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.'"
The elder Romney was the candidate of the Republican governors in 1968. The decade’s premier chronicler of campaigns, Theodore H. White, described a deep split between hardline conservative Republicans in Congress and the practical and progressive Republican governors, epitomized by Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Romney was Rockefeller’s man in the race; his organization created much of the campaign and with other Republican governors provided manpower and commitments to convention votes. But first Romney would need to defeat Nixon in primary campaigns.
In November 1966 Romney won his third term as Michigan governor by half a million votes. Gallup Polls gave him a 39-31 percent lead over Nixon, but by January 1967 it was Nixon by 39-28 percent.
When I encountered George Romney in January 1968 he was reeling from a decline in the polls since his infamous remarks the previous August, after a return from the obligatory “fact-finding” tour of Vietnam. Like most aspiring political leaders, he had gone to Vietnam, been briefed by generals, and returned supporting the way. But Romney had switched his support after consideration and was under fire from conservatives. A Detroit radio talk host asked him, “Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?”
The governor, his usual candid self, replied, “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job. And since returning from Vietnam, I’ve gone into the history of Vietnam ... And, as a result, I have changed my mind ... I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”
Trailing Nixon in the poll numbers by January, Romney had one last chance, and it was to personally canvas New Hampshire, one bundled-up voter after another.
Theodore White described Romney’s intense moral and religious beliefs — he would not even talk politics on a Sunday, he lectured against American “moral rot.” But White also found, “George Romney’s religion did not make him a forbidding man, however; he added to it goodwill, jollity and warmth.” Romney was also a staunch supporter of civil rights, not always a popular position in 1968.
His natural instinct to connect with voters encountered limitations in the cultural mixer of 1967 and 1968. The author Roberto Loiederman recalled Romney attempting unsuccessfully to connect with stoners in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. I followed him into a small bank in Manchester, where he delivered a fist-pounding lecture on high interest rates to a half-dozen dazed clerks assembled on a balcony while film cameras rolled (as did the eyes of bored reporters). The previous night he talked past disconcerted students at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy (in 2012 they would have been checking their cell phones).
George Romney’s homespun sincerity and moral values amused and then bored a national press corps that set the agenda in 1968 to an extent no longer possible in a world of diverse outlets and blazing technology. Republicans, after the shellacking of the Goldwater defeat in 1964, opted for Nixon’s familiarity and pragmatism four years later rather than the progressive message of governors such as Romney, Rockefeller, and colleagues, including Dan Evans of Washington.
Thirty-five years later, the closest to a progressive candidate in the GOP fold is Jon Huntsman, who is portraying himself as a true conservative, a label also proclaimed by half a dozen others who are in actuality radicals. Then there is the younger Romney, who would cast his first vote in 1968, the son of George Romney but not of his convictions.
University of California scholar Matthew Dallek wrote in Politico: “If (Mitt) Romney’s positions now aligned with his father’s from the ’60s, his poll numbers today would be near the bottom of the Republican pack. At the same time, the younger Romney’s latest incarnation provides a jarring contrast — politically and ideologically — with George Romney’s political career. The son’s anti-Big Government zeal can be seen as an indirect effort to unwind the ideas, politics and policies for which his father once stood.”
That may serve the son well in another Romney campaign in the snowbanks of New Hampshire. I cannot help but think the other Romney would have served us better in the White House.