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Joan Vennochi

Romney's honesty problem

MITT ROMNEY is determined to prove he's pro-life. How about proving he's pro-truth?

Every time Romney tries to explain his evolution from supporter to opponent of abortion rights, his honesty comes into question. That's because his explanations over the years don't add up.

When Republican presidential candidates were asked recently to cite their biggest mistake, Romney replied: "Probably from a political standpoint and a personal standpoint, the greatest mistake was when I first ran for office, being deeply opposed to abortion but saying, 'I support the current law,' which was pro-choice and effectively a pro-choice position. That was just wrong."

The truth is, when Romney ran for office in Massachusetts he went far beyond saying, "I support the current law."

He begged voters to accept him as an embracer of abortion rights. "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal," he said. He staked his credentials on his mother, Lenore. He said she ran for the Senate in 1970 on an abortion-rights platform, inspired by the death of her son-in-law's teenage sister from an illegal abortion. "My mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that," he said.

In June 2005, former Globe columnist Eileen McNamara challenged Romney's assertion of his mother's pro-choice position. Two longtime Romney family friends and political supporters -- former governor William Milliken and former Republican National Committee co-chairwoman Elly Peterson -- told McNamara they could not recall Lenore Romney speaking out publicly for abortion. If she had, it would have represented a dramatic change of heart and break with the Mormon Church. Peterson, who worked on Lenore Romney's campaign, said, "If it happened, I'd remember it. It didn't and I don't." Milliken, who served as George Romney's lieutenant governor, also expressed skepticism.

In response to the column, Romney produced a statement of his mother's position at the time: "I support and recognize the need for more liberal abortion rights while affirming the legal and medical measures need to protect the unborn and pregnant woman." The statement is ambiguous and Romney never accounted for the ambiguity.

Romney campaigned for governor in 2002, again as a pro-choice candidate. He responded to the National Abortion Rights Action League's candidate survey with this statement: "I respect and will protect a woman's right to choose. This choice is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government's."

Romney's running mate, Kerry Healey, vouched for his pro-choice credentials, saying, "There's isn't a dime of difference between Mitt Romney's position on choice" and that of his Democratic opponent.

Then came Romney's alleged epiphany. It occurred, he said, during the Massachusetts debate over stem-cell research, which coincided with Romney's plan to run for president. No longer worried about winning votes in Massachusetts, Romney was free to declare his commitment to the antiabortion crusade.

That he is now a pro-life advocate, committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, is believable, given the political equation necessary to win the GOP nomination. How he got there reads like a script from a bad movie. After pondering stem-cell research, he walked away from his late mother's alleged pro-choice commitment, as well as what was described as a painful memory of a relative who died from an illegal abortion.

He also walked away from the one explanation that makes sense. "He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly," Romney adviser Mike Murphy told the National Review in 2006.

Politicians always listen for the beat of the constituency they seek to represent, and waltz to it as best they can. They routinely tap dance around tough issues. They cha-cha-cha, reversing course when necessary. But they don't all do what Romney did on abortion rights. He engaged in a full-body tango with Massachusetts voters, doing everything he could to convince them he was pro-choice. He used his mother and another dead relative as props in a cold political calculation. But, this "pro-life Mormon," to quote Murphy, was "faking it" big time.

That's more than a mistake. That's dishonest.

Romney could very well win the GOP nomination. If he does, establishing credentials as a truth-teller will be harder than establishing credentials as an abortion-rights opponent.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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