essential expenditures from nonessential ones to close the $400 million budget gap. Youth camps, which would have brought kids from around the world to study each others’ cultures, for example, became part of $200 million in cuts, Gillespie recalled.
But limiting the mission in this way rankled some Salt Lake City natives who had worked on the Olympics before Romney arrived. It wasn’t easy to get the Games: Utahns tried for decades, even voting for a special tax to build Olympic facilities before they won their 2002 bid. In their view, Romney’s approach failed to properly respect the state, the Mormon church, the volunteers, and the powerful business partners, such as NBC, who were deeply invested in the games.
“We didn’t need some hedge fund guy coming in to get this done,” said Ken Bullock, head of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, who had a number of run-ins with Romney while working on the Olympic committee.
Romney understands that a symbol tells a story. At a recent Republican presidential debate he was blunt about the matter, relating how he told a yard service manager that he could not have undocumented workers mowing his grass. “I‘m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals,” he said.
In his book on the games, Romney described how billionaire Bill Marriott once asked him for a receipt for a 35 cent highway toll. Romney’s boss at the time explained that Marriott would want the story to get around headquarters so the troops would know how careful he was about money.
“The details are important,” Romney wrote.
In that spirit, Romney dropped catered lunches at local Olympic meetings, charging board members $1 a slice for pizza, and swapped out of a five-star hotel when he went to Switzerland to report to the International Olympic Committee. He declared he would work for free unless and until the Games were a financial success, admitting that he was wealthy enough that the gesture required no real sacrifice.
Ken Bullock and other critics are driven to distraction by Romney’s claim that he saved the games. But at the time he took little credit for himself, letting others cast him as the savior.
Nevertheless, Romney took a very public role in shaping the narrative of games -- from scandal to success. When Romney was brought in, he was pushed in front of the cameras, and he remained there. Bullock in particular felt that Romney controlled the story. “No one could have a difference of opinion,” Bullock said.
Though Romney now keeps at a cool remove from national reporters following his campaign, in Utah he courted the local press, and at one point dismissed his own public relations person from an interview to show he had nothing to hide. He was a paragon of transparency, supplying documents - including ones about the scandal - to reporters.
He also sought to draw a clear line around the bad old days before his arrival and leave those issues behind, privately lobbying for a swift out-of-court settlement in the bribery investigation.
Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former Salt Lake City council member, remembers getting a call from Romney, asking her to persuade Tom Welch, who led the city’s bid effort, to plead guilty. “It was a way to get over it. It was too distracting to actually doing the Games. It was all for the good of the games, the good of Utah. I thought he was sincere,” recalled Fonnesbeck, who believes Utah owes a debt to Welch for landing the Olympics.
She turned Romney down, and in December, 2003, Federal District Court Judge David Sam threw out the bribery case, saying it “offends my sense of justice” and calling it a “misplaced prosecution.”
By dismissing the charges, Judge Sam denied the government even the possibility of appeal, an unusually harsh gesture. Romney, in his book, said the authorities who pursued the case were “inept.”
But former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who led a special investigation for the U.S. Olympic Committee, spread the blame broadly among international, national, and local players. Fonnesbeck and others saw Welch and David Johnson as scapegoats for a city and state that had pursued the Games, knowing the only way to win them was to play by unsavory rules. Neither Welch nor Johnson would comment for this article.
“He did a good job,” Fonnesbeck said of Romney. “I have no complaints about the final product. I just feel bad that he had to do it the way he did. It was kind of like he couldn’t do well unless he made others look bad,” she said.
In response to a request for comment, the Romney campaign credited, in a written statement, “the commitment and dedication of many people who served in the Olympics.”
Detractors point to a collection of Mitt Romney lapel pins as the essence of his self-promotion. One pin shows Romney in a superhero cape, another, for Valentine’s Day, has his square-jawed, smiling face in a heart with the slogan, “Hey Mitt, We Love You.” A third, shaped like a baseball glove, says “ Mitt happens.”
Romney’s closest advisers say they don’t recall who decided to make the pins. Fraser Bullock said Romney might have approved them as a scheme to help the budget, because Olympic pins are big sellers.
On the campaign trail today, Romney makes grand claims about his ability to turn around the economy, but in Salt Lake he was modest and self-deprecating, once offering up a David Letterman-style Top 10 list of mistakes by the organizing committee. It included a starting gate that began smoking during an equipment test - but not the bribes that led to his joining the Games, according to the Deseret News.
Bullock remembers walking into his boss’s office one day in the summer of 2001. “I think after all this work, it’s really going to pay off,” he told his boss. “Mitt in his typical style said ‘Great. Appreciate all the work of the team. But let’s not just tell anybody, because we just want to manage expectations.'”
A few months later, those expectations had to be overhauled. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down Manhattan’s twin towers happened just five months before the Games. Romney was in Washington, D.C., when the third plane struck the Pentagon, and he pulled to the side of the road in a cloud of acrid smoke from the burning building.
When he finally got back to Salt Lake, he delivered an address that has become legend, speaking about the awesome responsibility and the honor of hosting the world’s first international meeting after the attacks. He then led the team singing America the Beautiful, Fraser Bullock recalls. “He’s a very good singer,” he said.
It was hectic, Bullock added. Nations considered dropping out of the Games. Millions of dollars of tickets and hotel room reservations were put on hold. And organizers began to revamp the security arrangements, including plans for a ‘no-fly-zone’ over the sports venues.
Romney was keenly aware of the new symbolism infused in the Games by 9/11, and of the wave of patriotism that boosted New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, President George W. Bush and other public officials into the ranks of heroes. He benefited from that surge of emotion as well.
The Games went off with fanfare and no mistakes in February, 2002, and Romney was covered in glory, perhaps no more so than when he strode into the Olympic stadium with Bush and to greet a tattered flag from Manhattan.
But on that glory, too, opinion is divided.
“Do you honestly think after 9/11 that our country was going to let these games - or the world was going to let these Games not be a great success?” asked Ken Bullock. “Whether it was for security, or whether it was for a transportation project - whatever the case may be, the check book opened,” he said.
Romney himself pointed out, in his book, that Congress’s biggest critic of public support of the Games, Arizona Senator John McCain, reversed himself after the attacks. McCain ushered Romney into his office to say there would be no problem with security spending for the Olympics.
Would the Games have failed without Romney?
“It’s tough to prove a negative,” said former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt. “But I think if you search Olympic history, you’ll have a hard time finding a better executed Games.”
Romney’s national triumph with the Olympics was his springboard to political viability. Massachusetts Republicans, concerned about their scandal-tinged incumbent governor started a “draft Mitt” campaign, and he went on the win the state race by a respectable 50 percent to 45 percent. He quit after one term to begin running for president fulltime.
In Utah, meanwhile, Romney remains a rock star. He outpolled native son Jon Huntsman, Jr., by 71 percent to 13 percent in an August survey by the Salt Lake Tribune, which is remarkable considering that Jon Huntsman, Sr., is one of the state’s most powerful men and generous philanthropists.
By some accounts, Jon, Sr., wanted his son, then an executive in the family’s multi-billion-dollar business, to get the Olympics job, and the families have been on strained terms ever since. Some of the most vicious attack ads against Romney in this presidential primary are being produced by the Huntsman camp.
But, according to that same poll, Utahns believe the Games showed that Romney had the financial know-how and moral steadiness to be president. There, at least, the Olympic flame is still lighting Romney’s career.
Editing by Lee Aitken; reporting By Peter Henderson