Huntsman couldn't resist allure of China

Published May 17, 2009 4:41 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you looked closely, the signs were always there that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. left his heart in China.

From the Cultural Revolution propaganda jar that he kept on his desk to the head-scratching Confucian aphorisms and Mandarin homilies he sprinkled into nearly every speech he made, it was clear China was the governor's weakness.

The one offer he couldn't refuse.

Whether it was canny political strategy or brilliant diplomatic thinking, President Barack Obama knew just what he was doing when he asked Utah's governor to be the U.S. ambassador to China.

"This ambassadorship is as important as any in the world," the president said.

In one stroke, the Democratic president eliminated one of his possible 2012 competitors and picked a man many say is best qualified for the job in Beijing. The New York Times called it a "political coup."

And after being passed over eight years ago for the same job by a president from his own party, Huntsman stood in the diplomatic room of the White House Saturday, his shy and long-traveling wife, Mary Kaye, at his side.

"I never expected to be standing here under the inquisitive gaze of George Washington and under the equally inquisitive gaze of my wife," Huntsman said. "I wasn't looking for a new job in life, but a call from the president changed that."

And so another Utah governor leaves mid-term -- this time just five months into his second term.

If we're honest with ourselves, we saw it coming.

I started to suspect Huntsman wasn't long for the West when I tagged along on his first trade mission to China three years ago.

The Chinese had heard of him. They knew and admired him from his stints as ambassador to Singapore and deputy U.S. trade representative. They ate it up when he ate duck feet, gasped when he spoke fluently and at length in their complex language.

"They respect him, which is most important with the Chinese," Utah World Trade Center President Lew Cramer, a Huntsman mentor, told me at the time.

Our last night in Shanghai, the governor took a couple of reporters, staffers and security guards on a tour of the city's old neighborhoods. As we wandered the narrow alleyways, ducking laundry and tubs of turtles, past dank, one-room dentist offices and tiny wooden huts with TVs blaring, Huntsman struck up conversations like a returning native son. We ate dumplings and spicy chicken in his favorite restaurant and, finally, posed like a row of tourists in front of the Bund's lights.

After serving a Mormon mission in Taiwan, living in Singapore and adopting two of his seven children from the region, Huntsman will be returning home. His proper grammar and rigid spine relax in China. If you ask, he'll lapse into professorial asides about modern Chinese politics. He once told me he'd like to take his daughter Gracie Mei to the orphanage where he picked her up 10 years ago.

His brother says he agonized over the decision. But, after promising his wife he would stay put for a while, after carving out the leading edge of the Republican Party's moderate flank, after flirting with a run for president, Huntsman couldn't resist the president's call.

Didn't really even try.

walsh@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">walsh@sltrib.com

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