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Living History: Mormons who would be president

Published September 29, 2012 6:20 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An undiscovered classic of presidential politics is The Mormon Quest for the Presidency: From Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman by Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson on a diet of acid-laced green Jell-O couldn't have made this stuff up.

Mormons know that church founder Joseph Smith made an unsuccessful run for president in 1844, perhaps to highlight the suffering of Latter-day Saints. His campaign promise to release all prison inmates with an exhortation to "go and sin no more" was cut short when an Illinois mob broke into his jail cell and shot him dead.

The next Mormon to make a run at the White House was larger-than-life (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) Parley P. Christensen, who ran in 1920 on the Farmer-Labor ticket. He began as an ardent Republican from Grantsville, eventually rising to Utah Republican Party chairman.

Then Christensen took a left turn. He joined Theodore Roosevelts' Progressive Party and later, in 1919, helped organize the Utah Labor Party. In 1920 he attended a convention of progressives in Chicago which resulted in his nomination to run for president as head of the newly formed Farmer-Labor Party. He lost, receiving a quarter of a million votes.

(It should be a point of pride among Mormons that, despite his defeat, Christensen remained a positive force in politics. As a member of the Los Angeles City Council, he helped block allocation of $2,000 of city funds to transfer the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic flag to Hitler's Berlin games. In 1943 he also successfully fought to oppose official discrimination against minorities in Los Angeles.)

In the 1960s, an unlikely trio took a stab at the presidency.

Ezra Taft Benson was a staunch anti-communist with affinities to the ultra-right, conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society. Benson, who was a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gained national stature when he was appointed U.S. secretary of Agriculture in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In fairness, Benson never officially committed himself in 1968, but there was heavy flirtation with a third-party run. A Texas oilman, H Bunker Hunt, gave the Birch Society money to promote Benson at the head of a national ticket, which was to also feature segregationist Strom Thurmond as veep. At the same time, George Wallace's openly racist presidential campaign made no bones about the fact that Benson was high on its list of vice-presidential hopefuls.

In the end, LDS Church President David O. McKay put the kibosh to Benson's political aspirations.

Popular Michigan governor, and father of the current Republican nominee, George Romney, was an early favorite in the 1968 Republican presidential race. Romney's Mormonism never became an issue, but his campaign stumbled when he accused military brass of "brainwashing" him on the prospects of victory in Vietnam.

That same year black activist Eldridge Cleaver ran on the Peace and Freedom ticket, vowing to burn down the White House should he be elected. While not Mormon at the time, in the 1980s Cleaver converted and became an ardent right-wing Republican.

Liberal Congressman Morris "Mo" Udall in 1976 almost upstaged Jimmy Carter late in the Democratic primaries. Udall, with the GOP in such bad favor at the time, could have become America's first Mormon president.

Excommunicated Mormon and feminist activist Sonia Johnson made a quixotic run in 1984, attracting about the same level of attention as lapsed-Mormon Rocky Anderson is receiving in his 2012 run for the Oval Office.

In 1992, Mormon convert James G. "Bo" Gritz led the ultra right-wing Populist Party in a campaign informed by conspiracy theories and steeped in anti-government, white resentment. His campaign slogan was "God, Guns and Gritz." The church and Gritz later parted ways over his advocacy of skipping out on paying income tax.

Most people don't remember that Orrin Hatch ran for president in 2000, probably because it was a forgettable campaign, mercifully expiring with his last-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

Building on his failed 2008 attempt, Mitt Romney this year topped a decidedly quirky gaggle of Republican aspirants, including fellow-Mormon Jon Huntsman, who never seemed to attract moderate Republicans rumored still to be in existence. Romney now stands as the Republican nominee, perhaps just weeks away from becoming the nation's first Mormon president.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune