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No Medal For You

Romney’s Olympic non-miracle.

It’s Mitt Romney’s misfortune as a presidential candidate that his greatest administrative accomplishment—indeed, the centerpiece of his four-year Massachusetts governorship—was a health care reform plan that most of his fellow Republicans despise, because it provided the blueprint for President Obama’s 2010 health reform law. Rather than boast that he helped build the most significant domestic legislation to clear Congress in four decades, Romney must revile Obamacare, pledge to repeal it, and pretend that it bears little resemblance to Romneycare.

The Bay State itself is another liability for Romney. It’s viewed by conservatives as so unforgivably liberal that a 2006 PowerPoint briefing prepared by campaign strategists before Romney’s first presidential run actually recommended that he lump “Massachusetts” in with “taxes,” “Hollywood values,” “jihadism,” and other campaign “bogeymen.”

Rather than talk up his Massachusetts experience reforming health care, Romney’s been talking a lot about the depth of his private-sector experience running Bain Capital. But that has its perils, too, because Bain Capital doesn’t make tangible products or perform familiar-sounding services; it makes money. Being the former top man at Bain Capital doesn’t give Romney the same captain-of-industry aura that being the former top man at American Motors gave his father, George Romney, when he ran for president in 1968. Like other private equity firms, Bain Capital follows a pattern of loading up companies they buy with debt, laying off workers, and then collecting enormous fees whether the company in question thrives or not. We’ve already heard a lot about that from Romney’s primary opponents.

Should Romney talk about his relationship with his Creator? It worked for George W. Bush, who, when asked in a 1999 debate to name the political philosopher he most identified with, answered, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” But Romney’s religion, Mormonism, is regarded by many voters with puzzlement or suspicion. Like John F. Kennedy in 1960, Romney understands that the best way for him to overcome religious intolerance is to downplay any influence his faith might exercise over his political judgment.

If Romney must avoid talking too much about health care or being Massachusetts governor or being a leveraged-buyout high-flyer or being a Mormon, what can he talk about? I predict we’ll hear Romney talk a lot about running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the tenth anniversary of which he’ll be on hand to commemorate on February 18.

Romney valued his role as president and chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) so much that he published a book about it in 2004. “[I]t was more exhilarating, more fulfilling, and more rewarding than any professional experience I have ever known,” Romney wrote in Turnaround—a remarkable statement given that Romney had already put in one year as Massachusetts governor.

Romney continued: Although he’d done many things in his professional life that were “interesting and challenging and rewarding, and I may do so in the future [italics mine], I cannot imagine how anything could surpass the Olympic experience.”

The offer to run SLOC came at an opportune time. Romney had lost a Senate bid to Ted Kennedy four years earlier and the tech boom of the late ’90s had left him with more money than he knew what to do with. His interests were drifting back to politics; according to Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s The Real Romney, Romney considered leaving Bain to play a major role in Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Instead, when SLOC Chairman Robert Garff, an old family friend, and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt offered him the Olympics post in the fall of 1998, Romney seized it. It was, Garff later observed, “a perfect opportunity for him to propel himself into the national spotlight.”

Romney’s designated role was that of white knight. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s successful bid to host the Olympics, it had recently been revealed, had been greased by lavish gifts to members of the International Olympic Committee. Romney purged a few employees and board members, worked hard to attract spooked corporate sponsors, and made drastic budget cuts to cover a $400 million deficit. In the end, the 2002 Winter Olympics were a success, and Romney was widely credited with managing it well.

But, in Romney’s version of this story, he didn’t just clean up a managerial mess. “I left [Bain Capital] to go off and help save the Olympic games,” he says in a campaign ad. “Some were contemplating scaling back the competition,” intones his online campaign bio, “or even moving it out of the country.” During one dark night of the soul described in Turnaround, Romney tells Leavitt, “There is some possibility, I hope not a large one, that the Games might run out of money before they begin.” The apocalyptic tone should sound familiar, because on the campaign trail Romney’s been asking, “Are we going to remain America, the shining city on a hill, with freedom and opportunity, or are we going to become something we couldn’t recognize?”

In fact—even after the September 11 attacks raised the security threat—the Salt Lake Olympics had about as much chance of being canceled as Christmas. When I asked Lisa Delpy Neirotti, who teaches sport management at George Washington University, to name a single U.S.-based Winter or Summer Olympics during the past three decades that wasn’t managed well, she drew a blank.

So, while Romney’s Olympic stewardship was certainly effective, it was hardly remarkable—except for three things. One was that the sloc produced six different types of Olympic pins featuring Romney (“HEY MITT ... WE LOVE YOU!,” “MITT HAPPENS,” etc.). Second was that Romney dressed down a teenager directing traffic to an event with such fury that the Utah state police got involved. Third was that the federal government ended up subsidizing the Salt Lake City Olympics by a record $342 million. From this I derive three lessons: 1) Romney’s ego is ready to occupy the Oval Office; 2) Romney has a slightly scary temper; and 3) Romney isn’t quite the budget hawk he’d have you believe.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.