In “The Company Romney Keeps” Mr. Blow says that a spokesman for Mitt Romney has made some pretty shocking statements recently. What does that say about the Republican presidential candidate? Well, Mr. Blow, lie down with dogs, get up with fleas… Mr. Nocera, in “For Romney, Ties That Bind,” says connections from the Salt Lake City Olympics are big donors to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In “Talk About a Way With Words” Ms. Collins says another debate between U.S. Senate candidates this week has made rape and abortion the political topics of the moment. How any woman could bring herself to vote for creatures that say some of the things that have been reported is a mystery to me. Here’s Mr. Blow:
The saying goes: A man is known by the company he keeps.
If that is true, what does the company Mitt Romney keeps say about him?
This week Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama again, as he did in 2008. That apparently set John Sununu, a co-chairman of the Romney campaign, on edge. Powell’s endorsement couldn’t possibly be the product of purposeful deliberation over the candidates’ policies. In Sununu’s world of racial reductionism, Powell’s endorsement had a more base explanation: it was a black thing.
On Thursday, Sununu said on CNN:“When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.” He continued: “I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”
Talk about damning with faint praise. In other words, Sununu was basically saying that he was applauding Powell’s inability to see past the color of his own eyelids.
Sununu is the same man who said that the president performed poorly in the first debate because “he’s lazy and disengaged.” He is also the same man who said of the president in July, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”
Could Sununu be unaware that many would register such comments as coded racism? Or was that the intent?
To understand Sununu, it is important to understand his political history.
For starters, he is no stranger to racism controversies. When George H.W. Bush selected him as chief of staff in 1988, The New York Times reported:
“Mr. Sununu’s selection was shadowed by concern among some key Jewish leaders. The 49-year-old New Hampshire Governor, whose father is Lebanese and who takes pride in his Arab ancestry, was the only governor to refuse to sign a June 1987 statement denouncing a 1975 United Nations resolution that equated Zionism with racism.”
But that wasn’t his undoing. It was his actions. In 1991, Sununu became enmeshed in a scandal over using government planes for personal trips.
After the embarrassment of the incident, Bush ordered Sununu to clear all future flights in advance. What happened later you must read for yourself, and it is best stated by Time Magazine in a July 1, 1991, article:
“If Sununu hadn’t exactly been grounded, he had certainly been sent to his room. But Bush underestimated the depth of Sununu’s ethical obtuseness and his zeal at finding a way around the rules. Like a rebellious adolescent, Sununu sneaked down the stairs, grabbed the car keys and slipped out of the White House. After all, the old man had only said, ‘Don’t take the plane.’ He didn’t say anything about the car.”
The piece continued:
“Overcome by a sudden urge two weeks ago to buy rare stamps, Sununu ordered the driver of his government-paid limousine to drive him 225 miles to New York City. He spent the day — and nearly $5,000 — at an auction room at Christie’s. Then he dismissed the driver, who motored back to Washington with no passengers. Sununu returned on a private jet owned by Beneficial Corp.”
By the end of 1991, amid sagging poll numbers, Bush began to see Sununu as a drag and unceremoniously relieved him of his post. As The Times reported then, Sununu was made to plead for his job before he was pushed out anyway:
“Mr. Sununu and the White House portrayed the departure as voluntary. But it followed meetings in which Mr. Bush listened to Mr. Sununu’s arguments that he should stay on and then decided to follow the advice of top-level Republicans who urged the removal of his chief of staff.”
R. W. Apple Jr. wrote in The Times after the move that Bush’s “indirectly soliciting and then promptly accepting” Sununu’s resignation had made it abundantly clear what actually happened.
Sununu has apologized, somewhat, for his racial attack on Powell’s motives. But what should we make of all this?
We have a very racially divided electorate. As The Washington Post reported Thursday, “Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll.”
The report pointed out that nearly 80 percent of nonwhites support Obama, while 91 percent of Romney’s supporters are white.
I worry that Sununu’s statements intentionally go beyond recognizing racial disparities and seek to exploit them.
What does that say about Romney, and what does it say about his campaign’s tactics?
Remember: A man is known by the company he keeps.
Now here’s Mr. Nocera, who will tell us some more about the company Money Boo Boo keeps:
In 1999, when Mitt Romney was put in charge of organizing the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, there was an unusual company among those angling to be Olympic sponsors. Along with the Coca-Colas and the McDonalds, there was a company called Nu Skin, based in Provo, Utah, that sold anti-aging products and nutritional supplements. Its distribution network is what is called, in the industry, multilevel marketing. Critics have another name for that kind of business: a pyramid scheme.
Nu Skin, which was founded in 1984, had already had a number of run-ins with the law. In 1991, after an exposé on ABC News’s “Nightline,” a handful of attorneys general accused it of violating laws that are supposed to prevent pyramid schemes. The company made some minor fiddles with its practices and settled the complaints.
Then it was accused by the Federal Trade Commission of making unsupported claims about a handful of its products, including a wrinkle cream (“can roll 10 years off”) and “a skin treatment that claimed to heal third-degree burns,” according to an article by Peter Elkind in the latest issue of Fortune Magazine. It settled in 1994 for $1.2 million.
Three years later, the F.T.C. was back again, levying a $1.5 million fine against Nu Skin “for making false claims about its weight-loss products,” writes Elkind (who is, for the record, a friend and former colleague). Despite these blemishes, Nu Skin sought, just a few years later, to become an Olympic sponsor — a $20 million investment that would allow it to slap the Olympic rings on its products.
Here is how Elkind describes what happened next: “Sponsorship by a supplement company was controversial at a moment when the International Olympic Committee was warning athletes to avoid supplements, since they might contain banned substances. But Romney defended Nu Skin after it submitted its products to independent review.” He also appeared at a Nu Skin convention in 1999, where he essentially endorsed the company and its products: both Nu Skin and the Olympics, he said, are “about taking control of your life and managing your own destiny.” Steve Lund, a co-founder of the company, described the value of the Olympic sponsorship as “incalculable.”
You know how multilevel marketing companies work, don’t you? You sign up to become a “distributor” of a company’s products — but at the same time you also agree to become a customer. You have to buy a certain dollar amount of products each month, and then you have to recruit others, who, in turn, buy products from you. Then they have to do likewise — and on and on. That’s the essential pyramid.
The people at the very top can make millions; in Nu Skin’s case, 34 distributors have made $20 million or more. But, according to the company itself, some 87 percent of its distributors made no commissions at all in 2011. Indeed, most people who sign up lose money.
In addition, these companies often sell products of dubious value. In the case of Nu Skin, Elkind spoke to a number of scientists who scoffed at Nu Skin’s anti-aging claims. Because so many multilevel marketing companies are based in Utah, critics joke that the initials MLM stand for Mormons Losing Money. (Nu Skin executives insist that their products work as advertised, and that distributors are not taken advantage of.)
Elkind’s story is primarily a rollicking tale of the battle between Nu Skin and a handful of short-sellers, who are betting that the company’s products and practices are headed for trouble. (Herbalife is another multilevel marketing company the shorts have targeted.) But that may be wishful thinking. In the last decade, government investigations into multilevel marketing companies have largely withered away. The reason is that the companies have learned how to make friends with powerful politicians. In 1994, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch from — where else? — Utah sponsored a law, according to Elkind, “that deregulated the nutritional supplement industry, allowing it to sell products without prior F.D.A. review.” Nu Skin expanded into China with the help of Utah’s governor at the time, Jon Huntsman Jr. It put two former senators on its board. Most recently, the F.T.C. promulgated something called the Business Opportunity Rule, which is meant to offer a measure of protection for people who are pitched stay-at-home business opportunities. Incredibly, the multilevel marketing industry was exempted from the rule.
And then there is Mitt Romney, who’s never cut his ties to the industry. Why would he? Industry executives have been generous donors to his presidential campaign. One co-founder of Nu Skin chaired his national finance committee four years ago. Another threw him a fund-raiser.
And Lund, the third co-founder, has donated $3 million to Restore Our Future, the “super-PAC” that is backing Romney. “Mitt Romney is a pretty close friend,” Lund told Elkind. “We have been in his house many times. He and Ann had Thanksgiving at our house one year.”
For Romney, these are the ties that bind.
Revolting. Here’s Ms. Collins:
Rape is a big issue this election season. Not what we were expecting, but, these days, American voters are prepared to deal with pretty much anything.
This week, all eyes turned to a United States Senate debate in Indiana — also something we were not really planning on doing. Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate, caused a national stir when he defended his across-the-board opposition to abortion by saying that a pregnancy caused by rape “is something that God intended to happen.”
When it comes to abortion, both Mourdock and his Democratic opponent, Representative Joe Donnelly, are anti-choice. But, unlike Mourdock, Donnelly makes an exception in the case of rape or incest. One of the truly disturbing parts of our current politics is that we have begun to identify people who want to impose their religious beliefs on millions of women who don’t share them as moderates as long as they’re O.K. with the rape exemption.
There are plenty of reasons that a sensible Hoosier would not want to have Mourdock as a senator. He’s a Tea Party favorite who toppled the longtime incumbent, Senator Richard Lugar, in a primary, during which he said that his definition of bipartisanship was “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” As state treasurer, he sued to stop the Obama administration’s rescue of Chrysler, a company that is directly or indirectly responsible for about 100,000 jobs in Indiana.
But let’s just talk today about his comment on abortion. Mourdock was basically saying that everything that happens is part of God’s plan. Did that mean God’s plan included evil things like sexual assault? Or just pregnancies as a result of sexual assault? Theologians have been arguing these kinds of questions for more than a thousand years. I don’t think we can expect to work them out in the Indiana Senate debate.
However, Mourdock’s words reminded everyone of Representative Todd Akin, the United States Senate candidate in Missouri. He defended his opposition to abortion under any circumstance by claiming that it was virtually impossible to become pregnant from a “legitimate” rape. (Many Missourians were disturbed by the remark. Recently, Akin skillfully attempted to change the subject by comparing his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, to a dog.)
Big-name Republicans who had distanced themselves from Akin were once again shocked — shocked! — by the appearance of another anti-choice candidate whose use of language was so clumsy as to make it clear how really radical the entire party’s position on women’s reproductive rights has become. Senator Kelly Ayotte canceled a visit to Indiana. John McCain said he’d withdraw his support unless Mourdock apologized, then withdrew the withdrawal when Mourdock said despicable media minds had misinterpreted his words.
What about Mitt Romney? Mourdock is the only Senate candidate for whom Romney has appeared in a TV ad, although there are lots of beleaguered Republicans who could use his help: the guy in Montana who had a fire on his property and then sued the local fire department that worked to put it out; the guy in Florida who used to do promotional work for “Hooters”; the woman who’s running against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. She’s against abortion even in cases of rape and incest, but, so far, very few New Yorkers know it because they have yet to learn more basic information, such as her name.
If Republicans lose Lugar’s seat, it will totally quash their hopes of winning control of the Senate. So a Romney spokesman simply said Mitt “disagrees” with Mourdock’s statement and let it go at that.
The real moral of the Mourdock flap isn’t about giving rape victims special dispensation, or whether it’s offensive to say that you believe even sexual assaults are part of God’s plan. It’s the one President Obama came up with: “This is exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s health care.” (It’s amazing, at this stage, that the president can say something this pointed, given the way he’s been run ragged through the swing states. Have you looked at the man lately? He resembles a losing contestant in “The Hunger Games.”)
The idea of banning abortion except for rape and incest cases makes anti-choice politicians sound more evenhanded, but it doesn’t actually make much sense. If you believe life begins at conception, then that’s a life, and you should try to convince women not to terminate any pregnancy, no matter what the cause. Our difference of opinion is over whether you can impose your beliefs with the threat of cops and penitentiaries.
And if rape victims deserve exemptions because their situation is dire, what about other women with unwanted pregnancies and terrible stories? The real crime of people like Mourdock and Akin is that their inartful language throws a sudden stark light on a stance that sounds so unthreatening when a candidate simply says: “I’m pro-life.”