Memories of a Different Gov. Romney
A headline on The Washington Post's website the other day took me back a ways - 44 years back, to be exact.
"Romney is the right man for America," it said. "George Romney, that is."
All I could murmur in response, recalling a youthful brush I once had with the elder Romney, was to fall back on a formerly hip term from that long-ago era: Right on!
George Romney, for those who don't remember him, was Mitt Romney's father. Picture a chunkier, grayer, more square-jawed, less polished version of Mitt. After becoming CEO of American Motors, he turned the company around in the late 1950s with the introduction of the compact Rambler. Then he spent most of the 1960s as governor of Michigan.
Romney soon got caught up in national politics, where he distinguished himself from many of his Republican colleagues - and from the current image that his son tries so hard to project - by his stance as an unabashed "moderate." (This was before that became a dirty word.)
He participated in civil rights marches, advocated expanded welfare and education programs, and refused to support the 1964 GOP candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater, whom he called a right-wing extremist. Michigan introduced income taxes under his administration.
Romney might well have ended up in the White House if events had fallen his way - and if he hadn't developed a public image, deserved or not, as a bit of an oaf and a perpetrator of embarrassing misstatements. (Sound familiar?)
1967, the year George Romney took a notion to run for president, was the same year, as I have written before, that I graduated from Southwest Missouri State and landed my first real job as "wire editor" (the guy who handled the AP news) at The Janesville Gazette in southern Wisconsin.
America was heading into a nightmarish couple of years. Before 1968 was over, the nation would be convulsed by two assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), more devastating urban riots and the Tet Offensive, amid other catastrophes. Then there was that presidential campaign - which hapless President Lyndon Johnson, waist-deep in the Big Muddy of Vietnam, would eventually bow out of.
I was still new on the job when I heard that candidate Romney was going to make an appearance in Milwaukee. I finagled an assignment to go cover it, though political reportage was not supposed to be part of my desk duties.
I caught up with Romney at a hotel conference room, where he delivered a standard campaign speech before a modest crowd. As he begin to wind up, I stationed myself in an empty hallway next to an exit I guessed he would use. I lucked out and got the first significant exclusive of my young career by prevailing on him to stop and speak with me for a couple of minutes.
At the time, he was still taking heat for turning against American involvement in Vietnam and for saying in an unguarded moment that he had been "brainwashed" by his American handlers during an earlier visit to that country. So I naturally asked him whether he regretted that gaffe. He dodged the question, saying only that he now understood it had been a mistake "for us to single-handedly take on the role of stopping Communist aggression over there."
Romney had said in the domestic part of his speech that "the way to stop crime is to stop America's moral decay." In our interview, I asked him how the president could do that. Romney, a devout Mormon, took a step toward me, poked a finger in my skinny chest and replied, "By example, for one thing. He can provide a good example."
I forget what else we talked about before an aide approached to pull him away, but I've never forgotten our little confrontation and the story I got out of it, insignificant though it was. That's why the recent Washington Post column, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, caught my eye.
"The parallels between Mitt Romney and his father, George - both businessmen, both Republican governors of blue states, both presidential candidates - make for tantalizing psychological comparisons," the column said. "... At a moment when America needs both business innovation and effective oversight, vigorous growth as well as economic fairness, we would be better off with George, rather than Mitt, in the White House."
George Romney might have been somewhat inarticulate, but one can only wonder what would have happened if he had won the GOP nomination instead of Richard Nixon. His heart was in all the right places, and he was an honest man who said what he believed instead of what he thought people wanted to hear.
Would that his son were a bit more like him in that regard.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at email@example.com.
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