George Wilcken Romney, the former automobile executive who became the centrist Republican governor of Michigan in 1963, was considered a presidential possibility leading up to the 1964 election. Moderate Republicans around the country were getting awfully nervous about this Goldwater fellow and seeking out plausible alternatives. But Romney, a tall and square-jawed man with impressive hair, had made a commitment to the voters of his state that he would serve four years, and Romney was a man who meant what he said, so a 1964 run was out of the question. The task of opposing Barry Goldwater fell to other moderates—Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania’s William Scranton. Romney did, however, leave his mark on the campaign: having deemed Goldwater an enemy of civil rights, which he backed ardently, he walked out of the party’s convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. He had his seventeen-year-old youngest son, Mitt, in tow, and thus Mitt, too, occasionally gets credit (at www .aboutmittromney.com, for starters) for stalking away from his party on a matter of the highest principle.1
Today, as the younger Romney struggles to secure the GOP nomination that seemed his for the taking until his crushing loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, to think about that anecdote and his father’s towering influence on him, to read these two balanced but essentially unflattering books, and to watch Willard Mitt Romney run a campaign in which he has charged as hard and fast to the right as he could on almost every issue you can think of lead inevitably to comparisons between the two Romneys, comparisons in which the younger Romney comes up dramatically short.
Mitt Romney, as the Massachusetts governor who passed health care legislation, had been a leader, just a few years ago, of the GOP‘s now much-diminished moderate wing. At the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Romney’s party took a number of positions completely at odds with those he had taken as governor, on abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, and other matters, and adopted other extremist rallying cries, like the infamous “Drill, Baby, Drill!” chant, which thundered maniacally (I was there) through the hall when Sarah Palin spoke, as if the assembled were packing decades’ worth of rage at the liberal establishment into those three words.
But does anyone think for a second that Romney fils would have walked out on his party, or even worked to moderate certain platform planks? It’s beyond comprehension. We’ve seen plenty enough now to know that that isn’t who Mitt Romney is. Instead, this self-selected member of the East Coast elite opened his convention speech this way:
For decades now, the Washington sun has been rising in the east. You see, Washington has been looking to the eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and to the broadcasters from the coast.
If America really wants to change, it’s time to look for the sun in the west, ‘cause it’s about to rise and shine from Arizona and Alaska!
On the evidence offered in these books, Romney seems in certain ways a fine and even rare person. He is diligent, industrious, and appears to be honest; he applies himself to problems, earnestly studying and following the lead of the data. He is a man of apparently deep personal virtue, generous with his money and time. He is very intelligent and has typically succeeded, wildly so, at nearly everything he’s done (except, interestingly, politics—he’s lost two races and won just one). Bill Bain, who in 1977 hired Romney into the venture capital and private equity firm we’ve been hearing so much about lately, had “seen something special” in Romney in their first meeting, write Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, veteran and well-regarded reporters for The Boston Globe, in The Real Romney: “All of the partners were impressed, and some were jealous. More than one partner told Bain, ‘This guy is going to be president of the United States someday.’”
But with all that, there still seems something missing in the man. Even R.B. Scott, a longtime magazine and newspaper journalist who is a fellow Mormon and former occasional Romney adviser who tried to enlist Romney’s cooperation in his book, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, cannot escape (and to his credit does not shy away from) pursuing certain dark corners of Romney’s character and identifying his weaker points:
His inability to empathize with common folk had long been his hoary hoodoo. His father had warned him about it. As a Mormon stake [roughly, a diocese] president, he was kind if often impatient and patronizing with members who didn’t measure up or were beneath him in rank and in intellectual and spiritual prowess. And on and on it went.
“His father had warned him…” For men like Romney, everything comes back in one way or another to father. Mitt was the “miracle baby,” the fourth child born nearly six years after the last of the other three, and named in part after J. Willard Marriott—like George, a nationally prominent and respected Mormon. He “grew up idolizing” his father, write Kranish and Helman. He walked the factory floor with him at the American Motors Corporation, which the elder Romney made profitable; he listened closely to his father’s religious and civic lectures; he wanted to become his father. His pursuit of the presidency surely has much to do with the fact that his father didn’t make it there, torpedoed by his famous comment about having been “brainwashed” about American progress in the war by generals on a visit to Vietnam.
George Romney didn’t back down from that remark, made to a Detroit television interviewer in 1967. He never backed down, not even to Nixon, with whom, as HUD secretary, he had numerous skirmishes. The son—unable even to view the “brainwashed” clip, Kranish and Helman write, until thirty-nine years later—seems to have decided that backing down is often a pretty good idea. Commentators have spent countless hours speculating whether Romney is “really” moderate or conservative. The answer is that he is neither, and both. The lessons he learned from watching his father fail to make it to the White House are: don’t stick to your guns; be flexible; suit the needs of the moment. And so, in order to complete his father’s unfulfilled destiny, he has decided to become his father’s opposite.
The Romney family’s history is, because of the religious question, pretty far from being a typical American success story. They were a prominent Mormon family going way back who got caught up in the intense ill will between Abraham Lincoln and Brigham Young. Lincoln signed an anti-bigamy law in 1862, aimed specifically at Young and his tribe, and Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather had been pursued by armed US marshals on bigamy charges. Miles Romney ended up in Mexico, as did many Mormons of the period, fleeing what the Church of Latter-Day Saints still thinks of as a great persecution of its people.
Miles’s son and Mitt’s grandfather, Gaskell, flourished there, at least until 1912, when during the civil war Mexican revolutionaries suspected (probably incorrectly) that these Yanqui interlopers would take up arms against them. Gaskell’s land was seized, and he became nearly penniless. He returned to the United States and, his grandson might do well to remember, got back on his feet partly because of assistance from the federal government, which had established a $100,000 relief fund for Mormons fleeing Mexico. The Romneys ended up in Salt Lake City, where Gaskell made a handsome living in home construction. George was five.
George moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1930s. His betrothed, Lenore LaFount, whom he had met in Utah, had her eye on a Hollywood career, and even landed a few parts and seemed on her way. But the unstoppable George persuaded her to marry him. Even though he never managed to finish college, he became a lobbyist—there weren’t many in those days—for the aluminum industry. They moved later to Detroit, where he became head of the Detroit office of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, eventually overseeing the industry’s war effort. The war ended, and in March 1947, after Lenore had been told by doctors that she could not possibly get pregnant again, the miracle baby arrived.
A beautiful house in exclusive Bloomfield Hills; the Cranbrook School, a private school with a lush campus; unimagined success, as George developed the AMC Rambler, a small car that he intended as competition to the hulking beasts Detroit was producing at the time (“compact car” and “gas guzzler” are among the elder Romney’s contributions to our automotive lexicon)—this was the milieu in which Mitt Romney was raised, apparently never getting into a whit of mischief. When he was seventeen, he met Ann Davies—fifteen, beautiful, but not a Mormon—at a party. He announced straightaway his intention to marry her, and she agreed that they would do so at the right time. But first, college beckoned, and Mitt’s obligatory missionary service.
He started at Stanford in the fall of 1965. It was a comparatively conservative campus in that age when Mario Savio was rabble-rousing across the bay up in Berkeley, but even Palo Alto provided Romney with a measure of culture shock. One of the resident assistants in his dorm was David Harris, the radical activist who would later marry Joan Baez. Romney attended one antiwar rally, Scott reports, wearing “his signature blazer and tie.” But by and large, he stuck to the company of his fellow young conservatives, challenged students on the issues of the day at parties (where he did not smoke or drink), and spent many weekends secretly (even from his parents) flying back to Michigan on weekends to see Ann.
Next came the missionary period, and here we begin to reach the part of the biography that the newspapers have already filled in. Romney went to France, finally ending up in Paris (in 1968, no less). He was driving a car one night in the French countryside, with passengers including the Mormon mission leader in France and his wife, and it was hit headlong by an apparently drunk French priest. The mission leader’s wife was killed; Romney was pronounced dead at the scene by one jumpy gendarme, although it turned out that his injuries were comparatively minor. He was—as was his custom—the most energetic young man in the mission, although he found that after knocking on French doors to expound the Mormon faith he ended up spending more time defending Richard Nixon than winning any converts.
He returned to America, and to school—although at the more convivial Brigham Young University now, not Stanford. Ann had already enrolled, and Mitt upon his return was surprised to find that he had to bat away one competing suitor. They married while still undergraduates, which is not unusual there, and began producing the progeny that the Book of Mormon commanded of them (they have five sons, all now grown and married, who have produced sixteen children of their own). He went to Harvard, gaining acceptance to a joint MBA and law program and graduating with honors. He found a job with the Boston Consulting Group, an early business consultancy, and he and Ann bought a home in the solid suburb of Belmont, just beyond Cambridge. He ascended the corporate ladder and the religious one, rising in the local Mormon hierarchy, becoming first a bishop and eventually the president of the Boston “stake.”
1 On the page on his website devoted to his father, a Daily News article is cited that pointedly says "both father and son walked out" of the convention. See www.aboutmittromney.com/georgeromney.htm. ↩
On the page on his website devoted to his father, a Daily News article is cited that pointedly says “both father and son walked out” of the convention. See www.aboutmittromney.com/georgeromney.htm. ↩