The passing of Gordon B. Hinckley marks the end of the greatest era of expansion and acceptance for the Church of Latter Day Saints and much of what he accomplished was underestimated because of the long shadow of his predecessor.
When I moved into my White House office in 1989, I brought with me a little personal “to do” list. I wanted to make sure that we honored the groups and voter blocs who had voted for us. Groups that were always taken for granted. There was the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America. I was surprised to learn that there were no regular Oval Office meetings with their incoming elected presidents. We met all of the Catholic Cardinals and had them upstairs in the private quarters. They came with lists of things they wanted. Why not the leaders of the groups who voted for us?
So after a mountain of paperwork and committee meetings, and overcoming some entrenched opposition, I established a precedence that has been ongoing ever since. The Presidents, be they Democrat or Republican, meet annually with their counterpart in the Southern Baptist Convention.
And I took care of the Seventh Day Adventists, a small denomination that was consistently Republican and never asked for a thing. I brought in their eloquent and humble television spokesman, George Vandeman and made sure he was properly honored and that he got the docs from the NSA he so desperately wanted to pursue his pet archeological theories on the possible location of Noah’s Ark. Hey, we aim to please.
But my most monumental and frustrating task was trying to honor the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a voter bloc they had been consistent Republicans for years and they never needed help with appointments, they won plenty of those the old fashioned way, by earning them through personal achievement. No quotas necessary.
I reasoned that their leader, Ezra Taft Benson, was nearing the end of his life and if ever a Mormon leader should win the Medal of Freedom, it should be Benson. He had been the Secretary of Agriculture under Dwight Eisenhower and had a distinguished public career for years. He was the beloved patriarch of his church. If he didn’t qualify, then there wouldn’t be another chance for a Mormon in my lifetime. Or so I argued.
I sought out Steve Studdert and Brent Scowcroft, our two resident White House Mormons at the time and I got an earful. It wouldn’t work, Studdert, warned me. There would be resistance that I could not imagine. And sure enough, I could not produce enough paper to get it on track. And when I finally succeeded, some anonymous staffer somewhere knocked it off. I talked to the president about it and seemed to have his agreement. But it never happened. They finally appeased me by sending Brent Scowcroft to Salt Lake to give the aging patriarch some lesser honor. And at the White House we all tried to make a big deal out of it.
When we had the next Charity Awards Dinner and the Reagan’s agreed to come, I arranged to have our own special honor minted for Benson, to make up for my failure, and so we made that presentation too.
George W. Bush, the president’s son, the one who got me my White House job, was always on the receiving end of my disappointments and he heard about this too. What a no brainer? Ezra Taft Benson getting the Medal of Freedom? Who was against that? How many Mormons had voted Republican over a lifetime? What else could you give them?
So it was no surprise to me on June 23, 2004 when I learned that Gordon B. Hinckley, the man who succeeded Benson, the man who managed the greatest expansion, socio culturally as well as by sheer numbers, of the Latter Day Saints in its modern history, had been presented the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in the East Room of the White House. Hinckley died a few weeks ago. More than one third of the church’s current membership joined during his remarkable tenure.
It was the passing of a giant.