'For Huntsman, travel opened doors'
'Governor, diplomat stresses foreign ties'
In 1978, a shaggy-haired Jon Huntsman was playing keyboard in a progressive-rock band and falling a few classes short of finishing high school. The eldest son of a rising industrialist had lost his focus.
He traveled the next year to Taiwan, where he spent two years as a Mormon missionary and won a few converts. He also gained self-discipline, he said, and kindled a lifelong interest in Asia and international affairs.
The experience helped set a young man with a budding interest in public service on a path into the world of international business and trade. It would take him to ambassadorial posts in Singapore and China, the governor's mansion in Salt Lake City and now, to a run for the Republican presidential nomination.
"It was my first view of American power abroad, the role of the United States in a dynamic region like East Asia," Huntsman, 51, said in an interview this month. "I arrived in Taiwan just as we had withdrawn our ambassador . . . and basically recognized the mainland government. So I wondered why there was such an anti-American mood and anti-American sentiment there as a young teenager. And that piqued my curiosity. Never before had I seen the nature of American diplomatic influence abroad, and I decided during those years that I wanted to know more about it."
Huntsman was born and raised in California and has lived in Asia four times. He was elected to two terms as governor of Utah and is now basing his campaign in Florida. He's "bounced around like a nomadic herder," he said, and boasts the most international experience in the Republican field of presidential candidates.
He describes himself as a foreign policy realist, and doesn't think the U.S. needs or can afford to intervene in Libya's civil war. He wants to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan and sees close ties with Asia, and especially China, as vital to the country's future.
He often describes foreign and domestic policy as closely linked, especially on the economy. He's said to have brought a diplomat's touch to governing Utah. And his overseas perspective has given him a renewed appreciation for the American way of life.
"I sometimes feel like Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 as he discovered the soul of America," Huntsman declared in his first inaugural address in 2005, invoking the French writer who traveled across and studied the young nation.
Plastics made it possible
Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is probably Utah's richest man.
Raised poor in Idaho, he made a fortune in plastics by helping develop, among other things, the plastic plate and "clamshell" fast-food box. He founded a family company in 1970 with his brother, and Huntsman Corp. is now a $9 billion-a-year chemicals giant with about 12,000 workers.
A major philanthropist, Huntsman Sr.'s name adorns university buildings, a cancer hospital and a business school. He's widely admired in Utah, though wealth brings dangers: In 1987, his then-16-year-old son James was kidnapped and held for $1 million ransom. (James Huntsman was rescued, though the kidnapper, a high school classmate, stabbed an FBI agent in the chest during the raid and was sent to prison.)
But when Jon Huntsman Jr. was born March 26, 1960, the first of nine children, his father was serving in the U.S. Navy and had yet to make his fortune.
"It's not like I was born into wealth," Huntsman said. "I was born in the Navy, and I grew up in regular circumstances in southern California."
The family lived in Los Angeles, then Maryland, where the elder Jon Huntsman worked as an assistant to President Nixon and the younger Jon Huntsman got his first job, at 12, mowing lawns.
They moved to Salt Lake City when Huntsman was a teenager. He made Eagle Scout at 15, worked in the same restaurant as future wife Mary Kaye Cooper - "she was a salad girl, I was a dishwasher," he said - and developed his musical talents.
When a four-man prog-rock band called Wizard wanted to add keyboards, he was the obvious choice.
"Jon was kind of a well-known keyboard player that had classical training," said Howard Sharp, Wizard's drummer and now chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at University of Utah Health Care. "So we had heard about him, and I went to see him and he was just unbelievably good. . . . He was really able to play the progressive rock and roll."
Huntsman joined the band. And though his family was well on its way to great wealth, Sharp said Huntsman wasn't flashy about it.
"I think he wanted to be known as a keyboard player on his own merits, not just for his equipment," Sharp said. "He didn't wear fancy clothes or drive fancy cars . . . but on the other hand, he was always generous to other guys in the band that may not have had money for lunch. Jon would always be the guy that would pitch in and cover."
Meanwhile, Huntsman's studies at Highland High School were on the rocks.
"I had a couple of incomplete classes at the end of my senior year . . . and so decided I would pursue a career in music more than anything else," Huntsman said.
Wizard never got its big break - "I think we thought we were better than we were," Sharp said with a laugh. Huntsman took some classes at the University of Utah, which then had open enrollment. He also spent time in Germany, telling an interviewer in 1994 that he worked there as a shipping manager and had learned some German.
And while becoming a missionary isn't required for young Mormons, Huntsman's faith had strong roots. His maternal grandfather, David Haight, was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father told the Deseret News in 1971 that he planned to give Nixon a Book of Mormon.
Huntsman said faith "sustains" him.
"I've never been one to wear religion on my sleeve," he said this month. "But to have a sense of something greater than self has always been an important centerpiece in terms of my life's philosophy."
So Huntsman signed up for missionary work, and was assigned to Taiwan. He left in 1979.
'Mover and shaker'
In early 1979, the U.S. embassy officially moved from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to Beijing. Nixon's 1972 visit to mainland China led to that Cold War milestone, the formal recognition by the U.S. government of the communist Chinese government.
Jeffrey Mollerup, now a postal worker in Salt Lake City, was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan from 1980 to 1982. He remembers running into people who were bitter about the switch, but it wasn't his focus.
"We were there on God's errand," he said, "so we didn't get into politics too much."
He also remembers Huntsman, who had arrived a year earlier. Mollerup said Huntsman was a dedicated missionary admired by his peers, a leader as an assistant to the mission's president and a wealthy young man who "never looked down his nose at us" and lived as they lived.
"He was very sharp back then, and I think we all had the idea he was destined for greatness down the road. . . . He kind of had a reputation in the mission as a mover and shaker," Mollerup said.
Huntsman said he won "a few" converts on his mission, where he learned Mandarin.
"I can't claim to be the most successful proselytizer," he said.
But the trip was also "an opportunity to discovery your strengths," he said. "A hard-working environment, a very regimented environment. You live in conditions that are darn close to poverty, killing cockroaches every night before you go to bed. Dingy apartments. So you learn a lot about yourself. You learn how to organize yourself. You learn how to work hard."
And, Huntsman said, it helped crystallize his life goals.
"I wanted to give back, like my ancestors had done. I wanted to pursue some form of public service," Huntsman said. "I wanted to better understand America's role in the world, particularly in Asia. I was absolutely fascinated by what I learned there. And I was absolutely intrigued by Chinese culture, Chinese politics and Chinese economics."
Huntsman had been "a much deeper thinker than the average teenager I was hanging out with. . . . He would ask the 'whys,' " Sharp said. When he came back from Taiwan in 1981, Sharp said, the young man with the dry sense of humor and passion for motocross had matured.
"I think to see a Third World country really made a mark on Jon," Sharp said. "I mean, here he was, he had grown up in Salt Lake in a fairly privileged environment, and all of a sudden he went to a Third World country. So I think it really opened his eyes and helped him put his deeper thinking in a more social context."
'Noblesse oblige, or simple altruism'
Huntsman's father, grandfathers and uncles served in the Navy, and both his sons have entered the Naval Academy. From an early age, he said, he was exposed to a "very strong ethos" of "giving back" and "leaving your community better than you found it."
And though the Navy didn't appeal to him - "I grew up right toward the end of the Vietnam War, where people were coming back from a very unpopular war. It seemed to be a much different mindset in those days than it is today," he said - he wanted to serve in some fashion.
On his return from Taiwan, Huntsman interned for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and worked for President Reagan as an advance man, helping organize presidential trips including Reagan's 1984 visit to China. He then joined the family company as it grew and expanded, moving back to Taiwan at one point to help build the firm's international trade.
He and Mary Kaye married in 1983, two months after getting engaged on her birthday. They would eventually have three daughters, two sons and adopt two more daughters, Gracie Mei from China and Asha Bharati from India.
Huntsman enrolled at the University of Utah from the winter of 1982 to the spring of 1985. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in international politics. He retains an academic bent: When asked to name his foreign policy influences, he described himself as a realist and rattled off Klemens von Metternich, Robert Strausz-Hupe and Alvin Z. Rubinstein as favored theorists.
And he eventually rejoined the government, taking several trade posts in the Commerce Department under President George H.W. Bush.
"I've always looked for an opportunity to get more involved in public service. Perhaps it's that old notion of noblesse oblige, or simple altruism," Huntsman told the Deseret News in 1989. "I believe that our family has been given a lot, and I feel I can spend at least a little time giving something back in public service."
Bush named him ambassador to Singapore in 1992, a post he left after President Clinton took office the next year. He returned to the Huntsman family corporation as an executive through the 1990s, but returned to the government in 2001 when President George W. Bush made him the deputy U.S. trade representative, responsible for negotiating trade agreements in Asia and Africa.
By 2003, his family had had enough.
"My daughters sat me down after 2½ years and said, 'We'd like a dad back,' " Huntsman said. "They were just kind of moving into their high school years, legitimately wanted to have the family together again, and they were the ones who suggested I consider running for governor of Utah."
"I thought it was a crazy idea."
Salt Lake to Beijing and back
But Huntsman came around on the idea, and he said he toured the state for a year in a Chevy Suburban to round up votes. He emerged from a crowded Republican field and won the general election.
Tim Chambless, an associate professor and lecturer in political science at the University of Utah, said Huntsman's famous name helped, but he also made the argument on his own qualifications.
"The son - very qualified, very able - has been able to walk through the doors his father has opened," Chambless said.
As governor, Huntsman presided over population and economic growth, the introduction of a single tax rate and state-level health care reform. Chambless said his style was to avoid fights with the legislature, and he largely succeeded.
"He's very respectful, very nice, polite, listens, and I think those are skills that lend themselves very well to being a diplomat - more so than a legislator, maybe even a governor. . . . He avoids fights. He's a diplomat," Chambless said.
Huntsman easily won re-election in 2008, and as 2009 began he boasted a record-tying 90 percent approval rating. The trim, tanned, measured governor was approached about running for president in 2012, but Huntsman said he didn't take it seriously at the time.
Then the call came that President Obama, a Democrat, wanted to make him ambassador to China. Huntsman said yes.
"I've always believed in country before anything else," Huntsman said. "And if your president . . . asks you to stand up and serve, during a time of war and economic hardship, if there's something you can do to make your country better in a very complicated and difficult relationship like the U.S.-China relationship . . . then I'm the kind of person who's going to do it. And I'd do it again tomorrow. That's the philosophy I'll take to my grave."
For Huntsman, U.S.-China ties are the most important relationship of this century, with major strategic and economic implications. In "Building U.S. Jobs by Leveraging China's Growth," a classified cable he sent in January 2010 to the White House and various U.S. agencies, Huntsman wrote that "with 10 percent U.S. unemployment, more than ever before we must ensure that our relations with China continue to pay real dividends - especially in creating jobs for Americans." (The cable, which offered a number of proposals to that end, was among thousands of classified diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks.)
In late April, Huntsman left his post and returned to the United States. In June, he announced he would run for president. He frequently speaks on the campaign trail about seeing America "from 10,000 miles away," his perspective on the boom in China and the United States's faltering economy and spirit.
Given his full resume, Huntsman said, it made sense to run for the highest office in the land.
"I'm of the belief that if you've got experience in both public and private life that would allow you to address some of the major problems we have, like creating jobs and expanding the economy and dealing with our international competitiveness issues - then if you don't get in the race, it's unpatriotic," he said.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or email@example.com.)