Culture Vulture: Elvis is leaving the statehouse

This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The great political columnist Molly Ivins used to say that all good politicians needed a little Elvis in 'em.

Michael Dukakis, she once wrote, "has got no Elvis." She wrote the same about John Kerry. Bill Clinton had plenty of Elvis, maybe too much. Before she died in January 2007, Ivins was quoted as observing that Barack Obama -- who then had not declared himself a candidate for president -- was "the only Democrat with any Elvis to him."

In the Elvis-free zone of Utah politics, Jon Huntsman Jr. stood out in large part because he had a good deal of Elvis in him.

Soon, though, Elvis will be leaving the building -- and the state -- to become Obama's ambassador to China. And while the nation will benefit from Huntsman's job switch, Utah is losing one of its few claims to being cool.

With his lean frame, dapper suits, anchorman hair and easy smile, the 49-year-old Huntsman set himself apart from the dour, balding, Mr. Mac-clad Republicans one usually encounters on Utah's Capitol Hill.

Huntsman's speeches were dynamic, filled with optimistic rhetoric. They woke you up, not like the droning sing-song cadences -- learned from years of Mormon firesides and church lessons -- favored by so many Utah legislators.

Huntsman didn't hide the fact that he was educated out of state. During the Christmas open house at the governor's mansion, I once noticed a needlepoint pillow with the seal of the University of Pennsylvania, where Huntsman studied international relations. A lesser pol would have made sure there was Cougar Blue or Ute Red on such prominent display.

His laissez-faire approach to social issues was refreshing to the locals and so novel to out-of-stater pundits -- "A moderate Republican in Utah? What next? One wife?" -- that they saw Huntsman as a potential savior for the floundering GOP.

Huntsman endorsed the idea of same-sex civil unions, as a matter of basic fairness. He talked like a grown-up about global climate change, without the usual Big Oil-backed Republican "are we sure humans caused it?" horse-pucky. And where other Republicans run in terror at the thought of "foreigners," Huntsman embraced Utah's place in the world -- and urged us to be sensible about immigration and international trade.

His big achievement in this year's legislative session was pushing the state toward a rational alcohol policy, one founded not on moralism but on the sound economic idea that tourists like to buy a martini without jumping through a bunch of nonsensical legal hoops.

OK, he could be a camera hog. At a crowded press conference marking the start of filming for "High School Musical 3" in Salt Lake City, a reporter friend asked me why Huntsman was there. I answered, "He can smell coaxial cable." (In truth, Huntsman long has championed Utah filmmaking, seeing the economic benefit of throwing your state's scenery on the world's movie screens. Plus, his daughter got to meet Zac Efron. The job has its perks.)

Last year, I did a pre-election story asking candidates about their favorite political movies. Many gave safe, calculated choices that reflected prepackaged optimism or cynicism, with a lot of votes for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "The Candidate."

Huntsman's picks were surprising and thoughtful. One was "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," a now-obscure 1979 drama starring Alan Alda as a freshly minted senator learning the D.C. power game. The other was "The Killing Fields," Roland Joffe's 1984 masterpiece about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia -- and a movie that didn't leave the United States blameless for that bloody regime's rise.

With Huntsman going, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert becomes Utah's new governor (at least until a special election in 2010). How's the Elvis quotient of this 62-year-old former Utah County commissioner? Here's an indicator: His favorite political movie is "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at