So, I'm talking to this guy. He seems educated, intelligent, informed. The conversation touches on the debt ceiling debacle, then on Sarah Palin's presidential chances, and, finally, on GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.
I chuckle and tell the guy about a column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, headlined, "A day of awkwardness with Mitt Romney." It details traveling with Romney for a day of campaigning. Milbank quickly discovers Romney was, to be kind, geeky; that "his weirdness comes through -- equal parts 'Leave It to Beaver' corniness and social awkwardness."
He recounts a joke Romney tells at Blake's Creamery, a Manchester, N.H., eatery.
"I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce," Romney tells the proprietor. "And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise."
The joke, I tell the guy, is so bad it's great. The mother of all groaners. It shows, I say, that Romney may lack comedic judgment, but he is at least human; that I've repeated the joke a hundred times to get the predictable grimace.
The guy looks at me and says, "I can never vote for him. He's Mormon. If he's president, Washington will be run by Salt Lake City. You can bet on it."
Run by Salt Lake City? Shades of John F. Kennedy, himself a target of vicious anti-Catholic bigotry in his quest for the presidency during his 1960 campaign.
In Romney's case, such bigotry is not new. The unseemly prejudice against Mormons reared its ugly head when Romney ran against Sen. John McCain in 2008. Prominent evangelical leaders pressed McCain not to pick Romney as a running mate because of his religion. The bigotry was fanned by news media enthralled with pressing Romney about whether he had slept with his wife before they were married -- a question he would not dignify and one certainly not posed to other candidates.
Really, I ask this guy, religious bigotry? Now? Romney is not a voodoo priest doing things to chickens under a full moon or having witch doctors posing as ministers drive demons from his body. If you're simply going to dismiss him, I say, dismiss him for Massachusetts' near-universal health care program or having only lately come to real conservatism in many areas. But his religion?
I suppose bigotry makes it easier to ignore Romney's elimination of the Massachusetts budget deficit by cutting spending, hiking fees and becoming grim death for corporate tax loopholes. He became 70th governor in 2003, as Massachusetts projected a $3 billion deficit. By 2006, it had a $600 million surplus. Darned Mormon.
Bigotry also makes it easier to ignore his resume and business acumen, or his rescue of the financially beleaguered 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. Or his being a well-educated family man and a guy who tells lousy jokes.
Why, I wonder aloud, is being Mormon bad? The Mormons I know are upstanding, decent people. Is it the polygamy thing? I ask. Romney condemns the practice, I tell him, and do you really want to explore the sordid history of other religions? Do you fear that if he were president you all of a sudden would want to marry more women, or what? I ask.
Look, I tell him, I have no idea whether I can vote for him, but considering the lesser luminaries so far in the GOP field and the kibitzers, Romney looks pretty good. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman? Nuts. Herman Cain, the pizza guy? No chance. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Worn out tennis shoes poll better. Sarah Palin? A loser. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman? Uh-uh. Newt Gingrich? Scary in a scary kind of way. Texas Gov. Rick Perry? Evangelicals love him. Texas Congressman Ron Paul? I wish I could vote for him, but cannot.
There is only one question important now -- which of them could beat Barack Hussein Obama? The answer is easy: Likely none of them.
Could Romney? Maybe, if the religious bigots in the GOP do not screw it up. Are you willing, I ask the guy, to put up with Obama because Romney is Mormon? No matter what you think of Romney's religion, I tell him, the best news is that he is not Obama.
That alone could save what is left of this nation.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.