Those of us who served an LDS mission with Elder Mit Romney in Paris, France, are not at all surprised by his goofy behavior out there on the campaign trail. A typical example is the cringe-making moment when Mit pretended to be goosed by a nice lady at an Iowa photo op. As missionaries with Mit, we all came to find out that inside Mit’s stiff and sanctimonious exterior is a wild and crazy guy just itching to burst out; I can’t remember who among the missionaries—it might have been Elder Christiansen from Pocatello, Idaho—came up with the shorthand we used to designate Mit’s split personality, but pretty soon everybody was making use of it. Stiff Mit was “Elder Romney;” loosey-goosey Mit was “Willard.”
“Here comes Willard!” one of the elders would shout when Mit’s inner goofball would suddenly emerge, like that alien thing out of the guy’s stomach in the movie of the same name. “He’s in Elder Romney mode this morning,” we would whisper among ourselves when Mit would lecture us on proper foot hygiene, the secret of which, according to Elder Romney, was soaking your socks overnight in the bidet, the true purpose of which he wasn’t apprised of until he spent an authorized overnight with a German exchange student and potential convert named Gudrun at her flat near St. German des Pres.
(Incidentally, Mit later added an extra “T” to his name after Gudrun started teasing him by calling him “With,” which is the literal translation of German “Mit” into English.)
We never knew from one moment to the next which Mit would show up, and had to be on our toes in case Elder Romney suddenly flipped to Willard or, conversely, Willard out of the blue flopped to Elder Romney. One minute he would have a gaggle of investigators on the edge of their seats as he earnestly bore his testimony, drawing on the wondrous conversion experience of Samuel the Lamanite, and the next he would break into his impersonation of Maurice Chevalier, the legendary French entertainer who even during our missionary days had long been forgotten.
Many commentators have been puzzled by Mit’s propensity to refer to figures from the distant past, a case in point being his head-scratching reference to Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory. Was he maybe thinking of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory? But even his attempts to present himself as a hip and with-it kind of guy make everyone wince. His likening of Barack Obama to Kim Kardashian left even his supporters speechless. Later we learned that Mit thought Kardashian was the foreign minister of Pakistan.
Mit’s attempts to establish rapport with the people of France also swung erratically between historical name dropping and clueless contemporary references. When he preached about the Mormon pioneers crossing the Great Plains, he compared Brigham Young to Napoleon, except that Brigham was taller and a lot better looking. His favorite pick-up line to French waitresses was, “Hey, you look just like Marie Osmond, you know, the American Brigitte Bardot.”
Such gaffes were everyday occurrences when Mit and I were wearing out shoe leather on the Champs-Elysées. Sometimes I wanted to pretend that I had no connection to the smooth-talking, jut-jawed future president of the United States.
“Hey, girls,” Mit would say, letting out crazy Willard, “I hear you French gals don’t shave your armpits.” (Later on, at the Crazy Horse Saloon, Mit would discover otherwise, and not just armpits.) I would shrug my shoulders in my best imitation of Gallic insouciance, as if to say, “I don’t know this clown,” but our identical white shirts, dark ties and matching berets gave me away.
Sometimes, Mit’s frolics, in spite of himself, were colored by a certain absurd humor. At one point, Mit became obsessed with the plays of Eugene Ionesco, and without warning he would run down the Boulevard Saint Michel shouting, “Je suis un rhinoceros!” Or in our favorite Left Bank restaurant, Le Pantalon Mon Oncle, Elder Romney would, in the twinkling of a eye, transform himself into wild Willard and solemnly dunk a snail in a bowl of butter, intoning, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and Marcel Marceau.”
My fondest memory of Willard is still the time he climbed to the very top of the Eiffel Tower and proclaimed himself, “Le Roi du Monde.” King of the world or not, Mit is, when you get to know him, one wild and crazy guy.
D.P. Sorensen writes a satire column for City Weekly.