Artifact 10: Mitt Romney’s Olympic Pins

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. This week we’ll be publishing three artifacts for each candidate, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check back on Wednesday for our next pair.

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Courtesy: Ken Bullock

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By 1999, following a crushing defeat in his bid to take the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) almost five years earlier, Mitt Romney felt he had only one option left to remain in public life: becoming the CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games.

“If this doesn’t work, I can come back to private life, but I won’t be anything anymore in public life,” David D’Alessandro, a leading sponsor of the games, recalled Romney telling him.

The Salt Lake Olympics Organizing Committee had been embroiled in an earlier bribery scandal and plagued by fiscal uncertainty, but Romney’s ensuing tenure leading the games became known by supporters as his “golden moment.” 

Leveraging his management experience at Bain and his thirst for frugality, Romney trimmed the budget, fired the deadwood and fundraised from corporate sponsors. The money came pouring in.

“The Olympics is like putting on seven Superbowls a day for 17 days straight,” Romney told NBC’s Katie Couric in the lead up to the games.

The Olympic “turnaround” was a source of pride for Romney, becoming the subject of his 2004 memoir and setting the stage for his own political turnaround, which would culminate in a successful 2002 run for Massachusetts governor.

It was perhaps that same pride in his leadership that led Romney to approve several Olympic memorabilia pins bearing his likeness, the first Olympics executive to ever do so, according to Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, authors of The Real Romney.

The pins — many of which portray him with recurring woodland critters — offer a more lighthearted if self-aggrandizing look at the business executive.

In one, made for Valentine’s Day, the critters surround a chiseled Romney, holding heart-shaped cutouts with the caption “HEY MITT, WE LOVE YOU!” In another, they wish him a happy New Year. Another pin doesn’t include his face; instead, a baseball mitt reads simply, “MITT HAPPENS.”

Romney’s leadership was almost universally praised, but a tendency towards self-promotion riled one of his most vocal critics.

“He tried very hard to build an image of himself as a savior, the great white hope,” said Ken Bullock, a member of the organizing committee. “He was very good at characterizing and castigating people and putting himself on a pedestal.”

But for Romney, the success of the 2002 Olympic games were a testament to his leadership. A year later, he secured his future in public life and was elected governor of Massachusetts.

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