The Cool Kid

Jon Huntsman’s fellow conservatives are in a swivet over all the attention he’s gotten since arriving home from China. As governor of Utah, the antiabortion, pro-gun Huntsman did all the things Tea Party conservatives say they want, slashing taxes and adding jobs.

By Melinda Henneberger / Time Magazine

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman has just proved he can keep 1,100 graduating college kids awake for 17 minutes — and even led them in a popular local cheer about kicking ass. But Obama’s lean, understated former ambassador to China is really here to prove he can mount a credible campaign against the man he was working for a week prior. In a brightly lit cinder-block room inside the sports arena where the University of South Carolina has held its commencement, the former Utah governor jokes that the stark setting of our interview — his first since returning to the U.S. — suggests he might be in for some “enhanced interrogation.”

But if that’s what I’m up to, then torture really doesn’t work, because in several sittings and a couple of hours together over a week’s time, I don’t even come close to getting him to spill such puny secrets as whether he thinks we should be in Afghanistan or Libya (“There will be more to say about that”), in what ways he disagrees with Obama (“I don’t want to get into specifics”) or, for that matter, where he parts company with his fellow Republicans, including his distant cousin, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (“It wouldn’t be fair to offer an opinion without doing due diligence”). And as for whether or not Huntsman still belongs to the Church of Latter-day Saints, I know less than I did before I asked him. (“I’m a very spiritual person,” as opposed to a religious one, he says, “and proud of my Mormon roots.” Roots? That makes it sound as if you’re not a member anymore. Are you? “That’s tough to define,” he says. “There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.”)

So careful that he’s disinclined to weigh in on any matter on which he hasn’t been fully briefed or made up his mind, Huntsman is nonetheless plenty open about wanting to compete for Obama’s job. Already he’s in primary-season mode, moderating his previously moderate views by praising the Tea Party as “a very legitimate manifestation of people’s anger and frustration in where we are today” and junking his support for the regional cap-and-trade carbon-emissions pact he and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once championed. “It hasn’t worked,” he says now, “and our economy’s in a different place than five years ago.” Until it recovers, he adds, “this isn’t the moment” to keep trying.

While some Republican hopefuls have failed or are still trying to coax their loved ones onto the campaign bus, Huntsman’s wife and their seven children are more than ready for a yearlong road trip that could begin as soon as June. “I would be extremely excited” if he ran, his daughter Liddy, 23, says. “He’d be the ultimate fresh face.” (“Thanks, chief,” he tells her in his usual soothing sotto voce style.)

Certainly, his party is in the market for one of those; competition was so modest at the first GOP presidential debate of the season that the sole top-tier contender who showed, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, was begging for a rival who could help him keep his skills up. As Huntsman’s would-be campaign manager John Weaver tells me, “This is the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940.”

But is the understated 51-year-old Jon Meade Huntsman Jr. really the answer to the Republican Party’s personnel problem? He is, after all, a pro-civil-union Mormon who has just finished nearly two years of service for Obama in the land many Americans consider the new evil empire. He is pro-environment — a little too green for many in his party — and hardly anyone knows who he is. Though Huntsman’s path to the nomination is a certified long shot, you have to wonder why so many on both the right and left seem to be freaking out at the prospect of his jumping into the race.

Democrats who fear that Huntsman would do well against Obama in next year’s general election are busy pelting him with rose petals — take that, you wonderful man! — that they openly hope will disqualify him in the eyes of Republican Party regulars. But it’s Huntsman’s fellow conservatives who are in a swivet over all the attention he’s gotten since arriving home from China on April 30. As governor, the antiabortion, pro-gun Huntsman did all the things Tea Party conservatives say they want, slashing taxes and adding jobs. He did that in part by using his sway with Mormon elders to pave the way for a reform of state liquor laws that made it easier to get a drink.

Yet on the right, he still somehow stands accused both of writing the President the kind of “love letters” most of us refer to as thank-you notes and of showing disloyalty to his country by “plotting” to run against that same President while in a position to undermine him on the world stage. Both what he says and what he doesn’t say in our interviews make clear, though, that he really has not been steeping himself in presidential politics. “I’m not even sure I could name all of them,” he says of his GOP rivals.

Fortunately for him, much of the country can’t either.

Duty Calls Again

There’s no serious debate about why Obama picked Huntsman for the China job: First, Huntsman knows an awful lot about the country. And because the President’s advisers saw the then governor of Utah as a potential future rival, Obama could score points as a uniter by appointing a Republican while also relocating his competition to the other side of the planet. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. One sign of Team Obama’s discomfort over his early return is that the President’s top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, has gone out of his way to emphasize how helpful to Obama Huntsman has been. And he warns that it’ll be mighty tricky for Huntsman to pivot from working with the President to running against him.

So why did the wildly popular governor — Huntsman had an 80%

Huntsman sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to China

approval rating in his deeply conservative home state when he left it halfway through his second term — agree to take the China job, knowing that part of Obama’s motivation in choosing him was to get him out of the way? And having done so, why did he return home to run anyway? To the first question, Huntsman says it was his sense of duty to country that made the decision so straightforward; he had worked for Ronald Reagan soon after college, and as George H.W. Bush’s man in Singapore, he had been the youngest U.S. ambassador anywhere in a century. After a stint in his family business during the Clinton years, he had returned to Washington and served under George W. Bush as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative. When the President — any President — calls, he says, you answer.

But his father, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, suggests in a phone interview that there is another reason as well. “His dream was to become ambassador to China,” he tells me, because he’s always been fascinated by and drawn to the culture. So it was certainly no surprise to anyone in his family that he took the job, even though it did seem at the time that he was taking himself out of the running for the next presidential contest. A fluent speaker of both Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien, Huntsman had spent two years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary and had done business all over Asia for the Huntsman Corp. He and his wife adopted their 11-year-old daughter Gracie Mei in China. Of their seven children, only four were able to move to China with them, which is one reason, he says, they had always planned to return home around now.

Still, the general GOP dissatisfaction with its options for 2012 scrambled Huntsman’s plans dramatically in the past few months; when the family bought a $3.6 million house in Washington last fall in anticipation of their move home, he was thinking about running for President — but four years from now. “The thought in here” — he taps his temple — “was 2016, but the political marketplace moved,” and it seems to have provided a vacuum too vast to resist. “If there was zero interest,” he says, sitting on his hands in the would-be interrogation room, “we wouldn’t be sitting here. We’re encouraged by the level of interest and will let the rest of the month play out” — presumably in anticipation of jumping in come June.

A Rebel in His Own Mind

Jon Jr. was always “captain of the family team,” says his father, who early in his career oversaw the invention of the egg carton and later the clamshell containers that Big Macs and Quarter Pounders come in. Young Jon, however, insisted on driving around in a beat-up van and eating in the grimiest diners possible. Just months shy of graduation, he announced that he was dropping out of high school to play keyboards in his band, Wizard. Says his former bandmate Howard Sharp, now an ob-gyn in Salt Lake City: “You have to remember, this was the ’70s, and we had a singer who said that if we called ourselves Wizard, then our slogan could be ‘Rock and roll magic!'”)

In a phone interview with Huntsman Sr., I ask how worried he was when his namesake dropped out of school. “Oh, he thought he was going to make it big with a rock band. I knew he wouldn’t, but I knew it was temporary,” he says. “I’d stand and listen to his rock band and think, Oh, I’ll be happy when this is over.” Sharp adds that Huntsman never struck him as much of a rebel; even then, he came across more as the classically trained pianist he was than the keyboard superstar he wanted to be.

A year later, Wizard was history and Huntsman was working on his G.E.D., says his dad, and he later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He likes to brag that when he met his wife Mary Kaye, she was the salad girl and he was a dishwasher at a Salt Lake City Marie Callender’s. He seems to think of the down-market setting as romantic, almost on a par with the divey restaurants he still makes a habit of seeking out. So I am not that surprised when longtime family friend Mary Eleanor Hurt, who knew Mary Kaye Cooper when the latter was an Episcopalian growing up in Orlando, Fla., says the only snobbery she’s ever seen in her friend Jon is “maybe reverse snobbery.” And it’s not just a matter of proving his regular-guy bona fides in campaign season: “Mary Kaye finally told him they had to stop eating in some of those back-alley places” in China, Hurt says.

The second time I stop by their new home in Kalorama, a tony D.C. neighborhood dotted with minor embassies and major ambassadors’ homes, Mary Kaye is exiting with an armload of dry cleaning, and Jon is walking another visitor out. “The sun is shining, and we’re still married,” he says, breathing deeply to take in air that’s pure compared with Beijing’s. Kalorama is the sort of place you’d mount a campaign for opera-board trustee from, not the presidency. But even with aides going, photographers coming and little 5-year-old Asha shrieking periodically, the Huntsmans are easy to be around. And Jon bats down compliments as reflexively as many women do, repeatedly telling his wife, “Don’t be too sappy,” as she’s praising him. “You need to get the antidweeb lens on the camera,” he tells the photographer taking pictures for this story, “and filter out the goofiness.”

Huntsman is something of a renowned prankster, which helps take the edge off his good looks and high polish. “Asha, do you know they eat dogs like that in China? They put them in stew,” he says while pointing to his daughter’s pet spaniel, which shocks me but sends her into fits of laughter. A few years ago, he paged Sharp, the doctor friend he used to jam with, stat — as in, this is an emergency. “So I called him back rapidly,” Sharp remembers, “and he says, ‘It’s a rock-‘n’-roll emergency … the Foo Fighters are coming to town, and we’ve got to get tickets.'” He loves to talk about his passion for cross-country motorcycle racing. “It’s a different ride,” he tells the photographer, “but you’re forced to give it up after a while because you get too many broken bones.” And if Huntsman was never quite the rebel he imagined himself to be, it’s not for lack of trying. “Is tonight black tie?” he asks an aide ahead of an event at the University of South Carolina. “That kind of sucks.”

On more prominent display, though, is the serious man who, like his wife, gravitates to people in pain. “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow,” Mary Kaye tells me several times as we’re chatting, quoting from a Mormon hymn. Though the students at South Carolina respond well to the lighter moments in his talk, like the timeless advice “Never forget to rock and roll,” Huntsman also wades into the heavy topics of depression and suicide, telling them, “I’ve had my heart broken more than once when friends of my kids’ have taken their own lives.” He decided to include that line because, Mary Kaye tells me, “you know there was someone sitting in that audience who’s thought about it, and it’s so important to remind people going through that that they are not alone.”

Utah Grudge Match

Huntsman could see and raise Obama in the cool-and-cerebral department. Does he ever get good and mad? “When you step in the dog poop in the house,” says his wife with a snicker. But shows of pique, his friends say, are not really in his repertoire. “You can be stern and forthright, and that’s my management style,” he tells me, “but when you lose it totally, that’s a sign of weakness.” One imagines Obama and his former ambassador, who were born just a year apart, one-upping each other with humorous asides in the heat of political battle and, if things got really crazy, perhaps letting fly with a searing look.

When I ask where he disagrees with Obama, he says, “I’m a little reluctant, days off the plane, to take shots.” There’s something to admire in every President he’s known, he adds, and he launches into a canny but glass-half-full rundown on Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Obama. The current occupant of the Oval Office, he says, “is trying to pick up the pieces of our economy and make sense of a world grown more complex and confusing.” And it does bother him, he says, to hear people arguing about who, Bush or Obama, should get more credit for bringing down Osama bin Laden. “Our country needs a little good news, and this was an American event, an American achievement, not a political one.”

But in the age of the Tea Party, of cable and blogosphere bile, is there room for such civility on the national stage? Does the influence of the Tea Parties leave any room at all for a moderate like Huntsman? And does his party want to win badly enough to give anyone who might appeal to independents a shot? “Just because I don’t yell, scream and shout,” he says, “doesn’t mean others aren’t entitled to. And people want to be led” rather than pandered to, he insists, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Huntsman’s return sets up an unusual Utah grudge match between the once close Romney and Huntsman families. Though his father knew Romney’s dad well, “I’ve only met [Mitt] a few times and think well of him,” Huntsman says. “I don’t want this to sound pejorative, but he’s one of the most talented politicos out there.” When I mention the cousinly connection, he is perhaps a tad quick to say, “Well, going back five generations.” And yet, chimes in Liddy, “they got the same hair somewhere.”

Neither Romney nor any of the other Republican aspirants has the foreign policy experience Huntsman has. But none are attempting as cold a start as he is either. He’s still shaken very few hands, and he’s spent little time lately in the American diners he says he loves so much. If he does enter the race next month, as expected, he will have to face some real interrogations, from real voters, and won’t be able to tell them that now is not the time to fill in the blanks.

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