LIANE HANSEN, host:

Another possible Republican candidate is Jon Huntsman who, until yesterday, was U.S. ambassador to China. Because of diplomatic protocol, Huntsman has been mum on his plans for a new career. But if he runs for president, he will have a lot of explaining to do. GOP voters will want to know why a Republican governor of Utah went to work for a Democratic president.

As part of NPR's series on the spark that propels the presidential candidates, Robert Smith reports on the unusual political path of Jon Huntsman.

ROBERT SMITH: In 1971, Jon Huntsman, Jr. visited the White House. He was 11 years old. His father was a businessman and an advisor to Richard Nixon. The young Huntsman, or so the story goes, met Henry Kissinger that day and he helped carry his luggage to the car. It would turn out to be the start of an historic mission.

When Huntsman asked where Kissinger was going, the National Security Advisor said don't tell anyone, I'm going to China. Almost 40 years later, Jon Huntsman Jr. got his own historic call to China.

Ambassador JON HUNTSMAN (Former Ambassador, China): I never expected to be standing here.

SMITH: President Obama named the Republican, U.S. Ambassador.

Amb. HUNTSMAN: Nor did I expect as national co-chair of Senator McCain's presidential campaign to be called into action by the person who beat us.

SMITH: It would be tempting to say that the moment with Kissinger led straight to a lifelong career in politics and diplomacy. But people who know him say, well, that's a stretch.

Professor KIRK JOWERS (Director, Hinckley Institute of Politics, University of Utah): With Ambassador Huntsman, I don't see a lot of straight lines.

SMITH: Kirk Jowers is the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and a former advisor to Ambassador Huntsman.

Prof. JOWERS: If you're really fixated on having that career, you wouldn't have dropped out of high school to be in a rock band. You wouldn't have done some of these interesting things that he's done. You would play it more by the book.

SMITH: But instead, Jon Huntsman went off-script early. His father was in the container and chemical business, made a fortune creating those plastic clamshells for Big Macs in the 1970s.

Huntsman recalled his father telling him...

Amb. HUNTSMAN: Son, he would say, if you really want to make a difference in this world, you need to go into business. And if you can't cut it in business, you can always go into politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Not that his first foray into Utah politics was very successful. In the late 1970s, Huntsman lost an election for senior class president, and apparently he took it hard. He dropped out of high school, grew his hair long and he joined that rock band, Wizard. If there are any recordings of Wizard they're well hidden. But the story goes that Huntsman loved to play keyboards on a cover of this song by REO Speedwagon.

(Soundbite of song, "Roll With The Changes")

SMITH: Jon Huntsman never got his high school diploma and the band never got famous. Huntsman later said he thought of himself as a loser.

Former Utah Senator Jake Garn was a family friend. And he would use different words to describe the long-haired Huntsman.

Mr. JAKE GARN (Republican-Utah, Former State Senator): Particularly when he was a teenager, how intelligent and sharp he was and more knowledgeable about a lot of things than some 25 year olds that I knew.

SMITH: It was not particularly shocking to Senator Garn that Huntsman emerged from his rebellious phase. He enrolled in college and served a Mormon mission in Taiwan. Garn recommended him for an assistant job in the Reagan White House. Telling them...

Mr. GARN: This young man will surprise you.

SMITH: The Reagan White House would end up being the spark for Huntsman's public service career. But not in the political way you might think. Huntsman later described his job there as the lowest level flunky. He was working on the advance team for Reagan and this job would end up sending him around the world. He was with Reagan for a trip to Beijing in 1984.

This glimpse of international diplomacy must have been addictive. Huntsman was already fluent in Mandarin from his Mormon Mission, and he soon entered the diplomatic world.

Lew Cramer is the president of the World Trade Center Utah. He worked with Huntsman in the Reagan and later Bush administrations. And he says Huntsman took eagerly to jobs like Deputy U.S. Trade Representative and clearly not for the glory.

Mr. LEW CRAMER (President/CEO, World Trade Center Utah): You'd end up basically making unhappy people all around the world, in order to get these trade agreements done. There's just no public spotlight on what you're doing, at least in America.

SMITH: And Huntsman surprised people when he finally decided to move into the spotlight. Huntsman won two terms easily as governor of Utah. And even there he didn't follow a straight line. He cut taxes but he also embraced civil unions for gay couples. Not your typical path into Republican presidential politics.

And now that he's returned from China, Huntsman will have to craft that career into a compelling story for voters. It's not going to be easy. The most famous thing about Huntsman may be President Obama heaping praise on him.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: It was called the death hug, and it might be a tough one to escape. But getting out of uncomfortable situations is what diplomats do. And surprising people? Well, according to his friends, that's a Huntsman specialty.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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