‘Mad Men’ wasn’t any crueler to George Romney than John Lindsay was in real life

Romney and Rockefeller. ()
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Tagg Romney was right: "Mad Men" did mock his dead grandfather George. But then, so did George's fellow liberal Republican, John Lindsay.

The "Mad Men" episode in question is set in the summer of 1966, and Henry Francis, the show's fictional aide to New York City’s mayor, says his boss will not go to Michigan because “[Governor] Romney's a clown and I don't want him standing next to him.”

It’s true that many of the elder Romney's political contemporaries perceived him this way. He often bumbled when not working with a prepared text (“George’s only sin is his syntax,” the joke went) and when he did, his preference for sanctimonious platitudes over substantive policy gave rise to the idea that he was an intellectual lightweight. In time, the notion that he was out of his depth on foreign affairs would turn him into a laughingstock and sink his presidential campaign.

But there would have been another reason for Lindsay's aides not to want him to stand next to George Romney: his intense physicality.

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“He had a tendency to draw voters in with his handshake and enfold them in a bear hug,” a trio of British reporters wrote in 1969’s An American Melodrama. “The technique frequently had the opposite of the desired effect” and added to Romney’s reputation “as a political buffoon.”

Yet in the summer of 1966, when the episode takes place, that "buffoon" was the far-and-away frontrunner for the presidential nomination due, in large part, to New York’s Republican establishment.

On May 23—four days before the water-bomb incident depicted in the season premiere—two-time presidential hopeful governor Nelson Rockefeller shocked the political press when he bowed out of national politics “completely and forever, without reservation” (for twenty-one months, anyway) and passed the moderate mantle to Romney during a joint appearance at Long Island’s Garden City Hotel.

The move was part of a deal with Senator Jacob Javits: in exchange for not challenging him in the 1966 gubernatorial primary, Rockefeller would back him as Romney’s 1968 running mate. Romney took the endorsement in stride.

Rockefeller set about putting all of New York’s Republican political muscle behind Romney: money, research and campaign aides. In all likelihood, the “Jim” that Henry Francis turns down is a Rockefeller aide.

The mayor and the governor never had a particularly good relationship, which is why it always seemed improbable that a high-ranking Rockefeller man like Francis would make the jump to Lindsay’s staff. Yet he accurately displays the disrespect for Romney regularly emitted from City Hall.

Lindsay remained conspicuously neutral throughout Rockefeller’s pleas for moderates to unite behind Romney. His people sowed dissension through the dime-dropping of an anonymous aide explaining to newspapers and magazines that Lindsay was waiting for Rockefeller to make his move. And then there was the humiliating episode picked up by Time.

It was the New York leg of Romney’s 1967 tour of American ghettos. Lindsay agreed to meet with the Michigan governor in private at Gracie Mansion, but declined to walk with him through Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. A reporter jokingly asked whether the mayor was worried he might "brainwash" the governor like the generals and diplomatic corps did on his visit to Vietnam. Lindsay laughed and called the reporter “naughty.”

The snub—and the laugh—were heard around the country.