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Making Mitt: The Myth Of George Romney


The Republican nominee's father didn't walk out of the '64 convention. And George Romney didn't teach Mitt that you lose by being honest — he taught him that you change your positions to win.

Everyone agrees: Mitt Romney is not like his father.

The late Michigan governor and 1968 presidential candidate George Romney is remembered as a principled man of spontaneity and candor. His example is regularly invoked by both admirers of his son's disciplined campaign style and critics of Mitt's back-and-forth pandering. George, it is said, told the truth about the Vietnam War before it was popular to do so, with an unfortunately worded comment about “brainwashing” by U.S. government officials that cost him the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. “Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills,” historian Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician.”

This rejection of his father’s example, the thinking goes, is what has made Mitt a more successful presidential candidate — self-controlled but hard to pin down, flipping from moderate to conservative to moderate once again. It is observed that Mitt would never draw a line in the sand like his father did in 1964, when George dramatically "charged out of the 1964 Republican National Convention over the party's foot-dragging on civil rights," as the Boston Globe's authoritative biography, "The Real Romney," put it earlier this year. Outlets from the New York Times to the New Republic have recalled this story of the elder Romney's stand against Goldwater's hard-line conservatives. Frontline’s documentary “The Choice 2012” reported it as a formative event: “when Goldwater received the nomination, Mitt saw his father angrily storm out.” A Google search for the incident produces hundreds of pages of results. In August, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne cited the episode to write that Mitt “has seemed more a politician who would do whatever it took to close a deal than a leader driven by conviction and commitment. This is a problem George Romney never had.”

Only George Romney did not walk out of the 1964 Republican National Convention. He stayed until the very end, formally seconding Goldwater’s eventual nomination and later standing by while an actual walkout took place. He left the convention holding open the possibility of endorsing Goldwater and then, after a unity summit in Hershey, Pennsylvania, momentarily endorsed the Arizona senator. Then he changed his mind while his top aides polled “all-white and race-conscious” Michigan communities for a “secret” white backlash vote against LBJ’s civil rights advances — a backlash that might have made a Goldwater endorsement palatable at home. Finding the Republican label even more unpopular than civil rights in Michigan, Romney ultimately distanced himself from the entire party, including his own moderate Republican allies.

Exactly where the 1964 myth entered the public consciousness is difficult to pinpoint, but it has been promoted by Mitt, who made one of its earliest print mentions in an interview during his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign. (Romney's longtime spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom did not respond to an inquiry about Mitt's recollection of the incident.) “[My father] walked out of the Republican National Convention in 1964, when Barry Goldwater said, 'Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,'" he told Bay Windows, a LGBT interest magazine in Boston.

"I don't remember him walking out, no,” Walt DeVries, a George Romney aide who was with him at the 1964 convention, told BuzzFeed in an interview this October 13. “Every time I see that quote from Mitt, I just don't remember.... I've searched my mind, and I think I would have."

The phrase “walk out” was first associated with Romney’s 1964 actions, ironically, when Barry Goldwater told Human Events magazine in August 1966 that Republicans wouldn’t nominate someone in 1968 who “took a walk-out in 1964.” After 1994, Mitt mentioned the alleged incident again to the Globe in 2005, ten years after the elder Romney’s death and late in Mitt’s single term as Massachusetts governor. The assertion was repeated later that year in an Atlantic profile. Soon after, Romney began seeking the presidency and realigning his views to match the conservative national Republican electorate. Thus, the myth he contributed to became a foil to his pandering.

This prevalence of this myth in the media over the last six years has led to a broader failure to capture the full portrait of George Romney’s political biography, and by proxy, the 2012 Republican nominee. The story of a son scarred by his father’s defeat and rebelling against his example is a compelling narrative, but such a narrative focuses only on the latter, losing half of George Romney’s career — a time, notably, when Mitt Romney wasn’t even around. (He was abroad for his church mission from July 1966 through December 1968.) But Mitt was there in 1962 and 1964 for his father’s winning Michigan campaigns.

In fact, it was at the very start of his 1962 campaign that George Romney became the first person to walk back a Mitt Romney statement. It was a February morning in Detroit, 1962, the day George revealed his candidacy for Michigan’s governorship after widely publicizing his deliberations. Fourteen-year-old Willard, who told reporters to “call me Mitt,” was the only one of the four Romney children present that day. Mitt’s sisters were married with children, living in other cities by then, and his older brother was abroad serving his church mission. Mitt was the only one at home in Michigan for the ’62 campaign, marching alongside his parents in parades, appearing as a star attraction at a “teenage Republicans” rally and ceremonially delivering nominating petition signatures to the statehouse in Lansing. In a way, Mitt Romney was a junior candidate that year, so it was only natural that he found himself talking to the press at the announcement, where he merely repeated what his father had told him: the day before, George Romney had woken at 3:30 a.m. and decided he would run for governor.

As innocent as that seemed, it was not what his father wanted the journalists to hear, for the day before George Romney had been on the clock as a delegate to the Michigan state constitutional convention. George believed the convention to be civic work that should not mix with politics (a ridiculous notion, since the convention was elected on an explicitly partisan basis and stocked with politicians). George insisted that Mitt was mistaken: his “final decision” had not come until later on his drive from Lansing, after a respectable distance between his ambition and the convention had been established.

This was George Romney as he was known in his day: a politician who held himself above politics with a stubborn, moralizing insistence that he was guided by principle and only by principle. These were not Republican principles or ideological principles, but his principles. He imbued his every action with “cosmic significance,” as journalist David Broder put it. Touched by God, he was assured that wherever he stood at the moment was the right and just place to be, no matter where he had stood before or how recently he had stood there. “He’ll take a position honestly, and if it doesn’t fit with something else he’s done, that doesn’t faze him,” an associate said at the start of Romney’s political career in 1962. By the time he set out for the presidency in 1967, Broder and Stephen Hess wrote that voters would find him a candidate of contradiction, “[f]or rarely have the words and deeds of a public man run on such separate tracks.”

Romney was blessed with good looks and astounding determination; a man who’d begun with nothing and earned a trophy chest of professional triumphs. He couldn’t be faulted for believing he was a superman. His family certainly seemed to think so — his youngest son Mitt most of all. Once, when Mitt’s mother Lenore Romney told him that they couldn’t take a certain route “because we can’t drive on water,” her son replied, “No, I guess not, since Dad’s not with us.”

This is the heroic, can-do figure Mitt Romney grew up watching. Mitt did not see his father lose the presidential race, but he was present for some big victories. To study that period of the Romney family's political history is to reveal a calculating, poll-driven politician. It is to reveal a profile strikingly similar to the opportunistic Romney we know today.

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