George Romney was a remarkable man. Unfortunately, his legacy is tainted by his honesty and a poor choice of words, one word in particular: “brainwashing.”
In the fall of 1967, the Republican Party was gearing up to challenge an increasingly unpopular Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon would get the nomination and win the election, but at that time Nixon was viewed as an old face. He had been vice-president, lost the presidency to John Kennedy and lost the California governorship to Pat Brown, father of Jerry Brown. Nixon looked like yesterday’s candidate.
The new face in the Republican Party was Michigan Governor George Romney. In November 1966, Romney held an 8-point lead in the Gallup poll over Nixon. By August of 1967, Romney was 11 points behind.
What happened is that Romney had developed a reputation as a gaffe-prone candidate. Romney was earnest and forthright when presenting his views, but it seemed that he always had to explain himself afterward.
A Michigan professor once said, “George sees everything through a beautiful fog.” The problem was that was the way he talked as well. Life magazine described Romney in its May 5, 1967 edition:
“[N]obody can sound more like the public George Romney than the real George Romney let loose to ramble, inevitably away from the point and toward some distant moral precept.”
Even though Romney rambled and explained and later re-explained, he still connected with his audiences.
“For all his energy, for all his idealism – even for all his loquacity – he still manages to turn self-expression into a positive ideal.”
Self-restraint while choosing his words was not a Romney trait. That marks as a sharp contrast with his son, who is always smiling and careful to choose his words.
The tendency to gaffes would doom Romney’s campaign. In September of 1967, he recounted how his position on the Vietnam War changed. Romney traveled to Vietnam in 1965 as a supporter of the war, but by 1967, Romney had changed his mind. On August 31, 1967, he told a Detroit radio station:
“When I came back from Viet Nam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”
That was the end for the Romney campaign. By September, he was 26 points behind Nixon. Romney’s campaign never recovered. He dropped out prior to the New Hampshire primary when it became clear that he would be trounced.
If the “brainwashing” comment had not done Romney in, his views on the Vietnam War might have. Romney felt it was time for “a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time.” He did not believe having American forces in Vietnam was necessary to halt the expansion of communism.
Although opposition to the war was growing, Romney showed courage and conviction coming out against the conflict at a time that most conservative Americans, many being members of the Republican Party, wanted victory, not peace.
That is a glimpse of the man Romney was. He held strong moral convictions and was willing to reverse himself if he saw a wrong that needed to be righted. His son would later be criticized as a flip-flopper but that only emphasizes the differences between son and father.
Mitt Romney underwent a major reversal on several issues over a short period of time. It just happened to be that all of those reversals brought him closer to the conservative mainstream and more likely to get the nomination that he coveted. George Romney didn’t do things through political expediency. Being anti-Vietnam War in 1967 is a bit like being pro-choice in the Republican Party in 2012.
After his campaign for the presidency was finished, Romney wrote to Mitt, who was doing missionary work in France:
“We went into this not because we aspired to the office, but simply because we felt that under the circumstances we would not feel right if we did not offer our service. As I have said on many occasions, I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied.”
That seems to contrast with the perception of Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations. Mitt has altered his convictions to assume the presidency. While George remained true to his own beliefs and accepted defeat as not what the country wanted, Mitt seems ready to mold himself into anything it takes to become president. George’s conviction’s were hammered into stone; Mitt’s are as malleable as clay.
Mitt has turned from a moderate Republican into a conservative but his father was a moderate who never wavered from his ideals, even when it ran counter to his religious beliefs.
Back in the 1960’s, the Mormon Church viewed blacks as being cursed by God. They were not allowed into the priesthood. A prominent Mormon of the time, Delbert Stapley, wrote a letter to then Governor Romney warning him that his “liberal” views on race were contrary to the “Lord’s position in relation to the negro.”
At that time, Romney was one of the biggest Republican supporters of civil rights in the nation. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on at least one occasion. Romney strongly supported desegregation and worked tirelessly for housing reform.
At his inauguration in 1963 as governor, Romney spoke:
“Michigan’s most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination—in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment.”
In the raucous 1964 Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, Romney walked out of the convention with other moderates. The turning point for Romney was civil rights. He didn’t believe that Goldwater understood the necessity of getting whites and blacks to understand one another.
Romney’s support for civil rights was rewarded with a large chunk of the black vote that was estimated at 30% during his 1966 re-election.
Romney’s support for civil rights is best placed in context of the time. It was a time of unrest, suspicion and violent repression. Politicians who cared about their futures tried to steer clear of as much controversy as possible. Romney marched with blacks in Detroit when the fight for civil rights turned violent in the South. Controversy didn’t scare him away — Romney seemed to welcome it. He searched for support where most 1960′s Republicans would not be expected to find it.
“Michigan Gov. George Romney walked into a Negro Civil Rights rally in the heart of Atlanta to the chants of ‘We Want Romney’ and to hear protests from Negroes about city schools. ‘They had invited me to come and I was interested in hearing things that would give me an insight into Atlanta,’ the Michigan Republican said. Led by Hosea Williams, a top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the all-Negro rally broke into shouts and song when Romney arrived. ‘We’re tired of Lyndon Baines Johnson,’ Williams said from a pulpit in the Flipper Temple AME Church as Romney sat in a front row pew. ‘Johnson is sending black boys to Vietnam to die for a freedom that never existed,’ Williams said. Pointing to Romney, Williams brought the crowd of 200 to its feet when he said, ‘He may be the fella with a little backbone.’ Williams said Romney could be ‘the next President if he acts right.’ ”
Try to see Mitt doing this. George valued beliefs embedded deeply in morality; Mitt’s values appear secondary to his personal aspirations.
Both men made a mark in business. Mitt’s time at Bain Capital is well documented. George made a reputation for his position as CEO of American Motors Corporation, which he saved from bankruptcy by overhauling the assembly line and creating the compact Rambler model. AMC’s sales quadrupled in two years. Romney looked like a miracle worker.
Prior to the AMC success, when Romney assumed the position as CEO “in an unprecedented move, George and 24 top executives voluntarily cut their own salaries by as much as 35 percent.”
Romney made AMC the number three carmaker in America. He did it by going against the ingrained business practices of Detroit. He built AMC around a fuel-efficient car while attacking the Big Three automakers with their “gas-guzzling monstrosities.” This was the 1950’s when gasoline was cheap, but Romney was already looking towards the future.
Romney became, as one writer pointed out, “the folk hero of the American auto industry.” He developed a close working relationship with the UAW and strongly supported the Fair Employment Practices Act which few corporate leaders backed. Romney became a millionaire in this time. Yet when he thought that he was over compensated, he even gave money back to the company.
Looking back, Romney was not just a folk hero for the automobile industry but for politics. None of that is better explained than when he was confronted about releasing his most recent tax return during his presidential race.
Romney refused to release his tax return because he felt that one year’s return could either be manipulated or unrepresentative of a candidate’s income. That wasn’t the end of the issue, though. Romney thought about it and instead released 12 years of tax returns. Some of those years included the time when he was CEO of a resurgent AMC and on his way to making millions.
Romney tithed to the Mormon Church, but far more than the ten percent normally asked. His contributions to the church were 19% of his income. He gave another 4% away to charity. While that must have cut his taxes dramatically, Romney still paid 37% of his income in taxes.
Looking at Mitt Romney’s openness, the comparison is not favorable to the son. Mitt has refused to open a single tax return for review, while stating that he only paid 15% in taxes.
Altogether, the comparison between father and son elevates the father and brings into question the convictions and openness of his son. Mitt doesn’t want to make the same mistakes that his father did. Those were mistakes of rashness that cost him the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt has because cautious and conservative, but not just in his behavior. He has also become cautious and conservative in his political beliefs in a way that his father once disavowed. The kinds of politics that Mitt is embracing are the politics that George walked away from in the 1964 Republican convention.
Too bad Mitt couldn’t be like his father. He might not win the Republican nomination, but he would still have the upstanding political genealogy that his father left behind, not a bastardized process of flip-flopping and pandering.
When Mitt Romney needed to be a moderate in Massachusetts, he was one. When he needed to be a conservative to seek the presidency, he became one. Today, no one knows who the real Mitt Romney is. One thing for certain, he is not like his father.