Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
In March 1999, Mitt Romney strode into the corner office of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance president David D'Alessandro, seeking help from one of the leading sponsors of the Olympics and urging him to renew his faith in the 2002 Salt Lake Games despite its taint of scandal.
Romney had decided to gamble his future on the chance to save the 2002 Winter Games. Tapped by Utah's governor to step in as chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which had embarrassed itself by lavishing gifts on International Olympics executives to get the Games, Romney portrayed his decision as an act of charity.
He had "won the lottery" through his work at Bain Capital, Romney told reporters. Now, he made clear, it was time to give something back to his country and to a city inextricably tied to his beloved church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But standing in D'Alessandro's office on the 59th floor of the Hancock Tower, with miles of Massachusetts sprawling beneath him, Romney offered a more personal reason for taking on the Olympic challenge. Having been defeated in his Senate race against Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Romney knew his political future hung on the fate of the Games.
"If this doesn't work, I can come back to private life, but I won't be anything anymore in public life," he confided, according to D'Alessandro.
Thus began an experience that cemented Romney's reputation as a "turnaround artist" a manager so competent that he could turn deficits into surpluses and who might one day be able to guide the nation. Romney would run the Games with a strong hand, personally lobbying business leaders such as D'Alessandro to maintain their Olympic contributions and helping bring new financial backers on board. Along the way, he managed to remove the stink of scandal and replace it with the glow of success.
"Through an extraordinary effort by Mitt Romney and the staff he put together, they not only avoided a very difficult time for the Olympics, but put on the greatest Winter Games I have ever seen," said William Hybl, then the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
But Romney's other agenda buffing his own image for a political career was never far from the surface, according to many former associates.
The man who was famous at Bain Capital for letting others take the credit suddenly was giving his permission for a series of Olympics promotional buttons bearing his own likeness, accompanied by slogans like "Hey, Mitt, we love you!" and "Are we there yet, Mitt?" There was even a superhero pin depicting Romney draped in an American flag.
His determination to present himself as a white knight came at a cost: Some colleagues now say he magnified the extent of the Olympics committee's fiscal distress, risked some possible conflicts of interest among board members and shunted aside other people whose work had been instrumental in promoting the Games.
"Mitt could have been a hero if he had just come in and been polite," said Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former Salt Lake City Council member and a longtime critic of Romney. "What turned me sour was his demand to get all the credit and ignore everybody who put in thousands and thousands of hours before he arrived."
That day in March 1999, the success of the Games was far from assured. Scanning the memorabilia in D'Alessandro's office, Romney sought inspiration from a signed copy of a memoir by Winston Churchill, the British statesman who epitomized resolve in the face of grave threats.
Taking over the Olympics would be Romney's personal crucible.
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