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06.28.11

Huntsman's Big Daddy

Jon Huntsman Sr. is one of the richest men in the world. He’s also been his son’s best ally. McKay Coppins and David A. Graham on how his father aided the former Utah governor’s political rise.

Jon Huntsman Jr. stood proudly in the national spotlight last week when he officially declared his presidential candidacy at a park in New Jersey, strategically positioning his podium to include the Statue of Liberty as the camera-ready backdrop. But while broadcasters happily captured the choreographed scenery, there was a far more influential figure than Lady Liberty looming in the candidate’s background: his father.

Jon Huntsman Sr. is relatively unknown nationally. But he is as close to royalty as one can get in Utah. A self-made billionaire who struck it rich when his company invented the clamshell containers used for McDonald’s Big Macs, he is one of the wealthiest people in the world today, and has joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to donate the majority of his fortune to charity. Having given more than $1 billion to various causes, his name is now plastered across tall buildings and prominent institutions throughout the Beehive State—from the high-tech Huntsman Cancer Institute to Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. He holds a prominent ecclesiastical position in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was known in the 1990s to regularly loan his private jet to the church’s then-president, Gordon B. Hinckley, for his world travels. Mention Huntsman Sr.’s name in Utah, and the first reaction is practically unanimous praise.

The second reaction: how Huntsman Sr. has been a driving force behind his son’s political career, to an extent not evident in his campaign biography or the accounts of his nascent presidential bid thus far. Interviews with a number of sources close to the Huntsmans reveal a powerful, ambitious father who has played a significant role in his son’s political rise at every turn—leaning on contacts, calling in favors, and, in several cases, lashing out at those he feels have slighted Jon Jr.

It is a sign of Huntsman Sr.’s clout that Utah’s politicos are wary of talking about his role in his son’s career. “He’s got a footprint that’s bigger than probably anybody’s in this community,” says a Utah political veteran who didn’t want his name associated with a story that might upset the elder Huntsman. “His name is solid gold.”

The source, who has worked closely with the family, added: “When you get a call from Huntsman Sr., not much has to be said on the phone. It’s just the fact that he’s calling and reminding you of where your loyalties should be.”

Influential fathers are hardly a new phenomenon in the annals of presidential politics. From the Adamses to the Roosevelts, the Tafts to the Kennedys, the Gores to the Bushes, candidates have long used valuable family ties to get ahead. Nor is Huntsman alone in the 2012 field in having a helping hand up. Mitt Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. (and 1968 presidential candidate) George Romney, urged his son to challenge Sen. Ted Kennedy for re-election in 1994, standing in as a surrogate speaker for Mitt, even interrupting a press conference of the candidate’s to protest what he saw as unfair Kennedy attacks on the Romneys’ religion.

When you get a call from Huntsman Sr., not much has to be said on the phone,” says a source. “It’s just the fact that he’s calling and reminding you of where your loyalties should be.

As the latest in that long line, the Huntsmans make a compelling case study. “From a very early age, I think together they charted out that Jon Jr. was going to have the political career,” says a source that worked with the Huntsmans for years and has first-hand knowledge of the family dynamics.

Other veteran Utah political operatives insist any impression that Huntsman Sr. has been pivotal in his son’s career is overblown. His involvement is no more than one would expect from a supportive father, says Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Sen. Orrin Hatch. “You never had the feeling that this is one where the father’s pulling the strings behind the son.” Supporters also point out that the two men have their ideological differences. While Jon Jr. is considered a moderate for his stances on immigration and gay rights, the elder Huntsman is more traditionally conservative, and has a close friendship with hard-right icon Glenn Beck.

Contacted last Thursday, the Huntsman campaign declined to comment. Five days later, Tim Miller, a spokesman for Huntsman Jr.’s campaign, said: “We will not participate in a story where all conclusions were reached before the campaign was even contacted.” Huntsman Sr. did not respond to requests for comment.

Consider Huntsman Jr.’s trajectory. He got his diploma from the University of Pennsylvania—the Ivy League school where his father, a wealthy alumnus at the time Jon Jr. was accepted, would go on to serve on Penn’s Board of Trustees and have a building on campus named after him.

When Jon Jr. graduated with a degree in international politics, he took a job as a White House staff assistant under President Reagan, for whom his father had been a major fundraiser. When Jon Jr. became the youngest U.S. ambassador in a century at age 29, it was under President George H.W. Bush—for whom Huntsman Sr. served as the Utah campaign chairman in 1988 and 1992. Jon Jr.’s private sector experience, which he regularly touts on the campaign trail, comes from working for his father’s company—first as vice chairman of the board for Huntsman Corporation, and then later as chairman and CEO of Huntsman Family Holdings.

No one suggests that Huntsman was some legacy hard case who succeeded solely because of Dad’s money and muscle. On the contrary, he wins wide acclaim for his smarts and political skills. “To Jon Jr.’s credit, he is a substantial guy, and as time went on he built his own credentials,” says the source who has worked closely with the family. “He was very effective in those positions. But there’s no question he got a head start.”

When Jon Jr. sought the Utah governorship in 2004, the elder Huntsman was notably absent from the campaign. But the candidate’s father was watching closely—and fiercely protecting his own.

For example, early in the 2004 gubernatorial primary, Jon Jr. found himself on the receiving end of a fairly benign jab during a debate at Dixie State College. Local businessman and gubernatorial candidate Fred Lampropoulos had accused the younger Huntsman of taking credit for creating jobs that were really the result of his father’s work. Jon Jr. effectively deflected the accusation, recalls one Lampropoulos campaign staffer who was present, but Huntsman Sr. was enraged. According to the staffer, the red-faced father approached Lampropoulos after the debate and “barked” at him: “That was a low blow, Fred! You’re playing dirty!”

“It was just way out of proportion for what had happened,” the staffer says, adding that subsequent experiences with Huntsman Sr. taught him that the outburst wasn’t an isolated incident. “He has a notoriously thin skin, and in political situations [he] really responds emotionally and viscerally to criticism.” (Lampropoulos did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for a comment.)

Huntsman Jr. eventually won the election and went on to become the most popular governor in state history. His father continued to help him plot his next move. Before the 2008 presidential primaries, for example, according to a source close to the family, father and son got together and discussed endorsement strategies. They determined that Huntsman Jr. would support John McCain—who was more likely to give him a prominent cabinet post if he won—while Huntsman Sr. would endorse Utah favorite Mitt Romney so as to maintain good relations with the state’s numerous Romney-ites. The apparent disagreement made headlines at the time but, the source says, “It was all calculated.”

As his son prepared to launch a presidential bid earlier this year, sources say Huntsman Sr. is as vigilant as ever. One Utah politico tells The Daily Beast that he’s been told through a family intermediary that Huntsman Sr. is carefully monitoring everything he says to the press about Jon Jr.

“It’s very hard to tell one of the Huntsmans ‘no,’” says Doug Foxley, a lobbyist and attorney who was a senior adviser to Jon Huntsman Jr. during his 2004 campaign and remains close to him. “Let me just put it this way: I think that Jon Sr. will be watching very closely those who do and don’t give to his son.”

Huntsman Sr. apparently took offense recently when Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, chose to support Mitt Romney’s campaign instead of lining up with Huntsman. According to two sources with knowledge of the incident, Huntsman Sr.—who has donated $15,000 to the institute every year for a decade and a half—had a supporter deliver the message that he was seriously reconsidering future donations.

Asked for comment, Jowers told The Daily Beast that the account was not true “as far as I know” and touted Huntsman Sr.’s “generous” history of donations, but declines to discuss the matter further. But Jowers was also quick to forward the email from The Daily Beast to John Weaver, Huntsman Jr.’s chief campaign strategist—an interesting step for a Romney adviser (Jowers worked for Romney in 2008, and considered running for governor with Romney’s son as his ticket mate in 2010). Huntsman Sr. did extend the donation for the current year. Weaver declined to comment.

Says one longtime Utah Republican operative and family friend of the Huntsmans: “Jon Sr. will brook no unkind word or deed toward his son or his family, and everyone here is well aware of that.”

Huntsman Sr. did briefly flirt with a career of his own in public office. Displeased with the performance of Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter, a fellow Republican, the father announced in 1988 that he would challenge the incumbent on a pro-economic development platform. “It was a surprise to Gov. Bangerter,” says Reed Searle, who was managing the governor’s struggling campaign and served as his chief of staff after Bangerter was re-elected. “We had no notice of his political interest in doing something like that, so it was a grand surprise.”

But Huntsman Sr. announced he was dropping out just a month into his bid, citing a desire to avoid dividing the party and to return to his company. His exit was brokered during a clandestine nighttime meeting that Salt Lake’s Deseret News described as having a “007 script.” Meeting in an abandoned parking lot, Huntsman told the governor – who had shaken free from his state trooper escort at Huntsman’s request – that he was dropping out unconditionally, requesting only amnesty for his allies and the privilege of offering economic advice. Bangerter agreed to both.

Why the quick exit? Huntsman Sr. simply wasn’t prepared for the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics, says Nolan Karras, a former member of the Utah state house who later lost a gubernatorial primary to Huntsman Jr. “There were some pretty outlandish and difficult allegations against him,” says Karras, referring to stories about his role in the Nixon administration and complaints about his business practices in the Utah press. “And I think he just thought, ‘My Lord, I’m mega-wealthy, why would I put up with this?’ and bailed out.”

Some think Huntsman Sr.’s abortive political bid is what has driven his involvement in his son’s career. As one Utah Republican insider puts it, “There are many who believe that Jon Sr. is living vicariously through his son because he didn’t have the opportunity to serve in public office.”

Once in the governor’s mansion, Jon Jr. was hardly a rubber stamp for his father’s pet causes. Lobbyists who hoped to use Jon Sr. as a path to the executive mansion were disappointed. “I happen to know personally that on a couple of occasions, folks went to Jon Huntsman Sr. to get his son to accomplish things and he [Jon Sr.] was not successful at getting him [Jon Jr.] to change his mind,” says Karras. “They were two separate individuals.”

Another potential point of friction: the way Jon Jr. handles campaign queries about his faith. In interviews with both Time and Newsweek, the younger Huntsman has attempted to dodge questions about his Mormonism, saying it is “tough to define,” that religious issues “don’t matter,” and that the LDS church does not have a monopoly on his spiritual life. “For a church leader like Huntsman Sr.,” says one source who knows the family, “that answer has gotta be tough to swallow.”

In any case, a little distance between the two might be a good thing for the newly minted presidential candidate. According to one Utah politico familiar with Huntsman Jr.’s personal branding strategy, he has always been sensitive to the way his upbringing could be perceived.

“He’s tried very, very hard to get away from this image of having this silver spoon all his life,” the politico says. “Eating at taco stands on street corners, avoiding plush stuff – all of that stuff’s calculated.

“Look, he understands international relations very well, and he’s a smart guy. But he would not be in this position without the political influence of his father.”