In 2009, Mitt Romney, who is now trying to campaign for president as a moderate, lent his star power to an unusual charitable project: celebrating right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck to raise money for an unaccredited Utah-based college, which was founded by acolytes of the late W. Cleon Skousen and promoted the work of this fringe conservative figure. Much-touted by Beck, Skousen was an anti-communist crusader, a purported political philosopher, a historian accused of racist revisionism, and a right-wing conspiracy theorist. He contended that the Founding Fathers were direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, claimed that a global cabal of bankers controlled the world from behind the scenes, and wrote a book that referred to the "blessings of slavery." Skousen, who died in 2006, taught Romney at Brigham Young University.
On May 30, 2009, George Wythe University (named after the first law professor in America, who was a teacher of Thomas Jefferson), held a fundraising gala at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Beck, who was then riding high as a Fox News host, was the special guest, tapped to receive the school's annual "Statesman Award." Romney introduced him.
In a video message—obtained by Mother Jones—that was recorded for the event, Romney praised Beck and this school, which the US Department of Justice has called a "diploma mill." He hailed George Wythe University and its supporters for "building statesmen" and "moving forward the cause of liberty and building men and women of virtue and wisdom, diplomacy, and courage." He introduced Beck as a "man who is really making an impact in our entire country today." Romney noted that Beck's "approach is refreshing" and that he "tries to focus his message on action…on learning the principles of freedom and liberty, on standing up and making your voice heard, on reading and applying the wisdom of our nation's founders to the challenges of today." Beck, he asserted, was "a statesman in his own right." Here's the video:
At the time of the fundraiser, Beck had established himself as a champion of the far right who peddled extreme and conspiratorial views. In the weeks prior to this event, he had declared that President Barack Obama was "clearly" a socialist who had "surrounded himself with Marxists his whole life," and Beck had told listeners of his radio show that Obama will "surely take away your gun or take away you ability to shoot a gun." Yet Beck was a towering figure on the right and a favorite of the emerging tea party movement. It was not odd that Romney, anticipating another presidential run, would seek to win his favor and proclaim him a "statesman." His endorsement of George Wythe (pronounced "with") University was more curious.
The school was founded in 1992 by Oliver DeMille, along with two other Skousen associates. DeMille is described in a 2007 university catalog as "a popular keynote speaker, writer, and business consultant" who earned a master's degree in "Christian Political Science" and a doctorate in religious education at the unaccredited and now-defunct Coral Ridge Baptist University. In 1992, DeMille published an over-the-top tract, The New World Order: Choosing Between Christ and Satan in the Last Days, in which he and his coauthor wrote:
The term "New World Order" means the same thing today—abolishment of Christianity and the adoption of Satan's plan—whether spoken in lodges and meetings of secret societies or on national television by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. This does not mean that Bush or Gorbachev are Satan-worshippers, but they have accepted his plan—that governments should use force to make people live correctly.
The book also noted:
During the coming year the secret combinations and the governments they control will do a number of things to build a Satanic New World Order. President Bush and many Congressmen, who are controlled by the secret societies, will attempt to further this cause and to continue the curtailment of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
DeMille's book endorsed an assortment of conservative conspiracy theories, including the notion that the "Establishment" was going to turn the United States into a socialist state, disarm the American military and put it under United Nations control, and merge the country with Mexico, Canada, and other Latin American countries. (According to an official history of GWU, DeMille later considered the publication of this book a mistake.)
In the program for the 2009 Beck-Romney fundraiser, DeMille's welcome message sounded the alarm: "The figurative redcoats are at our door as threats to our liberty, prosperity, and sovereignty are no longer ideological or symbolic, but very real and immediate." One way to preserve liberty, he noted, was to donate to George Wythe University.
The school was established in a hunting lodge in southern Utah purchased by William Doughty, a Skousen devotee who also wanted to create a self-sufficient alternative community for conservatives who believed that the Constitution was being dismantled by the US government. The initial plans called for a center devoted to Skousen and his writings and a constitutional theme park populated by Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry impersonators. Skousen and his family donated more than $100,000 and gave their blessing to Doughty's fundraising efforts.
The constitutional utopia never materialized. Doughty came under investigation for allegedly bilking investors and donors out of $1 million. (No further action was ever taken against him.) But George Wythe University held on and continued to advance the work of Skousen, a conspiratorialist in his own right, who advocated extreme views across a wide range of subjects.
In a 1962 book, Skousen denounced homosexuality and noted, "Every boy should know that masturbation may be the first step to homosexuality." In his 1970 book, The Naked Capitalist, Skousen asserted that a sinister "secret society of the London-Wall Street axis"—which included the Council on Foreign Relations—controlled the world and manipulated global events, financing revolutions and aligning itself with "dictatorial forces" to preserve its power. In a 1970 article, Skousen, who was active with the John Birch Society, claimed that criticism of the Mormon church for prohibiting African Americans from its priesthood was nothing but a communist conspiracy against the church. (He also recorded a spoken-word album for the John Birch Society on the dangers of LSD.) In The Five Thousand Year Leap, a supposed history influenced by Mormon theology and published in 1981, Skousen contended that the Constitution is rooted in the bible. (Beck has heavily promoted the book to his listeners and viewers and wrote the introduction to a new edition.)
In 1979, the Mormon church issued a directive distancing itself from an organization started by Skousen. Five years ago, the conservative National Review referred to Skousen as an "all-around nutjob."
Still, until 2010, George Wythe University taught Skousen's work as part of its core curricula, alongside such classics as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Tom Paine's Common Sense. Freshmen were assigned The Five Thousand Year Leap and The Making of America, which came close to idealizing slavery, as in a passage in the book quoting a 1934 essay: "If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates." While promoting The Making of America, Skousen called for eliminating a host of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency; for selling off national parks; for ending the direct election of US senators; and for weakening the separation of church and state.
In a 2007 radio interview, Romney said that he had not read The Making of America, but that it was "worth reading." Romney cited another Skousen book to explain Mormon theology regarding the second coming of Christ. In another radio interview that year, Romney recalled taking a class at BYU on the Bible taught by Skousen, whom he called "a brilliant man and a wonderful story teller."
George Wythe University has never been accredited, and for most of its history, its leadership has been comprised of people who earned their academic credentials from other unaccredited schools. (Andrew Groft, a recent president whose degrees came from George Wythe, was caught in a prostitution sting shortly after leaving the school.) For years, the school handed out generous "life experience" credits toward a Ph.D. in a host of different specialties. One of the school's most famous doctorate recipients is former Michigan congressman Mark Siljander. He served for a couple of years as a George Wythe trustee and earned a Ph.D. in international business from the school after writing a 10-page dissertation and attending no classes. In 2010, Siljander pleaded guilty to charges he had been an unregistered lobbyist for an Islamic charity with terrorist ties. In his sentencing memo, the Department of Justice labeled George Wythe University a "diploma mill."
Since its inception, the school has suffered financial difficulties. In recent years, it has been plagued with declining enrollment. Shortly before the Beck fundraiser, the university reported that its enrollment was half of what it had been the previous year, with only about 150 students. More recent money troubles have stemmed from ill-advised real estate deals in an effort to build a much larger campus. The high-profile endorsements from Beck and Romney did not do much to place the school on better footing. The gala itself, according to school officials, "failed to net any gains."
GWU has recently closed its doctorate program, and this spring announced that it was abandoning ambitious plans for the new campus. Its main building in Cedar City is for sale, and the school is now operating out of an office suite in Salt Lake City. Enrollment is down to a mere 60 students.
There are conflicting accounts as to how Romney came to endorse George Wythe. Shanon Brooks, a former GWU president and head of the committee that organized the 2009 gala, tells Mother Jones, "I believe that the video was secured via members of his family who had a connection with him." But Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, says, "Glenn Beck asked Gov. Romney to introduce him, and the governor agreed to do it." By this telling, Romney, as he was eyeing his next presidential bid, endorsed a conspiracy-promoting school of iffy standing to score points with a conspiracy-minded conservative icon—and ended up making common cause with crackpot thinking shunned by the Mormon church and the National Review.