The summer scandal about Mitt Romney’s role as a closet pornographer appears to be resurfacing as the Iowa Republican caucuses near. While never raised during the Republican debates, the rumor has been gaining momentum as local press and Christian groups continue to circulate the tale of Romney’s complicity in the offering of pornographic programming while on the board of the Marriott hotel chain. It seems to be contributing to the steady erosion of Romney’s electoral standing among evangelical Christian Republican voters.
"Mitt Romney regularly denounces the ‘cesspool’ of pornography on the campaign trail," wrote Ben Weyl in the "Iowa Independent." "But recently, those would be supporters have been grumbling that Romney did not do enough to shut down hardcore movie options in Marriott hotels while he was on the company’s board for nearly a decade."
The story of Romney’s link to porn programming broke in July by AP reporter Glen Johnson. Romney served on the Marriott board from 1992 to 2001 and was chairman of its audit committee. During Romney’s tenure, Marriott contracted with On Command to provide in-room television services; in 2006, On Command was acquired by LodgeNet. When questioned by AP, Romney claimed that the issue of pornography never came up at board meetings and insisted that he did not know how much money porn generated for the hotel. Ignorance is bliss.
Romney received an annual fee of $25,000 and stock options while serving on the Marriott board. He also received a campaign contribution of $80,000 arranged by J.W. Marriot.
When the story first broke, the Christian right was up in arms. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, denounced the Marriott board and, indirectly Romney: "They have to assume some responsibility. It’s their hotels, it’s their television sets."
Kim Lehman, president of the Iowa Right to Life Committee, warned: "If he [Romney] had the opportunity to protect families and didn’t take the opportunity, he’s going to be viewed as a hypocrite." She added, "[i]f it’s true if he could have, but chose not to and to say you’re for families and for children, when you have a tremendous opportunity to take, these are all issues he’s going to be faced with."
Daniel Weiss, media analyst for James Dobson’s "Focus on the Family," added to the rancor: "If [Romney] made money off pornography in the past, is he going to turn a blind eye to it if he’s president? Because as chief executive of the nation, it’s his responsibility to make sure our nation’s obscenity laws are efficiently and vigorously enforced."
"Marriott is a major pornographer," intoned Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values (CCV), an Ohio-based anti-pornography group. "And even though he may have fought it, everyone on that board is a hypocrite for presenting themselves as family values when their hotels offer 70 different types of hardcore pornography."
Burress started challenging Marriott about offering porn in 2002. In 2006, he pulled together a coalition of Christian conservatives that included Focus on the Family, the American Family Association of Michigan and CCV, and took out a full-page ad in USA Today demanding the Department of Justice crack down on hotel porn, specifically targeting the Marriott and Hilton chains. No action was taken.
Ironically, Mitt Romney is named after the founder of the Marriott chain, J. Willard Marriott; Romney’s given name is Willard. Marriott was a close friend of Romney’s father, former Michigan governor George Romney, and also a Mormon.
In 2000, the Marriott chain was attacked by the Michigan-based American Decency Association over the distribution of in-room porn. J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., the son of Marriott’s founder, defended porn distribution, claiming that it was offered as a separable TV offering. "The in-room entertainment operators who provide our systems rely upon a certain volume of movie types in order to be economically viable." He argued that "[i]f we were to eliminate the ‘R’ and non-rated offerings, the systems would not be economic."
It should be noted that a number of hotel chains do not offer porn services. The Omni Hotels and the Ritz-Carlton does not offer in-room porn even though it is owned by Marriott. Nevertheless, a buck is a buck and many leading media corporations are intimately involved in the hotel porn business, including Hilton, AT&T, Time Warner, General Motors, EchoStar, Liberty Media and Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Nearly half of Iowa Republican caucus voters are evangelical Christians and seem to be looking for any issue to reject the once front-runner Romney. Few seem willing to admit to anti-Mormon prejudice in their rejection. Romney’s refusal to take a stand against (and at best passive complicity in) Marriott’s offering of porn programming upset many when first revealed. However, his refusal to seriously address the issue as the campaign comes down to the wire only antagonizes these moralistic voters. The issue will affect the outcome of the caucus vote, likely helping Mike Huckabee win in Iowa. The question remains whether the story will have sufficient resonance to shadow him to South Carolina and other strong evangelical states.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.