When Mitt Romney’s Father Ran For President

Father: George Romney.

Son Mitt.

While his smiling demeanor, groomed appearance and great wealth all suggested that George Romney was something of a privileged aristocrat, the truth was quite the opposite.  And while it might also be easy enough to presume the son is a modern version of his father,  George Romney’s struggle to success made him a substantially different type of person.

To begin with, his earliest years were reflected in his lifelong and strong advocacy for the poor and underprivileged and his overtly liberal political views, in contrast to his son. While Mitt Romney undoubtedly learned his basic business principals from his father, his sometimes stiff and canned public persona is nothing like his impulsive, talkative and even brash father. George Romney was one of those rare public figures with little difference between who they were as a private person and what they conveyed through a public persona.

George Romney, fourth from left as a child, his father Gaskell at far right; George’s grandfather was the last Romney who was a polygamist. (Marriot Library, University of Utah)

Born in Mexico in 1907 to American parents, George Romney experienced a bleak El Paso, Texas childhood on government welfare until his father found work as a carpenter in Los Angeles. From California the family went to Idaho, where they remained among the working poor, farming but also subsisting on potatoes. The farm failed. Just as his father (Gaskell Romney) was made some headway as a construction worker in their next locale of Salt Lake City, Utah, and again, back to Idaho, and George earned money as an 11-year old as a vegetable picker in the fields, 1920’s economic depression again crushed them financially. Finding work as a plasterer while in school, by high school graduation he’d become “Serious, high minded, of noble nature.” The Great Depression wiped out his family again and it took a dozen years before they paid off their debts.

George Romney at an Alcoa factory plant.

Devoted to his faith, George Romney saved his own money to perform his stint of missionary work in the most poverty-stricken slums of Glasgow Scotland before going on to London. While overseas, he put missionary funds in good financial order and developed strong debate skills from his public proselytizing. Returning to Utah for semesters at the University of Utah and Latter-Day Saints Business College before following Lenore to Washington, D.C. when her father got an appointment under Coolidge, George Romney took his first political job as a stenographer to Senator David Walsh, a Massachusetts Democrat. He avidly studied labor and tariff issues in Congress while attending night school at George Washington University, though he never earned a college degree. Working in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles as an Alcoa aluminum salesman, he brought Lenore back to Washington, D.C. where he became an industry lobbyist. They married in 1931; after sixteen years of marriage the last of their four children, Mitt, was born. Soon enough, Mitt Romney’s parents were socializing with FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House.

Romney meets with car designers, insisting on smaller fuel efficient models that turned American Motors around.

Taking his first job in Detroit’s automobile industry in 1937,  ten years before Mitt was born in that city, George Romney rose steadily through the industry. During World War II he successfully helped fight for improved living conditions for factory workers, lobbied the Federal Housing Administration to provide homes for African-American car industry workers and helped resolve some of the root causes which led to the city’s 1943 race riots. In the postwar era, while his business acumen helped the auto industry into its booming heyday, he continued fighting on behalf of African-Americans, bluntly deriding the Detroit City Council for its continuing public housing racial segregation.

White protesters angry at Romney’s racially integrated housing plans picket him (in back seat of car).

Named Chairman and CEO of the American Motors Corporation, he cut costs, reorganized management and stuck to his vision of company success through manufacturing the Rambler compact cars. Before it went on to become the third most popular car of 1960, Romney decreased company overhead by taking a voluntary 35 percent salary cut.

Time dubbed Romney a “folk hero.”

Going against industry convention of larger and more gas-dependent models, Romney’s work raised AMC stock from seven to ninety dollars a share. Although profiting mightily from stock options, he turned back his salary bonus for several years when he felt it was excessive. He began a profit-sharing plan for workers, lobbied and fully implemented the Fair Employment Practices Act. Writing much of the ad copy himself, appearing in print and T.V. ads. Time magazine put him on its cover, dubbing him a “folk hero.”

Romney hugs his son Mitt after announcing his run for governor.

Elected to his first of three terms (then just two years each term) Michigan’s Governor in 1962 as a Republican, the previously politically-unaffiliated candidate criticized the undue influence of both labor on Democrats and business on Republicans.

While an active Mormon leader, even giving almost 20% of his annual income, he headed the Detroit Round Table of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants and stood rigidly against the Mormon Church’s racially discriminatory policy towards African-Americans. In his first State of the State Address, Romney bluntly declared that “Michigan’s most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination—in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment.”

Romney with Diana Ross and the Supremes at the 1965 Michigan State Fair.

Martin Luther King meets with Mitt Romney’s mother Lenore (far right) following a speech he gave in Michigan.

Perhaps more than any one Republican in the 20th century,  none so adamantly insisted on for full civil rights of African-Americans  than did Romney, not only by legislative measures but by making public appearances which left an immediate and stirring media impression.  He joined a march against segregation in Grosse Point and another in solidarity with African-American leaders who had led the marches in Alabama.  He appeared on stage with Diana Ross and The Supremes. Although he never personally met Dr. Martin Luther King who joined a different march the day Romney also made his, Romney’s wife Lenore did, when the civil rights leader gave a speech in Michigan.

A visionary with more than a usual amount of success enacting new public housing, an improved public education system and ensuring a fair and secure safety net for the working poor, Governor Romney also inherited a state deficit that he turned into a surplus.

Governor Romney and son Mitt at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Vigorously insisting that the best government legislation was achieved through bi-partisanship, he secured passage of many initiatives by working to include the ideas of Democrats. He was often out in the streets and community meetings throughout Michigan, always inviting and encouraging the ideas of its citizens to weigh in with their opinions and experiences.

As Governor.

He even kept his office as Governor open to the public for five minute one-on-one conferences every Thursday morning.

By any standard in any time, there have been few elected officials who were more genuinely committed to improving the lives of those he represented and doing so in an honest and openly reflective  manner.

So how could comparisons to his father possibly not help Mitt Romney before the primaries begin?

After all, the worst that could be said about George Romney was that he was too much of “an honest and decent man” as presidential history Theodore White put it,  and this marked him as being  “simply not cut out to be President of the United States.”

Honesty proved his fatal flaw in the months before the primaries began.  But there had been a warning sign some four years earlier, during the 1964 presidential campaign, a time which surely the current Romney campaign would rather not have emphasized with Tea Partiers.

Pro-Goldwater button referencing his right-wing views.

Goldwater pin popular with liberal Republicans and all Democrats.

Romney’s civil rights stand put him at odds with 1964 Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater: “Whites and Negroes, in my opinion, have got to learn to know each other. Barry Goldwater didn’t have any background to understand this, to fathom them, and I couldn’t get through to him….If his views deviate as indicated from the heritage of our party, I will do everything within my power to keep him from becoming the party’s presidential nominee.”  At the convention, Romney got 41 delegate votes – even though he wasn’t running, but his proposal for a Civil Rights plank in the platform was rejected, as was his condemnation statement against either right or left wing extremism in politics.  After winning a third term as governor in 1966, polls showed Romney as the leading choice among Republicans for the 1968 presidential nomination and capable of defeating the all-but-certain Democratic candidate, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

And then Romney went to Vietnam and reflected publicly on his honest view of the U.S. war there.

“Romney for President” button – 1968 version.

Romney had made an initial foreign tour in 1965, including a stop in South Vietnam, where American troops were already heavily engaged in battling the Communist threat from North Vietnam. A majority of Americans still supported the U.S. military presence there. In August of 1967, however, Romney abruptly explained that he’d changed his mind: “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.”

Romney in New Hampshire before his withdrawal prior to its March 1968 primary.

The greater shock, however, was his offhand use of a certain word to explain his new view. Speaking of U.S. military leaders and diplomats who’d assured him of certain American success, as the war only worsened, Romney refrained from using the phrase that they’d “lied” to him to instead say, “I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”  In that era, “brainwash” was an alarming buzzword associated with Communist propaganda tactics and many initially misunderstood Romney, thinking he’d come under the influence of Communist North Vietnamese. Three months after his remark, Romney nonetheless formally announced his candidacy. His November 1967 speech, while in reference to a world very different from that of 2012, touches on themes being heard yet again on the campaign trail now:

“The size and complexity of our national problems have bred a widespread sense of personal futility. We have begun to see acceptance of irresponsibility as a way of life. There is growing aimlessness and flabbiness in our American society. The evidence is everywhere.  Too frequently family responsibilities are pre-empted by government and weakened by obsolete welfare policies that cripple each new generation of the poor….To avoid a society that seems to offer no cause worth serving, too many turn to drugs or alcoholism or other means of escape. Too often, young people bursting with idealism, either find themselves playing a game for which they have little heart or hurling themselves into wasteful protest against the so-called “establishment.” Men and women in the slums, bitter over unfulfilled promises, listen to revolutionaries who would plunge us into civil guerilla warfare. We are becoming “a house divided.”  In this apathetic period, work is now seldom looked on as joy, and excellence of product or service is now seldom an objective.

Our magnificent economy, which offers an impoverished and hungry world the only model that can head off greater deprivation and unprecedented famine, is being systematically jammed by inflation. The richest nation in the world is in a fiscal mess. As we have drifted away from principle at home, we have undermined the foundation of our position in the world. Once a beacon of hope for people everywhere, America is now widely regarded as belligerent and domineering. We are mired in an Asian land war which sacrifices are young men and drains our resources, with no end in sight. Time and again we have been taken toward the mountaintop of hope only to fall back into the crevices of sickening reality. False optimism and lack of candor on the part of our leaders have confused our citizens and sapped their resolve. Our foreign policy has no clear positive purpose….But, I’m confident that the American people can reverse this trend. We have the creative energy and the basic principles to build a new America….In all our communities we must–as I find poor people beginning to do in the ghettos–design a new fabric of voluntary independent agencies through which people help each other. We must practice are fundamental principles of mutual self-respect and brotherhood with every citizen enjoying full and equal citizenship….In order of priority, it is more important to make our streets safe than to put a man on the moon. We must restore the competitive principle, under which labor and business cooperate to serve the consumer first. Workers must personally participate in progress to enjoy their work and take pride its product. We must make private contribution, not concentrated power, the yardstick of reward.

We must reestablish control over Federal spending and end perpetual deficits. In the 50 states of our union, we must again claim not state rights but state responsibilities. We can, we must, solve the problems on which the Federal bureaucracy has so obviously failed. Our national government must lead in identifying national problems, establishing priorities, and encouraging maximum state, local, and private effort in their solution. To succeed we must decentralize problem-solving responsibility and action. If we do those things at home, we will have taken the first giant step for re-establishing the influence of the United States in the World. To apply these principles, to achieve these goals, to build a new America, we must have a Republican President….The present President, who is experienced only in the tools of government, will continue, no matter what his intentions, to build greater and greater governmental control over our lives…..I believe that, working together, we can build a New America, I will work toward this goal with all my heart, mind, and new spirit. I pledge energy and honesty to the task.”

Few in the media, let alone the public, gave much consideration to his vision. By that time, to the delight of the emerging leader among the Republican candidates, former Vice President Richard Nixon, the greater flaw than his “brainswash” remark was the suggestion that his sudden change of view made George Romney a….flip-flopper.

Romney withdrew from the race in February of 1968, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Nixon won the nomination and the election, appointing his former rival as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Mitt Romney (far left) was in France doing his Mormon missionary work at the time of his father’s campaign for the Republican nomination.

During his campaign, the youngest of George’s four children, Mitt Willard Romney had been out of the United States, doing his Mormon missionary in France at the time.”Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved,” his father wrote Mitt at the time. “I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied.”

If  Romney gets through the next several months of primaries and charges of being too liberal to be a real Republican, he may be lucky enough to go on to the general election and face President Obama and charges of being a “flip-flopper” as Obama adviser David Axelrod has already tagged him.

Meanwhile, here is the original broadcast which did in George Romney’s presidential aspirations:


Categories: First Families, Politics

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8 replies »

  1. Very interesting piece. Romney is so plastic, flat affect etc. I just don’t see him as what the GOP or America needs. Charisma and ability to motivate Americans in hard times, to give people a feeling that thngs can be better, to at times motivate more teamwork or volunteerism,; a President for the dark times we live in, must be extraordinary in every way. What a shameful group of loosers we have; every one of them. Democrat; I won’t even start in on Obama. I am biased, Carl. I don’t think any Jew should vote for this disciple of the Rev. Wright.

    I know you are very well informed on the American Presidency, I think you have sent a clear picture of Romney. I don’t think you meant to elicit a hersh response like mine. Here is a man
    and his father, in terms of the presidency, just don’t have it. The son less than the father.

    • Well I think George Romney did have it – except for that propensity to blurt out what was honest but perhaps politically naive. I would have to also have to say that personally I can’t judge the potential or value of a person based on their relationship with another person, meaning a President and his preacher. I remember going to church as a kid and just grinning and bearing what I heard from the pulpit and personally finding it stupid and unnecessarily provocative. Of course, “appearance” of everything from clothes to food to best friends to dogs to vacation spots to favorite authors or films are used both for and against political figures as symbols, or substitutes for policy by the figures in question or their rivals. For example – and I realize I may a lot of argument on this – the words used in a context of bravado of LBJ and Nixon on their taped conversations about African-American civil rights or Israel are really egregiously misleading if one attempts to extrapolate their strong advocacy policies, respectively. Lastly, a point on which I concur: It’s easy for me to also sometimes feel that we need an FDR or Ike in these times but then again, I’m not sure even they could be effective with such an intransigent Congress.

  2. A belated thank you for this piece (which I had the psychic premonition about!).

    I would place the senior Romney in the category of people who could do the job of President quite well, but who weren’t suited to campaigning for it – Adlai Stevenson being a prime example. IMHO, getting that job and doing that job requires two separate skill-sets, and it’s the rare person who can do both fabulously.

    • Thanks Robert…and yeah, you saw around that corner….I think I might also actually include Hillary Clinton in that category. She is so doggedly dedicated to work and achieving very overwhelming and often unpopular tasks that she recognizes will result ultimately in the better good – yet finds all the time and energy and effort and fundraising and media spin for the “show biz” of campaigning a bit of a bewildering waste of valuable time and resources, however much a necessary reality in getting elected to anything anymore.

      • Good point. The flip side of that would be the show-horses who are fabulous on the stump, but would have made lousy Presidents.

        John Connally, Ross Perot, even – dare I say it – John Edwards. We dodged a big bullet on that one.

        • Let’s not even get into John Edwards. As I’ve written on this site, while I am a political Independent and also strive to keep my own opinion to a minimum, unless it is factual analysis, I will say I spotted something deeply flawed about Edwards as early as his 2004 vice presidential candidacy and, I’m sorry to say somewhat of the same about his largely admirable late wife.

          • I concur about both. A woman who knew about her husband’s predilictions but still let him run for President is someone I am suspicious about. (As an aside, I still wish Hillary would have thrown Bill’s clothes off the Truman Balcony at the time of the Lewinsky drama – it would have made for tremendous theatre!)

            Speaking of noticing things in people, I have a vivid childhood memory of my mother dancing around the kitchen as Richard Nixon read his resignation speech (I was eleven). She crowed “I knew he was a crook when Ike picked him in ’52!!!” As apolitical as she was, her statement was quite out of character and a shock.

          • One thing I have learned – nothing we read about or hear in public ever entirely reflects accurately the complications and shades of greys in the lives of other. Fame or not, we’re all flawed humans. Now dogs…..different story…..:)

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