PARIS - It was a small country road winding through the Bordeaux region, a tight curve entering the small village of Bernos-Beaulac, just before the local post office. On June 16, 1968, this typically French scenery almost ended Mitt Romneys would-be career and young life before it had even yet begun.
A Mercedes was speeding in the opposite direction and missed the turn, hitting Romneys car head-on. The Mormon missionary was 21 years old at the time, and the son of the Governor of Michigan, wrote the local newspaper Sud Ouest at the time.
The first policeman on the scene wrote Hes dead on Romneys passport. It turned out Romney survived the accident with a swollen face and broken arm. But Leola Anderson -- the wife of the President of the Mormon Mission to France Duane Anderson, who was himself seriously hurt in the crash -- died.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints chartered a special train to bring back its leader and Romney to Paris four days later. In a rare move at the Saint-Jean station, ( ) two ambulances were allowed to park on the platform in order to move the wounded onto the Paris-bound train, wrote Sud Ouest daily. I was frightened of driving a car, said Mitt Romney to the Boston Globe in 2007. I had a sense of vulnerability I had not experienced before.
"The Church never sued the other driver. Its not something they do, says Suzanne Farel, 87, a French Mormon who was riding in the back of Romneys car when the accident occurred. Others say the Mormons didnt press charges to prevent a religious conflict. The driver of the Mercedes, Albert Marie, was a Catholic priest.
More than 40 years later, André and Paulette Salarnier, French Mormons who often cooked coq au vin and mushroom-stuffed crepes for the young Romney, say they received several emails from the candidates entourage asking them to no longer speak to reporters about the 1968 accident.
They just remember an open and charming young man speaking French almost without an accent. André Salarnier also makes sure to prevent any backlash regarding his famous coq au vin, a dish that could be forbidden to water-drinking Mormons and shatter Romneys image as a pious Mormon: The wine being cooked, it no longer contains alcohol. A way to stop anyone from thinking that Young Mitt may have been corrupted by the French and their famous Bordeaux vintages.
These days in the United States, links to France, a symbol of social uprising and something un-American, are suspect for some voters. And with Romney forced to fend off attacks by rival Republican candidates of being a liberal-in-conservative-clothes, his two years in France are perfect ammunition for his opponents.
There is a 2002 video that is now circulating on the Internet of Romney, then the head of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic, using French to call on volunteers to help out with the Games. Instead of translating his words, the negative ad falsely subtitles Romneys words, making it seem as if he was speaking in support of abortion and illegal immigrants, with a little Marseillaise music playing in the background.
In another ad entitled The French connection, supported by Newt Gingrich, an accordion plays in the background and the clip ends with this line: And like John Kerry he speaks French too!
The car accident in Bernos-Beaulac wasnt the only formative event of Romneys time in France. The leading Republican presidential hopeful, who spent up to 10 hours a day knocking on doors to spread the word of Jesus, lived through one of Frances most tumultuous times: the May 1968 student uprising.
We didnt believe it. We thought: My God, people have gone crazy! recalled Dane McBride, a 65-year-old American doctor who worked with Romney at the time. The spread of anarchy troubled us. We didnt look at this social uprising with sympathy. It was the opposite of the values of order and civility that we were preaching.
Mitt Romney expressed his take on those events in 2007: My experience in France gave me a great appreciation of the value of liberty and the value of the free-enterprise system. I came home with the feeling that these things are not ubiquitous, that what we enjoy [in the US] is actually quite unique, and therefore is fragile.''
It was in France that Romney heard of the July 1967 Detroit riots (his governor father ordered the crackdown), and the murder of Robert Kennedy in June 1968.
Romney, who was preaching for a Church that at the time refused to ordain Blacks, also found out about Martin Luther Kings murder while living in France. We wanted our Church to evolve. But when the French refused to open their door, accusing Americans of racism, we replied: What are you doing with Arabs? says McBride.
According to his fellow missionaries, Romney learned a lot about politics, and displayed leadership qualities during his French mission. "Every time there was a problem, he felt he had to resolve it, says Michael Bush, another missionary, who remembers Romneys trips to Spanish banks to get the money sent by the missionaries parents and blocked in France by a nationwide general strike.
In the summer of 1968, after the car crash, Romney replaced Duane Anderson, the mission President who went back to the US to bury his wife. The missionaries werent in good spirits. Conversions were stuck at 80, half the goal set for 1968. So Mitt organized a party and announced the goal was raised from 160 to 200. In December, when he left Paris, there had been 203 conversions, says McBride.
News from dad
But the news that Romney received during his mission that most resonates today may be his fathers complete about-face regarding the Vietnam war. In 1967-1968, George Romney, also a Mormon and an absolute model for his son, was in a similar position as Mitt is today: He was running for the GOP nomination against Richard Nixon.
The elder Romney had suddenly lost his frontrunner status after an August 1967 TV interview. He said that during a trip to Vietnam in 1965, he was brainwashed by US generals whod been lying when they said they were in control of the situation. He called for an end to what he saw as a tragic war, a stand that was immediately followed by the plunge in the polls.
At the same time, his son was preaching for a Church that considered the fight against Communism as a sacred cause. He faced hostility from many French people who were against the American intervention in Vietnam, especially when he went door-to-door in left-leaning neighborhoods.
His fathers position unsettled him, according to McBride. We would be knocking on doors. We would talk to people about Jesus Christ. Some still associated us with Frances 1944 liberators. But many would slam their doors screaming: Youre crazy! You should go home and tell your leaders to get the hell out of Vietnam now!
It was a difficult time for a young man used to being sure of himself. Most of what I was trying to do was rejected, said Romney in 2007, admitting that his fathers change of heart pushed him to reconsider his position.
According to recent biographies, it was in this period that Romney decided to have a different approach to his fathers: being flexible, adapting his positions to the context. That explains the many policy changes that his rivals criticize him for. Once very open on social issues, he has run a very conservative campaign. To those who call out his close ties with France he responds by trashing the European social model.
Mormonisms sense of modesty, as well as the humiliations experienced during his French years, may also explain the lack of charisma and empathy with ordinary people that critics repeatedly bring up against Romney. One of his door-to-door partners in France, Michael Bush, dismisses these attacks as journalists inventions, though he confirms them in his own way. Mitt is a bit uneasy. Its strange that hes running for President without revealing too much of himself. Now, he has to come out and say who he really is.
Bush, who manages a pro-Romney website, prefers to see the candidates struggles to prove his mettle as the result of lessons he learned in those long days between 1966 and 1968: when door after door was slammed in his face by French miscreants.
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Photo - Michael Bush