Something Different This Way Comes

By Parker, Kathleen | Newsweek, June 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

Something Different This Way Comes


Parker, Kathleen, Newsweek


Byline: Kathleen Parker

Will Republicans elect Jon Huntsman if he won't obey their rules?

When you spot Fred Davis in the room, you know a Republican is about to get a makeover. Or, in the case of Jon Huntsman, a professed motocross fanatic, a little fine-tuning for a well-oiled political machine. For Davis, a campaign strategist and filmmaker famous for his skill at crafting political ads, Huntsman's varied resume offers a banquet of creative options: high-school dropout and ambassador to China, dishwasher at Marie Callender's and governor of Utah, classically trained pianist and rock keyboardist who still has a band, Politically Incorrect, that practices in his basement.

Add to those bullet points a wife, Mary Kaye, who was a high-school sweetheart and a salad tosser at said Marie Callender's, seven children (two adopted), and, oh yeah, made-for-TV looks and a billionaire philanthropist father.

To say that Huntsman is "different" is to cheat the thesaurus. He is a mixed metaphor, a symphony of cognitive dissonance and, it turns out, a speaker in triplicates. He admits this, which helps to humanize his three-point responses to nearly any question. A tic? "It's easy to manage, easy to stay on top of, and easy to do." There he goes again.

There must be something to the formula. Huntsman had a whopping 90 percent approval rating from Utah voters when he left the governorship in 2009 to become ambassador to China. As governor, he accomplished at the state level many of the policies he hopes to bring to the White House, chiefly a flat tax and other reforms to stimulate business. In Utah, industries such as renewable energy and mining received about $30 million in tax credits. Huntsman also oversaw health-care reform that expanded insurance coverage to children, an "entitlement" that some Republicans have criticized. Davis describes it as "Obamacare and Romneycare done right." Huntsman plans to defend his record as quintessentially conservative, including measures to protect the environment that included support of cap and trade. Contrary to charges that he has flip-flopped--that ever-handy label usually applied by the nonthinking to the thinking--Huntsman now says that economic changes mean that other priorities, such as job creation, come first.

Huntsman was hungry when we talked. He had skipped lunch earlier in the day as he joined Henry Kissinger for a conversation about China at a Reuters luncheon. Huntsman is lean by virtue of more than genetic luck, it seems. He confesses to having skipped lunch because he didn't want to "regurgitate" on Dr. Kissinger. Apparently, no matter one's accomplishments, one never conquers butterflies in the presence of an eminence grise. As the two took turns answering questions, Huntsman looked every bit the eager student waiting to raise his hand and give the correct answer.

Looking to grab a bite across from Penn Station before hopping his train back to Washington, Huntsman asked the waiter: "Got any matzo-ball soup?" Eh? As I said, cognitive dissonance.

It's safe to say that Americans beyond Utah have never met anyone quite like Huntsman, and whether he can prevail against the pack is anyone's guess. His biggest challenge, says Davis, is his own good nature. "He is a guy that firmly 100 percent believes that he can help make America a better place. But he is not willing to beat his chest and pound podiums to convince people of that. We're hoping people will prefer wisdom over fireworks."

Huntsman himself thinks his biggest challenge leading up to the primary will be countering the charge that he worked for Barack Obama. One can easily argue that he was working for his country and not the Democratic Party. Though they differ philosophically, Huntsman and Obama share many of the same gifts and deficits. Both are cerebral, cautious, civil, and, yes, cool. On the latter, even Huntsman's children think so. All these qualities can be hazardous to those courting voters. …

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