Buzzfeed reporter McKay Coppins followed Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election. Like Romney, Coppins is a practicing Mormon, although he never actually told anyone in the Romney family that he shared their faith. Brooke talks to Coppins about how his faith and his reporting intersected, and why the Romney campaign saw his religion as a liability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the dogs that never quite barked in the election cycle was the question of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Early on, pundits asked if America was ready for a Mormon president, but by Election Day other issues had overtaken the Mormon question. However, one journalist for whom Romney's religion stayed in the foreground was BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins. Coppins was assigned to cover Romney during the campaign and, like Romney, he is a practicing Mormon, although he never actually told anyone in the Romney family that he shared their faith. The closest he came was a moment when Romney's wife Ann asked the press corps if any of them could speak Spanish.
McKAY COPPINS: Somebody said, McKay does. I speak because I learned it as a missionary, serving in the Latino neighborhoods in, in Texas. [LAUGHS] And so, she kind of turned to me and said, oh, you speak. And in that moment, I thought this is a great opportunity to let her know that I’m a Mormon. I never quite figured out why but I, I didn’t take it. I just said
yes, I speak Spanish and then just kind of let the conversation roll on.
As a Mormon, there's almost this genetic longing to feel normal, and for a lot of my life I would kind of squirm when I was asked questions about things like the racial legacy of the church, like polygamy. But I found myself in the weird situation this year of being the journalist who was often asking those questions, right, [LAUGHS] ‘cause I knew I should and because I knew that there was no way these things didn't influence Mitt Romney's worldview. But, at the same time, I also kind of recognized his desire to avoid them because I had gone through that myself as a younger Mormon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Theoretically, your shared faith would seem to give you a little bit more sympathy perhaps for the man. But the campaign mainly saw your faith as a liability.
McKAY COPPINS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Yeah, several people actually in the campaign told me they're worried that you speak a language that the candidate speaks and that they don't, right? And so, they kind of thought that every question I asked them about Romney's faith had this kind of “gotcha” lurking behind it. They saw it as something that made me, I guess, more dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You observed in your piece both how devout Romney was and also how aggressively the campaign tried to downplay it, and it seems like the inverse of how American politics typically works.
McKAY COPPINS: [LAUGHS] It’s so true. I mean, think of how many presidential candidates make a big show of going to church. Mitt Romney, by all accounts, really went out of his way on the campaign trail to practice his faith. On Sundays, regardless of where he was in the country, he tried to find a Mormon sacrament meeting to go to. He would read the Bible and Book of Mormon on his iPad. But yeah, for most of the campaign, I think until the convention, they really tried to downplay it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you could argue that that backfired because all these jokes about Romney being robotic or, or soulless –
McKAY COPPINS: Mm-hmm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - may have arisen, at least in part, out of the fact that his spiritual life was kept so private.
McKAY COPPINS: Right. Now, do I think that if the campaign had been really open about his religion, would that have swung the election, I don't think so. But I do think that America really got an education on his religion, despite the campaign's best efforts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you bookend your article with your own experience –
- in the evolving thinking about Mormonism among your peers.
McKAY COPPINS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe that?
McKAY COPPINS: I start the article with an early experience on the campaign in South Carolina. I was sitting on a campaign bus, it was late at night. And I heard some reporters just behind me talking about Mitt Romney's underwear. Devout Mormons who are adults wear a religious undergarment, which basically looks like white boxer briefs and a white t-shirt. For Mitt Romney, that has been kind of a taboo issue, and these reporters were sitting on the bus talking because one of the reporters had happened upon Romney and his wife doing laundry in the basement of the hotel. And one of them said, “Well, did you see his underwear when you were down there.” And they kind of all giggled [LAUGHS].
And I, I, I wasn't part of the conversation, and when they started talking about the underwear I just kind of slid down in my seat. By the end of the year, one of the very last rallies I went to I was sitting on a bus and another reporter came up to me and started asking me questions about the Mormon underwear, and no one was giggling. He was, you know, talking in full voice, being very casual, and he was just saying, oh yeah, well, what does it look like? I think I saw some pictures on the Internet, and it didn’t seem that weird to me.
And I think that, you know, as funny as it is, these things in Mormonism have come to be accepted as just another quirk of another religion, like all religions have. As I write in the piece, Mitt Romney was never a great politician but I think if he has one political legacy, it will be that he helped Mormonism enter kind of the mainstream of America. And I don't think the next time a Mormon runs for president people will be asking about his underwear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: McKay, thank you very much.
McKAY COPPINS: Thanks for having me on.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: McKay Coppins covers politics for BuzzFeed.