‘A very different nation’: The Romneys on life with George and the lesson of his derailed presidential bid

Mitt Romney. (mittromney.com)
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“Can you imagine if Richard Nixon had not been president?” Mitt Romney said. “Instead it would have been my dad. We wouldn’t have had Watergate. Vietnam would have been handled in a different way and I think it would have been a very different nation.”

This was in 2005 and Romney, still the governor of Massachusetts, was sitting with me in his office in Boston, speaking about his father’s fall to Nixon early in the 1968 Republican campaign.

When Americans of Romney's vintage turn to the subject of 1968, it is often to talk regretfully about a future that never came to pass, and of what a country led by Robert Kennedy or Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, or Eugene McCarthy might have looked like.

But because it was Romney, we were speaking of his late father George—once the governor of Michigan and, more importantly, the ghostly engine of his son’s own ambition to seek out the presidency no matter the political or financial price.

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George Romney's presidential bid was undone when the early advocate of the Vietnam War went to Southeast Asia to find not a successful military effort, but a disillusioned armed forces waging an unwinnable campaign.

“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,” Romney said some time afterward. “And they do a very thorough job."

That was all it took. For months after his "brainwashing" comment, Romney found his wording prodded and poked at, and his presidential aspirations foundered. Seeing no way forward, the elder Romney ended his campaign just two weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

His son still talks about it as a defining, tragic moment for the Romney family, and for the country.

“There are inflection points in history,” Mitt Romney said, “and the fact that he was drummed out of prominence in the presidential race by virtue of having said we were brainwashed by the generals and (then-defense secretary Robert) McNamara is astonishing to me! It was obviously very metaphorical. He didn’t mean it literally.”

The Mitt Romney speaking to me—for an article I was working on at the time for The Atlantic—was a man very much at a crossroads. He still boasted of the health care reform he had championed in Massachusetts, but had—to the notice of the legion of local politicians—begun making trips to South Carolina and New Hampshire. He was running for president, if not in 2008, then certainly in 2012. He just wasn't ready to say it yet.

In the course of reporting on Romney, I had spent a good deal of time speaking not only to him but to members of his immediate family, including his wife Ann and his brother Scott, and I once spent an afternoon with his son Tagg at his home in the Boston suburbs.

In these interviews, it wasn’t hard to get the family to talk about George Romney, who had died nearly a decade earlier. Mitt and Scott described a man who never left his children behind. Scott spoke of the both the business and religious trips George would take his children on. It was here, according to Scott, that “he would take us to meetings and we watched how he conducted himself and how he interacted with people in his speeches. We sort of learned by observing what he was doing.”

In the same vein, Mitt Romney incessantly stressed a vision of himself living in what could be called restrained wealth—something he’s struggled with in the course of his current presidential campaign (Read: tax returns, actual income, speaking fees). Yes, at his parents’ home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, there was “a lot of lawn” but Mitt was responsible for mowing it. He shoveled the driveway with his father in winter. He weeded.

“We planted all the flowers—my dad and I did,” Romney said. “And that was the job I hated most in life—weeding. I spent endless hours in the summer weeding gardens. We planted literally hundreds of pine trees that were on the banks of my dad’s property that I would have to water and weed, water and weed. We grew up in a home where we were taught to work and work hard.”

They were also taught to trust in faith. While Romney has worked hard to downplay the role of Mormonism in his life, his father did not. Before deciding to run for governor in 1962, it was widely reported that Romney fasted for 24 hours before making the call. It was something his son Scott said his dad did “when my mother was ill several different times.”

“As a religion we believe that you might be able to get some special closeness with you and your father in heaven if you pray and when you fast,” Scott Romney explained to me. “He did that to be comfortable about the decision he was making and he thought it was the right decision. It doesn’t mean that my father ever thought it would determine whether he wanted to be governor or not.”

What took less deliberation was Romney’s decision to walk out of San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1964 during the Republican National Convention. Only two years earlier, he’d made the transition from private to public life. What he saw at the convention, as Barry Goldwater’s conservative revolution within the Republican Party took shape before his eyes, appalled him. He was alarmed in particular at the growing anti-civil rights sentiments within the party—the very forces that helped propel Nixon into office four years later.

“I don’t know if he was right in his feeling,” Scott Romney said of his father, who stayed far, far away from the Goldwater ticket throughout the campaign that year. “But he felt that Barry Goldwater and his group were not as inclusive on race as they should be. And that troubled him. More than anything else he felt there were implications to it.

“He thought the platform wasn’t being inclusive to people on race and were playing to racist instincts,” he continued. “He didn’t mind the ideology of conservative principles that were conservative then and are conservative now but he didn’t like the idea of implying or playing on racial prejudice.”

Notwithstanding Mitt Romney's conspicuous lurches to the right since his years running for office in liberal Massachusetts, he and the rest of the family were very much shaped by George Romney. This includes Mitt’s wife, Ann. After all, she was outside the Mormon faith when she and Mitt first met and fell in love. But following Mitt’s departure abroad on his Mormon mission, it was George—the man who baptized her into the Mormon faith—whom Ann formed a strong bond with. In Mitt’s absence, his father served as proxy.

“He didn’t treat me as a child,” Ann said of her relationship with George. “The basic thing about Mitt’s dad was he was an extraordinary being and I loved him. I truly, truly loved him.

“He was basically on Mitt’s side and made sure I didn’t forget about Mitt when he was gone,” Ann said. “He took me places. He picked me up and took me to church on Sundays. When he ran for president he took me and my mother on some of the touring there. He just sort of wanted to keep me close.”

Mitt Romney had been out of the country when his father uttered the words that ultimately doomed his campaign. But they remain a sore point for the family decades later. To this day, they still defend the sentiment and rail against the way it was construed at the time. 

In my interviews with him and elsewhere, Mitt Romney, has indicated that what happened to his father provided an important lesson for him in how to comport himself in public.

"I've never used the word 'brainwashed,'" Romney joked when I asked him what lesson he took away from what happened to his father.

Then, more seriously: "It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words. The careful selection of words is something I'm more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire."

(The George Romney story has been cited more recently, in this context, by critics of Mitt's generally hyper-cautious style.) 

Scott Romney recalled, with considerable bitterness, McNamara's later-in-life announcement that he had in fact concluded that Vietnam had been a mistake.

“Robert McNamara’s wife was very upset with my dad and it was funny to me that after being president of the World Bank he was praised for finally being honest about what happened,” Scott Romney said. “'Oh, he finally told us the truth!' Well, my dad told them they weren’t telling the truth way back when.

“At the time they just made enormous amounts of fun of him,” Romney continued. “He just became a bit of a laughingstock, saying if this person could be brainwashed so easily he shouldn’t be president, but he was basically saying we were being misled. He was saying this before Eugene McCarthy was running against Lyndon Johnson, and McCarthy [nearly beat Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary] and L.B.J. had to drop out. He was too early for his time.”

In fact, Scott Romney was with his father when he made the announcement that he would suspend his campaign. He was there the following day at home when his father “was as calm as could be. He was just relaxed. One of the things our dad taught us was you are who you are and don’t let the office you hold or your aspirations change the person you are.”

Scott Romney watched Nixon win the White House, and his father reach the height of his political frustration after he joined the administration. George had loved being governor, but in his Washington role as Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development, he felt increasingly marginalized. His access to the president was limited. He bristled at the arrogance of the likes of John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. After Nixon won reelection, Romney handed in his resignation, his political life over.

And then it wasn’t. When he was well into his 80s, Romney came east to help his son campaign against Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate race. Here, Mitt’s son Tagg said he saw his grandfather reborn.

“I had always heard things about what he was like but I had never seen him firsthand,” Tagg Romney told me. “Watching him in action and seeing him, he was a man on a mission. He was so headstrong. He would go and make speeches where my dad couldn’t be and would help my dad strategize, talk about the issues.

“He was my dad’s best friend,” Tagg said. “My dad looked up to him and admired him and they talked all the time. It was tough for him to lose him. I think my dad looks at him and sees a man who did great things and he doesn’t necessarily pattern everything after him, but feels his influence and feels there is an obligation to fill a family name there. That’s important to him."

The last time I sat down with Mitt Romney, in his office, I took along four George Romney biographies I’d bought. Pulling them out of my backpack, I handed the copies to him, asking which one might be the most authoritative take on his father.

“Look at these books!” Romney said, holding alternate versions of his father’s life in his hands. “My goodness it’s been a long time. I don’t know about authoritative, but I can tell you this one"—here he held up Romney’s Way: A Man and an Idea, by T George Harris—"was the best read."

“Did you get them off eBay? My boys buy stuff on eBay,” Romney said. “If you go on eBay and type in 'George Romney' you get lots of pins, bumper stickers, dresses that the Romney girls wore. Romney Girls, and this was a very different time; they would have young women and they would dress in blue dresses and they would call them ‘Romney Girls.’ And they would go all over the state with him and every time they had an event they had Romney girls there. Can you imagine in this day and age? The Romney Girls? But they had this unusual blue-aqua marine color and that was the Romney color.”

Romney also said, “I will always be in his shadow in my own mind and I think in anyone’s mind who knew him. I would aspire to have some of his qualities and I have some of them and I have some from mom that I didn’t get from mom that I didn’t get from my dad—a few good ones. He could never tell a joke. My mom was an aspiring actress and an English major and an aspiring actress, so I picked up her gift of telling jokes and I love humor, which I get from her.

“But my dad was a person of unshakeable principle,” Romney said, “complete in his dedication to his beliefs, with a total lack of concern of what people thought of him and without guile. And I wish I could have the same attributes to the same degree he had.”

Sridhar Pappu is writing a book on the 1968 baseball season that is slated for publication by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2013. He has written for The New York Observer, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, New York, The New York Times and other publications.

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