Pretty much every election year since I can remember, a complaint has arisen that goes like this: "Why are we stuck with these awful choices? In this vast country of highly successful individuals, why don't any of the best people run for president?" Some years evoked more howls than others, and admittedly, 1976 really did present two underperformers, as did 1996. So let's pause to notice the fact that this year we have some exemplary choices.
Fred Thompson is an excellent man who is running a refreshingly substantive campaign. John McCain has demonstrated not just personal courage (which is admirable enough) but the courage of his convictions. And Rudy Giuliani achieved a seemingly impossible task in transforming America's largest city.
But no one running is more impressive than Mitt Romney. It was his speech on religion in American life that caused me to take another look at him. Until then, I confess that I saw him as a sort of robo-candidate: smooth, articulate, but perhaps a little opportunistic and possibly even insincere. The religion speech cast a new light on him.
The question as to whether someone's religious convictions are a fit subject for public scrutiny is not as simple as it sounds. It's too pat to say, "There should be no religious test for public office and there's the end of it." If a candidate were, say, a fundamentalist Mormon like Warren Jeffs, or a Scientologist, that would be an obstacle. But the mainstream Mormon Church has enough of a track record in producing excellent Americans that the particularities of its doctrine are by now a matter of purely scholarly interest. No one thought to raise objections to Mormonism when Mo Udall ran for president, nor even when Mitt's father, George, made a bid. The Senate majority leader is a Mormon and this fact causes not a flicker of interest on the part of his colleagues. Besides, Mitt Romney served as governor of Massachusetts. If anyone felt Joseph Smith's brooding presence during that time, they haven't mentioned it.