Romney's running mate

Times Staff Writer

. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney worked his way through a sprawling tailgate party at the annual Michigan-Michigan State college football game last month trying to forge his political future one handshake at a time. But he kept encountering the past.

"Your father did great things for this state," one man told Romney before slipping off into the buoyant, milling crowd outside MSU's Spartan Stadium. Another man, Frank Goodell, 82, popped up to tell Romney he was hired in 1967 to repair the house Romney's father lived in as Michigan's governor -- someone had broken in while George Romney was off on his own GOP presidential campaign.

Mitt Romney's biggest personal successes are in Massachusetts, where he attended graduate school at Harvard, raised his family, ran Boston's Bain Capital investment group and was elected governor.

But it is here in auto-heavy Michigan where Romney cut his teeth in business and politics. He learned those lessons at the elbow of his father, a man still remembered by Goodell's generation for saving American Motors Corp. in the 1950s, as a two-term governor in the tumultuous 1960s and as a spectacularly failed presidential contender in 1968.

Ultimately it was the father who led the son, the youngest of four children, into business and politics, though the influence came more through osmosis than by design, said G. Scott Romney, Mitt Romney's older brother by six years.

"I don't know if there was any modeling by my brother," said Scott Romney, who passed up business and politics for a law career in Detroit. "In terms of mentoring, Mitt learned a lot from his father, and observing his father . . . [who] felt that he could make a difference. And that he had a responsibility to give back to the community. He really preached that to us."

George Romney, who died in 1995, has in many ways become the ghost in Mitt Romney's political machine. It has been the son's peculiar challenge to try to repeat the best moments of the father's life while avoiding the worst. And maybe earn a little redemption along the way for a father whom history remembers more for a singular political failure than for his many successes.

"I always felt that his father's [presidential campaign] experience, and the fact that it turned out badly, made a very distinct impression" on Mitt Romney, said Ben Snyder, a retired teacher at the elite Cranbrook Schools who supervised a foreign- exchange student at the Romneys' while Mitt was in high school. "He is now in a position to, perhaps subconsciously, succeed in representing his dad."

Growing up the youngest son of a wealthy businessman and political celebrity can be a trial. Yet people who have known Romney since boyhood said he didn't trade on his famous name.

But Romney was well aware of his father's role as president of American Motors, and then as governor. He joined him on trips, sat in on some of his meetings. And listened. And learned.

"As a little boy, Mitt loved to read the Automotive News, and he'd read it with Dad, about how the sales were going and which cars were doing well," Scott Romney said. Mitt Romney joined in wide-ranging family discussions at the dinner table about politics, the business climate and family plans.

"When Dad was talking about making a decision about whether he was going to do this or Mother was going to do that, Mitt was the one that always asked the most penetrating questions," the brother said.

The relationship between George and Mitt was strong. When, after a year at Stanford University, the son went to France for his two-year Mormon mission, the father took Mitt's girlfriend, Ann Davies, daughter of the local mayor, under his wing, according to past profiles of Romney. The son had trouble winning converts in France; the father to wrote him telling him not to worry -- he had converted nearly the entire Davies family back in Michigan. And when Mitt Romney returned home, he and Ann became engaged within hours.

George Romney was, for his era, moderate to liberal and was in many ways an agent for change within his party. His stances for civil rights and, later, against the Vietnam War put him at odds with the very people whose political support he curried. And he was inflexible in his beliefs -- a trait Mitt Romney hasn't shared. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported gay rights and abortion rights but as a presidential candidate has disavowed both, donning the contemporary conservative doctrines of his party rather than challenging them.

"I was a great fan of George -- he was a very fair, very honest, straightforward man," said Phil Maxwell, a frequent boyhood visitor to the Romney house and now a Democrat and lawyer in suburban Detroit. "As I've watched Mitt's career I see him sort of taking chameleon positions . . . playing to the right wing of the party, which George never would have done. George would have told it the way it was and suffered the consequences."

But there are more parallels than conflicts in the Romneys' lives and careers, and the son's resume seems like an echo of the father's.

Both men served two-year Mormon missions in Europe before marrying their high school sweethearts. Both found success and wealth in business before stepping into civic leadership roles, then politics. Both became governors at age 55. And, 40 years apart, both launched presidential campaigns at age 60, with the nation embroiled in increasingly unpopular wars.

But that's where past and present diverge.

Mitt Romney is an unwavering backer of the war in Iraq. But his father's then-high-flying presidential bid ended after he wryly told a Detroit television interviewer in August 1967 that his transformation from Vietnam hawk to dove came once he realized he had endured "brainwashing" by U.S. military leaders and diplomats.

It was a throwaway line within a broader comment about lack of truthfulness about the war, but within days Romney, then the Republican front-runner, became a national punch line. His political support disappeared and he dropped out before the New Hampshire primary -- all of it playing out while Mitt was in France serving his mission.

"I sense in him a father-son competition thing going on, sort of like old George Bush and young George Bush," said Maxwell, the boyhood friend. "Mitt's not going to make the same mistake George [Romney] did about Vietnam. . . . What he gets from George is this incredible sense of discipline, and the work ethic."

And he learned an indelible lesson: Beware the unguarded word. Though the son doesn't tie his own campaign demeanor directly to his father's political fate, Mitt Romney has adopted the cautious candidate's habit of controlled speech and actions. Still, the son has not been immune to his own occasional gaffes, though none has risen to the "brainwashing" level.

"Mitt Romney is much more flexible, and a much more careful guy, with much better instincts than his father had," said William Johnson, 77, who ran George Romney's campaign in New Hampshire and who, as a state judge, has watched the son's political evolution in neighboring Massachusetts. "Mitt is a much more astute politician."

And less volatile.

"He was more confrontational than I am," Romney said, recounting the time his father, in the heat of an argument, ripped the lapel of a Michigan legislator's suit. "I've had some heated exchanges with legislators from time to time, but I don't recall ever literally grabbing their clothing and ripping it. He was just that much more intense in confronting other folks."

But in other settings the father could be a patient listener -- a trait that the son has consciously sought to emulate.

"I got the benefit, being the baby of the family, of going to the office with my dad, listening to business meetings, looking at new cars that were being designed, and then in politics, going out with him collecting signatures," Romney said. "It obviously imprinted in my mind the way you gather people together, how you get opinions from different folks, how you organize your thinking."

One key lesson: the importance of the devil's advocate.

"If people began to reach a consensus, he started pushing in the other direction to see if he could open up different avenues of thought," Romney said. "That gave me a perspective of how important decisions are made."

And he applied those lessons, said Thomas R. Phillips, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, who was in Romney's five-member study group in a dual-track graduate program at Harvard in which students pursued both a law degree and a master's in business administration.

Romney carried his college papers around in an old, battered leather briefcase that bore his father's initials -- and that Phillips initially thought Romney toted as a badge.

"I thought at the time it might just be a subtle way of saying, 'My dad's an important figure,' " Phillips said. "Then I learned enough about him to conclude he was just being economical."

Romney still speaks of his father in reverential tones and has a painted portrait of him hanging in his house "that captures the sincerity and sweetness of his soul. When I look at that, I am moved and inspired by the kind of character that he had."

When Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 against Edward M. Kennedy, the father moved into Romney's home and served as an unofficial advisor.

"He'd come downstairs in the morning with long notepads of comments and thoughts and suggestions," Romney said. "Sure, we didn't see everything the same way. But we had a lot of perspectives in common."

When Romney began contemplating a presidential bid, George Romney was there, too, at least in the form of his legacy.

"There's no question I knew what he would have wanted us to do," Romney said. "The decision came down to my family, my kids, my daughters-in-law and my wife. . . . Surely we'd all know what he'd want me to do -- which is get in and fight."

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

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