With the 2012 presidential campaign marathon firmly established as the country's most popular spectator sport, and media scrutiny of the candidates paused just shy of the unmerciful competition in The Hunger Games, a woefully overlooked comparison of the candidates' most life-shaping years of experience -- President Obama's three years as community organizer and Governor Romney's two-and-a-half years as Mormon missionary -- is conspicuously overdue.
Fortuitously, the attention given to Romney's Mormonism was as minimal as that initially given to Obama's belief in community service, perhaps because both issues were old news. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case only four years ago at the Republican Convention, when then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was callously mocked before a national viewing audience by a mincing Rudolph Giuliani, an infantile Arnold Schwarzenegger and a vapid Sarah Palin for having been a community organizer. Was it because a college graduate devoted fifteen-hour days to the less fortunate in a Chicago public housing project for the sucker's salary of $10,000 annually? I can't help but wonder what the reaction would have been had the Democrats been so uncivil toward a former missionary, a volunteer, who, subsequently became so wealthy he could unblinkingly wager $10,000 bets. In front of a national viewing audience!
By no means do I mean to knock Governor Romney or extol President Obama at Romney's expense. I respect what both men, with similarly fine intentions, ardor and conviction, and vast, purposeful focus, did at roughly the same ages, their early twenties, for nearly the same length of time, albeit fourteen years apart. Both dedicated themselves to service. Still, the contrast is enlightening.
From July 1966 to December 1968, in fulfillment of his missionary service, a task facing all Mormons in their early twenties, Romney served on France's northwest coast before transferring to Paris -- not too shabby, but was confronted with anti-Vietnam War sentiment and scant appetite for religion. Romney has said his experience in France deepened his faith in Jesus Christ, but it not-so-incidentally enabled him to avoid the draft as well. Not only did he have a military deferment because he was serving as a missionary, but also he was able to secure about three additional years of deferment both before and after his mission because he was a student.
According to Jaweed Kaleem, the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post:
"In 2007, during his previous run for president, Romney told the Boston Globe... that [he] did not recall 'thinking about political positions when I was knocking at the door in France.'" But, "'I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there and in some ways it was frustrating.'" "But as a Massachusetts Senate candidate in 1994, Romney struck a different tone. 'I was not planning on signing up for the military,'" he told the Boston Herald. "It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam...."
President Obama didn't serve in the war, or offer to, because he wasn't quite six-years-old at the time.
In 1985, Barack Obama moved from New York City, where he was employed as a financial consultant, to Chicago to work with local churches organizing job training and other programs for 5,300 poor and working-class residents who lived "amid shuttered steel mills, a nearby landfill, a putrid sewage treatment plant." Michele Obama pronounced it "a defining moment in his life, not just his career." Announcing his presidential bid in 2007, candidate Obama said, "It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had." [It] "taught me a lot about listening to people as opposed to coming in with a predetermined agenda." He insisted on "staying in the background while he empowered us," says a woman who worked with him.
And that's his orientation: listening, respecting people, not jumping to foregone conclusions, not seeking credit.
As young men finding their place in the world, both missionary Romney and community organizer Obama were tested by the difficult routes they elected to follow. Romney subsequently estimated he had only ten to twenty converts to show for his thirty months in France. Obama acknowledges he had few big victories to celebrate and only small, hard-won successes to cite. "But whether it was getting the city to fill potholes, provide summer jobs, or remove asbestos from the apartments or persuading the apartment managers to repair toilets, pipes, and ceilings, Obama encouraged residents to come up with their own priorities with the gentle admonition: 'It's your community.'" (He relates his most inspiring story about such a victory in Dreams From My Father.)
It comes down to orientation. What I learned from Obama's considerable writings is: community organizers encourage people to be better individuals by coming together; their goal is to motivate others to work for the communal good; they let others think for themselves and form the conclusions that impact their lives. What I gleaned from observing Romney is: in the belief that converts will be better off by believing as their proselytizers believe, missionaries strive to persuade people to be other than themselves; it's such a challenging task that often, in the name of God, they see no choice but to fabricate; it's the pragmatic thing to do. These are orientations that carry over into adult lives. President Obama stands for some things not all appreciate, but he stands for something! Governor Romney facilely goes whichever way the wind is blowing.