Romney at the SLC Olympics
Mitt Romney, in pledging to turn around the Olympics in 2002, had promised to restore the honor and integrity of the scandal-clouded Salt Lake City. The Games captured the world’s attention and became all the more urgent after terrorists attacked us on 9-11. But while Romney invoked the wellspring of American patriotism after the attacks, he neglected their heroes, the fallen firefighters of that early September morning.
Romney’s executive assistant, Donna Tillery, twice denied requests to provide free or discounted tickets to widows and orphans of the felled firefighters but gave them for free to Utah legislators just six weeks later, according to a new book, The Real Romney (HarperCollins, 2012).
Tillery sent e-mails to A.J. Barto, a former Salt Lake City firefighter helping the 9-11 widows and orphans, citing a policy barring giveaways, but Romney gave 100 free surplus tickets ($885 each) to Utah legislators. “I was outraged at the hypocrisy,” Barto told Kranis and Helman. “In less than two months, he went from saying, ‘We’re going to run a tight ship’ to throwing out free tickets to a group of people who could help him politically.” (221)
The gifts would have helped Romney politically. After living in Utah for three years, Romney flirted with running for office in the Beehive State. He even reportedly contemplated running as a Democrat, though in the post-Olympics buzz there was no office available until 2004 which was too late for someone riding the successes of the the Games.
Still it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider Romney running in Utah as a Democrat. Romney would likely have taken on Bob Bennett, then among the longest surviving senators in the Congress as a Democrat or replaced him on the Republican ticket like Senator Mike Lee did in 2010. In the shadow of 9-11, Congress had already earmarked $200 million to make the Games safe. After the attacks, Senator Robert Bennett of Utah appropriated $34.4 million. Romney often went with Bennett to lobby legislators to approve the additional funds.
Either way, Romney would have gone on to sure victory if his poll numbers held. A Utah poll taken after the Olympics found Romney had 87% approval. Indeed, even today Romney, according to a recent poll, is very popular among Mormon Democrats, 62% of whom see him favorably.
Part of his success came from the Olympics’ production value. Romney was quick to seize on the theatricality of the attacks now that America had entered the world stage. He read Winston Churchill often and gave a rousing speech to hundreds of staffers and volunteers that culminated in singing ‘God Bless America.’ He also backed the effort to have a tattered American flag, recovered from the World Trade Center, carried into the opening ceremony. Although other nations griped that this politicized the Games, Romney refused to back down, and the flag’s appearance was a quintessential American act of defiance. The silent respect of 55,000 spectators in Salt Lake City and 2 billion viewers around the world was quite a sight.
But in forgetting America’s heroes and rewarding Utah’s legislators Romney may have done the survivors a disservice. Such stories may prove difficult for Romney in his bid for the presidency.