Not in his father’s footsteps

Rick Perlstein is the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America."

Mitt romney, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race last week, will go down as the most robotic big-ticket presidential candidate in history -- “the Platonic ideal of inauthenticity,” as Harold Meyerson put it in a Washington Post column. I chalk it up to psychobiography. Growing up, he learned that authenticity kills.

It’s perfectly normal for young boys to view their fathers as terrestrial gods. The young Romney’s experience was unique in that the rest of the country thought his dad a terrestrial god too.

It all started with the Rambler. Already by the late 1950s, Detroit was breaking out in cold sweats at mounting competition from more fuel-efficient imports. The auto industry was only getting what it deserved, George Romney, then chairman of American Motors Corp., would thunder “wherever he could find a soapbox,” as Time magazine put it in a 1959 cover profile. He would pull a toy dinosaur from his briefcase: “This fellow here is triceratops. He had the biggest radiator ornament in prehistoric history. It kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he could no longer hold up his head. He had a wheelbase of nearly 30 feet.”


Dramatic pause.

“Who wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?”

His Rambler was small, but that didn’t keep Romney from sleeping in it some nights during the 70,000 miles he traveled in 1958 to preach its wonders. It was a hit and a pop-culture sensation, the subject of a million-selling ditty about the “Little Nash Rambler” that bagged a Cadillac on the road without shifting out of second gear.

Pundits swooned; “George Wilcken Romney, at 51, is a broad-shoulder, Bible-quoting brother of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal,” Time’s profile began.

A political career soon followed. But an unconventional one. Michigan was holding a new convention to replace its inadequate Constitution and needed a reconciling figure to manage the task. Romney was chosen -- and before the convention had hardly begun, he was being talked up as a presidential contender. He was Michigan’s James Madison.

By the time the new Constitution passed in 1963, he was the state’s governor -- a Republican in a Democratic state where the United Auto Workers was almighty. That holy grail of the pundit class, bipartisanship, runneth over. “Romney Prestige Lifts on Narrow Vote Victory,” said the New York Times headline. His prestige could hardly lift more. As talk turned in the White House to the 1964 election, John F. Kennedy uttered, “The one fellow I don’t want to run against is Romney.” The first full-dress biography of him had been already published three years earlier.

At the National Governors Conference in 1964, his Republican colleagues, stunned by Barry Goldwater’s ascendancy, practically begged Romney to accept the presidential nomination by acclamation. In 1966, he won reelection overwhelmingly, and he would now be the savior not merely of Detroit or the Republican Party but of the nation, opinion leaders decided. By 1967, the Harris polling organization reported that he had a better chance of winning the White House than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His son, Mitt, was then 19. At the age when most kids are awe-struck by their dad’s ability to change a tire, Mitt was seeing his dad on the cover of Time and in TV commercials. By the time he approached maturity, his father was seen as something near to a national messiah.

The reason for the George Romney cult was simple. The world called him a “maverick.” In a Republican Party trending right, he called America’s cult of rugged individualism “nothing but a cover for greed.” His forthright honesty was his calling card. His contrast with the wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson and the used-car salesman Richard Nixon made him -- along with that strong, square chin and silvering hair -- look like his party’s only hope.

Then it all started to unravel.

An exploratory campaign office sprung up a few blocks from the state Capitol. A reporter noticed a line of books on Vietnam on the unpainted bookshelves. Romney kicked off his six-state tour warning that he wouldn’t say anything about Vietnam until he had a chance to study the situation more, perhaps after a second visit (his first had been in 1965, on a junket with other governors). But the longer he said nothing, the more the reporters pressured him to say something.

Honesty was a dull blade to take into a knife fight with Nixon, who was also running for president. Romney was being chased by about 40 reporters early in 1967, each vying to see if he had what it took to play at this level of the game. In Anchorage, he uttered the apparently inoffensive observation that Republicans had a better chance of taking a fresh look at Vietnam because LBJ was “locked in.” In Salt Lake City, he said the problem was LBJ’s flip-flopping between escalation and negotiation offers. A salivating scribe pointed out the contradiction: Was LBJ “locked in” or a flip-flopper? In Idaho, Romney fended off Vietnam questions for 40 minutes. Then he mentioned Johnson’s “political expedience ... getting his country in trouble at home and abroad, including Vietnam.” He had violated his moratorium not to talk about Vietnam, the vultures said, demanding a follow-up: Would he give an example of LBJ’s expedience?

“No, I will not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because I choose not to.”

It portended disaster. Romney issued clarifications that clarified nothing.

On Sept. 4, a TV interviewer asked him about Vietnam: “Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?” Romney decided to lay it on the line: “When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only the generals but also the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.”

He was improvising.

“And since returning from Vietnam, I have gone into the history of Vietnam all the way back into World War II and before that, and as a result I have changed my mind in that particularly -- I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop aggression in Southeast Asia and to prevent Chinese communist domination of Southeast Asia.”

An intelligent observer studying America’s history in Vietnam since World War II might come to the same conclusion. But all people heard was the word “brainwashing.”

“Brainwashing” as a term came into use after the Korean War to explain why some prisoners of war, supposedly insufficiently sturdy in their patriotism to resist, chose to stay behind in enemy territory and denounce the United States -- what the ruthless did to the soft-minded. Neither side of the association appealed to voters: the notion that the architects of Vietnam were ruthless, and the notion of a president who was soft-minded.

As Romney attempted to “clarify,” the Detroit News demanded that he step aside so his financial backer, Nelson Rockefeller, could enter the race in his stead. The paper pointed out that he’d supported the war publicly for two years after his trip: “How long does a brainwashing linger?” In the next Harris poll, Romney dropped 16 points.

Meanwhile, Nixon got the world’s attention when, in the middle of a patriotic stemwinder in a rural town, he said that “if in November this war is not over, I say that the American people will be justified in electing new leadership, and I pledge to you that new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific.” He simply told Americans what they wanted to hear: not that Vietnam was an unmanageable mess, but that under a President Nixon, Vietnam would be over.

A limping Romney dropped out two weeks before the New Hampshire balloting. Overnight, he had transformed himself from national messiah to national laughingstock, a ruined man. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Can you imagine what it would be like to watch that happen to your dad?

If you ended up going into the same profession, you just might choose to do things differently.