Candidate Romney stands bareheaded in the harsh New Hampshire snow, shaking hands and bantering through the chill, plunging into diners and shops, searching for another vote from the Granite State’s fickle Republican and independent voters.
Only this is George W. Romney, father of current frontrunner Mitt and this is 1968, the start of what proved to be the most traumatic year in American political history in the 20th Century. Ahead were two assassinations, the withdrawal of a Democratic president, and the rebirth of the perennial Richard Nixon.
But this was January 1968, and the elder Romney was essentially running against himself, trying to erase self-inflicted damage from an unfortunate political fault — he told the truth and stuck with his position. Consistency proved to be his downfall and Nixon moved from a New Hampshire victory to win the nomination of his party. No one has accused Mitt Romney, the son and political heir of George Romney, of consistency, and his worries in New Hampshire hinge on former positions now largely disavowed.
I trudged through the New Hampshire winter for several days in January 1968 with my friend Travis Cross, who was handling Romney’s press relations (we didn’t use the word “media” in those days), which had been verging on disaster. I was on leave from my Oregon newspaper for a fellowship at Harvard, but I filed columns on primary contenders in both parties.
The Romneys, father and son, have striking similarities but their candidacies are equally striking in their differences. The father, who died in 1995, flamed out (or froze; choose your metaphor) in New Hampshire, withdrawing on Feb. 28 after his polling number dropped out of sight compared to Nixon (who largely stayed out of the state). The son is favored to win, his polling is strong compared to his dad’s in 1968, and his campaign is very different. His campaign is under attack from rivals; in 1968 his father was to prove his own worst enemy.
The similarities between the Romney are evident: that hair, the jaw, the blonde wife and sturdy sons; blink an eye and except for the height of the son, it could be the father. Both profess(ed) a devotion to their Mormon faith, which in George was a campaign cornerstone — and source for mockery by a cynical national press corps bored by the man’s piety and moral lectures — and which in Mitt is not enough to win the evangelicals that were an insignificant part of the GOP base in 1968. Their religious faith is identical—it is the GOP that has taken a different tack.
Both were active governors in the progressive Republican mode, but the son has foresworn his gubernatorial record. Both worked in private business: George was a high-school graduate who became the whiz kid of his day, rescuing American Motors from insolvency and championing one of the first compact cars; Mitt took his Ivy League education into the financial world and grew and shed jobs as a consultant.
George Romney’s strength and his failing was his authenticity — he was the same guy in the governor’s office as he was on the stump, and it was his inability to bridge the difference in those roles that brought his downfall. Mitt Romney’s weakness is his lack of authenticity and his tireless efforts to dynamite the bridge between his governorship and the campaign. The cynical operative — Richard Nixon — won in 1968 and Romney junior is the Nixon of 2012, fending off a series of challengers with his pragmatism and skill in debate.
Former aides of George Romney told Michael Leahy of The Washington Post that the 1968 defeat of his father contributed to Mitt Romney’s current approach: “George Romney’s former aides, resentful to this day of their boss’s derailment, wonder aloud how much it affected the political style of his youngest son. Walter DeVries, a prominent adviser, views the younger Romney as something of a casualty from 1968: 'Mitt is gun-shy from what they did to his father.'"
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