Mitt’s overhyped Olympic gold

Yes, he saved the Utah games. But he did it, as you would expect, by slashing costs and begging for big checks

Topics: Mitt Romney, Olympics, Editor's Picks,

Mitt's overhyped Olympic goldPresident of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, Mitt Romney smiles as he raises an Olympic torch on December 3, 2001, during a handing-over ceremony in Athens' Panathenean stadium. (Credit: REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis)
The following is an excerpt from Alex Pareene's new e-book for Salon, "The Rude Guide to Mitt." It can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and the Sony Reader Store.

If Mitt Romney manages to win the presidency, it will be because of the corruption of the International Olympic Committee.

The men in charge of the Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee noticed, during the 1990s, that the International Olympic Committee was granting the games to the bid committees that wined and dined IOC members the most, and so they out-wined-and-dined Sweden, Switzerland and Canada to the tune of millions of dollars’ worth of “gifts.” In 1995, they won the right to host the 2002 Winter Games. At the end of 1998, rampant IOC corruption was exposed by Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler, and the heads of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, lawyer Tom Welch and car salesman Dave Johnson, promptly resigned and were indicted. (Both were acquitted in 2003.)

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt tapped Mitt Romney to take over SLOC and save the Olympics. In the words of Salt Lake Tribune editor James Shelledy, speaking to Lawrence Wright: “The Governor conducted an exhaustive 48-hour search for the best B.Y.U. graduate available.”

But the best BYU graduate might have been all the Salt Lake Olympics needed. A millionaire from a prominent Mormon family is probably the best person for the job when the job involves asking the Mormon Church to donate lots of money and use of church property and asking other prominent Mormon millionaires to donate, as well.

The Olympics gig was Romney’s most prominent public act to date, and it’s the resume item on which his political career rests. The means by which he amassed his personal fortune and his single greatest achievement as governor of Massachusetts are now albatrosses around his neck, but he did competently manage those Olympics.

He knew a successful Olympics would be crucial to his political career. “If this doesn’t work, I can come back to private life, but I won’t be anything anymore in public life,” he reportedly told John Hancock Mutual president David D’Alessandro before the games. In February of 1999, just after Romney took the job, he declined to rule out a future run for office in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. (Though he clearly wasn’t seriously considering a run in Utah, as he also took the opportunity to affirm his support for LGBT rights.)

Here’s how Romney did it: He slashed costs and restored funding feared lost after the scandal turned off donors and Congress. He pared down the opening ceremony (what it lost in pomp it more than made up for in exploitative post-9/11 weepy nationalism, courtesy of G.W. Bush and a torn-up flag flown in from ground zero over the objections of the IOC) and begged his billionaire friends to write him million-dollar checks. He raised ticket prices 14 percent above the previous games and auctioned off the best tickets on the Internet. He promised Bank of America executives that they’d get paid back before taxpayers if they extended more credit. And, most important, he lobbied the hell out of Congress, at least until George Bush entered the White House and put Olympic spending right in his budget, which had the added benefit of helping out a rising star in the GOP.

The Olympics were saved, thanks to the largess of the 1 percent and the congressional appropriations process. (Those particular Olympics, at least. There were still damning reports to come on the Nagano and Sydney Olympics, there was the resignation of Bulgarian IOC member Ivan Slavkov after he was videotaped offering to sell his vote on the 2012 games, and there was the December 2011 resignation of 48-year IOC member João Havelange following more bribery and corruption allegations.) Still, there is some question of how much saving those Olympics needed — Romney has been accused of playing up the scope of the budget crisis he inherited, and he relentlessly set low expectations for the game — and there likely would have been no need for “saving” the Salt Lake City Games at all had the bid scandal not come to light. Romney flew back to Massachusetts the Monday after the Paralympics ended in order to take out the incumbent Republican governor.

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In 2004, Governor Romney wrote a book on the games called “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games.” Published by right-wing imprint Regnery, it’s more of a (deeply boring) corporate leadership guide than a proper campaign book.

The indifferently edited “Turnaround” features multiple passages in which Romney delivers a laundry list of ways in which the Olympics symbolize the best of humanity. In the original prologue, the Olympics are a “showcase” for “the great qualities of the human spirit” and the “noble qualities of humanity”: ”determination, persistence, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, faith, passion, teamwork, loyalty, honor, character.” In the 2007 paperback prologue, the Olympics now represent “the qualities that make America great”: “determination, hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, loyalty, honor, and character.” And on Page 77: “I saw the athletes as the best qualities of humanity — perseverance, determination, faith, sacrifice, friendship, and teamwork.”

He knows, in other words, that he is supposed to be moved or awestruck by the athletic display, as regular human Olympic viewers are. But Mitt Romney is a man less inspired by heroic feats of strength and agility than by “strategic audits” and the crucial distinction between “budget enhancing” and “budget relieving” Value-In-Kind donations. The contribution of thousands of hamburgers from McDonald’s (“we loved the company almost as much as I loved their burgers, and that’s saying something”), for example, “enhanced the experience for the athletes, but they didn’t reduce our budget needs.” Then Budweiser donated beer the company couldn’t sell or serve due to Utah’s restrictive alcohol regulations. (Romney doesn’t claim that beer, too, “enhanced the experience” for Olympic athletes and spectators, but he’s too respectful of the value of a major corporate sponsor to besmirch even a product that his faith forbids him from partaking in.)

It is apparent that the games were saved primarily by Romney’s connections and ability to ask for money. Romney realizes that “donations” to SLOC, unlike sponsorships, don’t have to be shared with the USOC and the IOC, and so he solicits those instead. Bain Capital “generously agreed to contribute $1 million.” Romney relates that, “I had several meetings with Jon and Karen Huntsman; they too contributed $1 million,” and, “I had been in politics where I had to screw up my courage to ask for $1,000. Now I was asking for $1 million. And you know what, it’s actually no harder.” He tells how, “[We] created the platinum level. This was available for $8 million or so. And we had three sign up: the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, the business holding group of the Mormon Church, and Intermountain Health Care or IHC.”

Where Romney really shines is in his description of creating a productive and positive work environment. He reproduces, in its entirety, his list of “SLOC’S GUIDING PRINCIPLES,” which he had “codified, printed, and placed on every SLOC desk.” It’s a predictable mess of bullshit corporatese:

TEAMWORK
* “Involve all appropriate stakeholders in each project/issue.”
* “Think horizontally, not vertically, within SLOC’s structure.”
* “Consider other viewpoints and find win-win solutions.”
* “Emphasize and recognize team success.”
* “Be helpful to others.”

But Mitt is totally a Fun Boss!

I instituted a casual dress policy. We had chambray shirts made up with the SLOC team insignia; I wore them religiously, almost every day. To my delight, other senior staffers did too. Several times every day, I roamed the halls and sought one-on-one interaction with members of the staff. If I were lucky, we would find something to laugh about, usually something funny they had taped to their wall or displayed on their desk. Not surprisingly, humorous photos and such multiplied. And as people learned that I especially enjoyed having fun poked at me, the photos now and then included a caricature of Fraser or me or other managers.

This stiff, forced jocularity – seemingly learned from a management tract on connecting with your “team” and not from any sort of experience with relating to other actual humans – resembles how Romney the politician interacts with the common voter. Some ancient manual on leadership skills instructed young Romney to be jovial and self-deprecating, to carefully insert humor into meetings and choreographed encounters with peons, and he dutifully, awkwardly follows the script. When Romney’s the boss, these moments of mandatory levity are deemed pleasurable for all. When the power dynamic shifts, Romney’s joking suddenly seems desperate, sweaty and weird, as in the story of visiting the (Clinton) White House with SLOC’s super-lobbyist, Democrat Cindy Gillespie:

When we got through the Secret Service checkpoint for clearance to go to the West Wing, the agent handed each of us a badge to wear around our necks. Mine had a big, red A. I turned to Cindy and, in front of the agents, said, “Why do I have to wear this?” Thinking I was confused, she tried to explain that all visitors to the White House had to wear a badge. “I know that,” I responded, “I’m asking why I have to wear the red A around my neck. I’m not the one that cheated on my wife. He should be wearing the scarlet A — not me.” I grumbled all the way up the drive and into the West Wing visitors lobby. The look on Cindy’s face was priceless.

I’m sure it was.

Alex Pareene
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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