Huntsman and son: namesake and role model
Politics • Huntsman Sr. has provided a boost at critical junctures but says the former Utah governor is his own man.
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Washington • No one looms larger in the life and career of Jon Huntsman than his father, the man Utah's former governor describes as his best friend and one who helped propel him to achieve throughout his life.

Huntsman, now a U.S. presidential hopeful, owes a good deal of his present trajectory to his dad, Jon Huntsman Sr., either through shared experiences, a helpful shove or unwavering support.

"He's my best friend, and I love him dearly," the candidate told The Tribune in an interview. "He's always been a great moral supporter; he's always been an adviser; he's always been a mentor, someone I turn to during moments when making key decisions, although we haven't always agreed."

In many ways, the younger Huntsman followed in his father's footsteps, but he also carved his own path.

The elder Huntsman, who built a small petrochemical company into a multibillion-dollar international operation, gladly takes credit for helping his son along at times, though he wants to make clear that he's not pulling his strings, as some have suggested.

"I've done no more for Jon than I have for any of our other children, but I certainly plead guilty to loving and supporting and encouraging Jon Jr.," he said in a separate Tribune interview. "But all of these positions that he has achieved, these remarkable appointments — where he's passed the U.S. Senate unanimously three times — that's pretty hard for a father to have any involvement in something like that. It's pretty hard for a father to re-elect the governor at 78 percent. So when people say that I've orchestrated some of these things, it's a complete impossibility to have great achievements like that from a father."

But having a father like Jon Huntsman Sr. has certainly buoyed his son's career at crucial junctures.

Dad's footsteps • After graduating at the top of his high school class in the 1950s, Huntsman Sr. headed to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship.

Nearly 30 years later, his eldest son and namesake transferred from the University of Utah to his father's alma mater, entering the Ivy League university even though he had dropped out of high school and earned a GED.

The younger Huntsman's acceptance to the school has raised questions of whether his dad used his influence to get his son into the elite school. But Huntsman Sr. said the most he ever did was pen a letter.

Huntsman Sr. later donated millions to the university — upward of $45 million and enough to have a building named after him — though none of it until years after his son had graduated.

A university spokeswoman said it would be "totally absolutely false" to infer that the son got in because his father's later gifts to the school.

Huntsman Sr. provided other important introductions, such as when, as an aide to President Richard Nixon, he first brought his son to the White House, where he later landed a coveted spot in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The younger Huntsman was a staff aide to the president in 1982, a spot offered to the then-20-something with the assistance of then-Utah Sen. Jake Garn, a longtime family friend.

"He asked if I was willing to support him," Garn recalled. "I didn't have any conversations with his dad about it. ... I just always thought he was wise for his age — everything is relative in life — but at the time, I thought, 'What a sharp, outstanding young man.' "

Garn, who now backs Huntsman for president, worked for the Huntsman Corp. after leaving the Senate in 1993.

Huntsman Sr. later went to bat for his son when the Salt Lake Organizing Committee went looking for someone to rescue the scandal-tarred 2002 Olympics. But the committee's top brass had already selected Mitt Romney, irritating the patriarch of the Huntsman clan, who became a vocal critic of the effort for a short time, before ultimately donating $1 million to it.

All in the family • With the exception of teenage gigs washing dishes or mowing lawns, almost all of Huntsman's experience in the private sector comes through his father's businesses. He was a project manager, a secretary, board member and head of the family's philanthropic arm.

Huntsman Sr. said it just made sense for his children to participate, in one form or another, in the family business.

"We've tried to fit each of our children, place them in our corporate business where they would survive, otherwise, the family wouldn't succeed and the business wouldn't succeed," Huntsman Sr. said.

It wasn't just an easy paycheck, both Huntsmans said.

Tapped for his international knowledge, the younger Huntsman spent time in Europe and Asia helping to build Huntsman Corp.'s foreign client list. It was up to him to break into new markets in Taiwan, Thailand and Australia, and having the Huntsman last name could be a blessing and a curse, he said.

"Our philosophy was, if you're a family member, you've got to bring as much to the table as anyone from the outside and then some more because you're going to be evaluated more critically," the candidate recalled. "You're going to be looked at as someone who carries the family name and therefore you've got to carry more than just the weight of the job."

He points out, when asked of his family-business-centric résumé, that he also served on several corporate boards, including Owens-Corning, a fiberglass manufacturer, and Valassis, a communications/PR firm.

Living vicariously • In 1988, Huntsman Sr. flirted with a gubernatorial run of his own in Utah. Within two months, he dropped out when the low-polling Republican incumbent, Gov. Norm Bangerter, refused to step aside for the challenger.

It was the beginning and the end of the elder Huntsman's career in elective politics.

Fifteen years later, his son informed him of his own plan to enter the fray.

"When I first told him I was running for governor, he looked at me quizzically, somewhat amused, wondering if it was a clear-minded decision," the younger Huntsman joked.

But his father jumped onboard, enthusiastically supporting the campaign. Initially, the campaign found a home in the Huntsman Corp.'s Salt Lake City headquarters but quickly moved out when concerns were raised internally at the message that sent.

No one disputed that the Huntsman name — a household word in Utah attached to a University of Utah cancer hospital and research center, sports arena and an annual amateur sports festival in southern Utah that attracts thousands — bolstered the son's candidacy. But Huntsman Sr. distanced himself from the day-to-day campaign operations, though he was a fixture at every debate, usually ensconced in a back row seat.

Less than two weeks ago, the father again found himself off to the side as his son, surrounded by his wife, Mary Kaye, and children, strolled along the grass at Liberty State Park in New Jersey and took the stage to announce his candidacy for president.

It was Huntsman Sr.'s 74th birthday.

"A father couldn't ask for a better birthday gift," he told The Tribune at the time.

But as close as the two are, there have been disagreements.

Defining faith • In 2007, then-Gov. Huntsman announced his support for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. A short while later, Huntsman Sr. offered his endorsement to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The two were co-chairmen of the respective campaigns.

"Jon went his direction and I went in my direction, and there was nothing calculated or nothing discussed in advance whatsoever," Huntsman Sr. said.

Only a few months ago did another potential split emerge that sent Utah politicos into a tizzy. In various interviews, the younger Huntsman was asked about his faith in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, a religion in which his father serves as an area authority.

The candidate told Time magazine his faith was "tough to define," a comment that added to previous statements that he is more "spiritual" than religious.

Huntsman Sr. said he's proud of his son and that he is someone "you want to sit next to" in an LDS Church or any other.

"I believe that all of our children have varying degrees of activity in the LDS Church, and I'm proud of Jon; I'm very proud of his family," Huntsman Sr. told The Tribune. "He's an extremely honest man; he has a wonderful marriage; he's maintained his marital vows; he's an outstanding father; he's a man of high moral principles. He has a sense of personal integrity. I could have asked for no greater son than when it comes to religion and someone is a man of great faith. I wasn't the least bit disappointed."

The younger Huntsman said the family has always had "deeply rooted pride in our Mormon heritage, but I think like most families you have individual members who, while very spiritual, take different approaches in terms of the individual level of activity."

In a few news stories already, the son and father have been confused with one another. And the candidate said he's prepared for people to charge that he is his father's creation.

"I'm an easy target. I've grown to understand that," he said. "If you're an easy target, you're going to get shot at in that regard like a lot of other successful families. You learn to live with that and rise above it."

tburr@sltrib.com