Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Thoughts on President Monson

I was asked by a local Provo journalist for some observations on the new Mormon prophet, Thomas S. Monson. Here's the questionnaire in full; it will be interesting to see what, if anything, makes it into the article:

1) Have you ever met President Monson and, if so, do you have any lasting impressions from that meeting? What's he like in person?

I've encountered President Monson several times. At a wedding, he was kind and complimentary toward my toddler son, who was just learning to walk. In a business setting, however, he can be more gruff and bossy. When I picked up some photos from him at his office one time, he frowned at me and warned me not to let the rain ruin the photos, without giving me any of the warm fuzzies of his pulpit persona. When I worked at the Ensign magazine, he was probably the highest-maintenance General Authority in terms of approving material, making requests, and so forth.

I find it refreshing how President Monson seems to enjoy pop culture. I once saw him eating junk food at the Disney Ice Capades at the Delta Center. My good friend who is his nephew informed me that President Monson maintains a collection of James Bond movies at his vacation home in Midway, Utah. And he quoted the movies Field of Dreams and Home Alone in his general conference talks, thus making those movies part of Mormon scripture.

On the other hand, he doesn't always take teasing well. At a wedding reception, he and his wife were sitting alone at a table, and my parents decided to sit next to them. "You scared everyone away," my dad quipped, but President Monson just frowned and looked away.
2) When you think back on President Monson as a speaker, what stands out about his style? Are there themes that you associate with him?

President Monson always seems to have a story about helping a widow or some other person in need. He also draws upon a seemingly endless supply of charming, folksy anecdotes from his childhood. I think in recent years he's gotten more loose and funny in his talks, often telling fairly uproarious stories that can be quite entertaining. In fact, sometimes his style is a bit hammy. He's the Hallmark card of general authorities, fairly sentimental and appealing to the lowest common denominator, widely beloved by both young and old but also a little cheesy for some.
3) President Monson is beloved for his stories. Do you have a favorite story that you've heard him tell?

For some reason, the story that stands out most in my mind is the one he told about his son's water snake, because it was such an entertainingly bizarre story that didn't make any apparent gospel point:

"...an event occurred in my life with our youngest son, Clark.

Clark has always liked animals, birds, reptiles—anything that is alive. Sometimes that resulted in a little chaos in our home. One day in his boyhood he came home from Provo Canyon with a water snake, which he named Herman.

Right off the bat Herman got lost. Sister Monson found him in the silverware drawer. Water snakes have a way of being where you least expect them. Well, Clark moved Herman to the bathtub, put a plug in the drain, put a little water in, and had a sign taped to the back of the tub which read, "Don't use this tub. It belongs to Herman." So we had to use the other bathroom while Herman occupied that sequestered place.

But then one day, to our amazement, Herman disappeared. His name should have been Houdini. He was gone! So the next day Sister Monson cleaned up the tub and prepared it for normal use.

Several days went by.

One evening I decided it was time to take a leisurely bath; so I filled the tub with a lot of warm water, and then I peacefully lay down in the tub for a few moments of relaxation. I was lying there just pondering, when the soapy water reached the level of the overflow drain and began to flow through it. Can you imagine my surprise when, with my eyes focused on that drain, Herman came swimming out, right for my face? I yelled out to my wife, "Frances! Here comes Herman!"

Well, Herman was captured again, put in a foolproof box, and we made a little excursion to Vivian Park in Provo Canyon and there released Herman into the beautiful waters of the South Fork Creek. Herman was never again to be seen by us."

Here's the talk link.

4) Do you have a favorite story that you've heard told about him?

Here's a little story I love that shows his practical, frugal side: Someone I know once saw President Monson pull into the driveway of his Midway vacation home, mow the lawn in his white shirtsleeves, and then get back into his car and speed away, presumably back down to Salt Lake.
5) As a leader, what do you expect from President Monson? What things, if any, do you think he'll approach differently than President Hinckley did?

I think that following President Hinckley as prophet must be every bit as challenging as succeeding LaVell Edwards as BYU football coach. I expect that he'll largely stay the course established by President Hinckley—after all, President Monson helped set that course too, as a long-time member of the First Presidency. I remember that in the years right after President Hinckley became prophet, it seemed like he made an exciting announcement at every general conference, such as small temples and the Perpetual Education Fund, but gradually these announcements tapered off. It would be fun if President Monson stirred things up like that again for a few years, but I don't expect any major shakeups.

6) In the same way that President Hinckley emphasized temples and retention of converts, are there church programs that you think President Monson will be focused on?

He's very big on service, so I wouldn't be surprised if he focuses more on welfare and humanitarian assistance. I believe he's also big on building bridges to other faiths and communities, so I expect to see more overtures along those lines.
7) President Hinckley was noted for his openness with the media. What do you think will be some of the defining aspects of President Monson's public persona?

I don't think he's as comfortable or effective speaking directly with the media as President Hinckley was, judging by the simplistic answers he gave to reporters at the press release announcing his presidency. I expect that his public role will be more along the lines of an example than a Hinckley-esque spokesman, with many opportunities to participate in charities and community outreach efforts. I predict he will come across more as a public doer of good works than as a public communicator.
8) President Monson was asked at his initial news conference about whether he had a message for people who are on the outs, so to speak, with the church, and his response was that the church needs those people and would like them to come back. Do you think those people will feel than anything has changed? Will anyone respond to that invitation?

I think disaffected Mormons largely see the Monson presidency as less tolerant of alternative viewpoints than the Hinckley presidency. President Monson has a more conservative, lowbrow persona than President Hinckley did. He's certainly not as polarizing as President Packer would be, but I think he's viewed as less intellectual and culturally enlightened than President Hinckley was. I see President Monson as reaffirming the status quo and the lowest common denominator rather than taking any fresh, frank approach on addressing issues and nuances that alienate people from the Church.


Anonymous said...

Interesting reading, sad that President Monson probably won't be able to defend himself (especially the comment about when your dad sat down at his table.)

President Monson spoke by satellite at our Stake conference a year or so ago. It was interesting to see him tell stories that weren't prepared beforehand. He wasn't quite as polished as in General Conference. He seemed to slip up on a few of the details.

Montgomery Q said...

I think the point he was trying to make is that Satan can come out when you least expect it.