1 of 2
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Hinckley talks during a BYU devotional in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

It was illegal to actually touch someone speaking on the dais in London's Hyde Park in the 1930s. For that, you could be arrested.

But it was perfectly acceptable to taunt and heckle and humiliate a young man trying to educate an unruly crowd about the principles of something called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was perfectly legal to swing a cane within a breath of that person's face.

It was an odd training ground for a boy from Salt Lake City who would grow up to lead the 11 million-member LDS Church. Today, Gordon B. Hinckley, who has been named the most influential person in Utah in a Deseret News study, might say the training was perfectly fitting.

"Several other men were named by 1 percent of Americans: Former President Jimmy Carter, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, former President George Bush, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, golfer Tiger Woods, Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley, the Dalai Lama and former NBA star and current NBA front office executive Michael Jordan." — The Gallup Organization, poll of Most Admired People in the Nation, Dec. 15-17, 2000.

In 1692, the first Hinckley family representative left England for America. Samuel Hinckley landed safely on the East Coast and was eventually elected governor of his Virginia colony to become one of the most influential men in the New World.

Now 400 years later, his descendant shares that designation.

President Hinckley, who will be 91 on June 23, is the most influential man in one of the most influential groups of residents in the Beehive State. But it is a position he seems to treat with respect and care, according to research conducted over several months by the Deseret News. Top state officials agree.

"The LDS Church is a large constituent and deserves the same attention as any other constituent of its size, complexity and importance," said Gov. Mike Leavitt, himself an active member of the LDS Church.

When he had been governor only a few days, Leavitt requested a meeting with the leadership of the church. "And basically, what our conversation was, and it was Gordon B. Hinckley who said it: 'We have a relationship we'd like to propose. You run the state and we'll run the church.' Those were his words."

President Hinckley declined to be interviewed for this story. While appreciative of the recognition expressed, he said it would be inappropriate to involve the office of the president of the LDS Church in a popularity contest. President Hinckley has spoken out on a number of occasions against the adulation of person.

But polls, research and dozens of interviews show his impact on the state is broad-based — for community leaders, those who know him well and for those who know him only as the leader of their church.

"He has influenced me a lot — and this is purely religious — he is someone who is very orthodox, a very faithful Latter-day Saint," said Geneva Steel chairman Joe Cannon, whose family has had connections with President Hinckley going back two generations. "He is also one who regards it a mission to be connected to the non-LDS world. That is a very powerful message to a lot of people in the church."

"What happened was that my '60 Minutes' colleagues and I learned, from the time we spent with Gordon Hinckley and his wife, from his staff, and from other Mormons who talked to us, that this warm and thoughtful and decent and optimistic leader of the Mormon Church fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets." — Mike Wallace in a foreword for President Hinckley's book, "Standing for Something."

In the early 1930s, he was a young University of Utah graduate who learned Greek and was familiar with the classics. Few in the crowds at London's Hyde Park appreciated his background, and President Hinckley regularly engaged in verbal combat defending his faith there during his LDS mission from 1933-1935.

"We didn't baptize many people in London in those days, but Elder Hinckley was a knockout in those street meetings on Hyde Park corner," said Wendell Ashton, a friend and companion, in President Hinckley's biography, "Go Forward With Faith," by Sheri Dew.

"We learned to speak quickly on our feet, and Elder Hinckley was the best in the bunch. He gained tremendous firsthand experience defending the church and speaking up courageously for its truths."

President Hinckley once jokingly called himself a "slave," a common staff person in the LDS Church office headquarters where he worked for years. Now he has been in the church's organization for two-thirds of a century, rising up and up in the hierarchy. For this history, the prophet and leader may well be the last of his kind, said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, who describes himself as having a meaningful association with President Hinckley for 45 years.

"He is a man who rises to lead his church who is still connected to the pioneer past of the LDS faith and the settling of Utah," Elder Maxwell said.

Now President Hinckley has seen the religious organization grow to millions of members. He's watched construction of the new Conference Center and supervised construction of many of more than 100 temples. "That gives him an incredible perspective," Elder Maxwell said.

LARRY KING: We only have about a minute and a half. What is the role in the society of a leader of a sect? What is your role? You're the leader of a major religion?

PRESIDENT GORDON B. HINCKLEY: Yes sir.

KING: What's your role?

PRESIDENT HINCKLEY: My role is to declare a doctrine. My role is to stand as an example before the people. My role is to be a voice in defense of the truth. My role is to stand as a conservator of those values which are important in our civilization and our society. My role it is to lead people. — Excerpt from "Larry King Live," CNN, Sept. 8, 1998.

President Hinckley drew acclaim for appearing on King's show in the fall of 1998. That day, Mark McGwire broke the all-time home-run record in St. Louis and President Hinckley chatted sports with the talk show host. He answered tough questions about LDS Church issues — about the history of blacks in the church, about polygamy and church doctrine.

His accessible, unapologetic manner demonstrates a new forwardness for LDS Church leaders, Elder Maxwell told the Deseret News. "The Hyde Park experience; visiting with an (English) publisher (who was misrepresenting the LDS faith); going on ("60 Minutes") with Mike Wallace, or the Larry King show. . . . He does well with the media. He is not afraid of them. He respects them but is not afraid.

"He connects the past with the present," Elder Maxwell said. "I think that helps explain his impact."

"He spoke at my father's funeral. That was a nice story. I called him up and said my father died and would he consider speaking at the funeral. And he said yes. He didn't go through his calendar or anything. He just said yes." — Joe Cannon, reflecting on President Hinckley and his own father's death in 1991.

At a recent gathering at this spring's LDS Church women's conference, teenagers sang their prophet's praises.

"I consider him to be like a hero to me," said Christina Larsen. "I like the way he cares about the youth, encouraging them to do better."

"He seems to have a pure love for everybody," said Natalie Ekstrom, "no matter what."

But President Hinckley's savvy extends far beyond the twinkling eyes and folksy, grandfatherly gestures.

He established the first public affairs committee in the church. He served as its first chairman and has a phenomenal understanding of how government and politics works, said Marcus Faust, son of President James E. Faust, second counselor in the church's First Presidency.

"He really does have an understanding how government and politics works," said Faust, a Washington, D.C., attorney and lobbyist who has a church calling to a special LDS Church committee that represents the LDS Church in the nation's capital.

As such, Faust makes contacts on the church's behalf with ambassadors, congressmen and the president's administration.

"We are here to put the best foot forward for the church," Faust said. And President Hinckley has nearly single-handedly set the tone for "the appropriate involvement of the LDS Church" in public affairs matters, Faust said.

"On those rare occasions when the church involves itself in public policy, President Hinckley has so keen an understanding of what that involvement is," Faust said. "Usually, he does not want the church out on point, pushing in a strident way, but working with other churches in a coalition effort."

The newspaper found that comments about President Hinckley always wind back to what one person called his "authenticity."

"He's happy to be what he is. I think he is very comfortable with himself," Cannon said. "He's an extremely authentic person. People today wonder if you're comfortable in your own skin. And he is. He is fully integrated in himself."


E-mail: lucy@desnews.com ; bbjr@desnews.com