The task at the 33rd annual tulip festival in Holland, Mich., would have made any other teenager cringe. But his father was running for governor and there were votes to be won, so 15-year-old Mitt Romney suited up in Dutch trousers, a hat and wooden shoes.
Before thousands of people, Romney and his parents led a parade of “gaily attired street cleaners,” the 1962 campaign news release said, “some splashing out soapy water from hickory barrels and others manning brooms like the candidate” to show Michigan “a preview of the sparkling fresh look” that George Romney would bring to the state.
Fifty years later, the Republican presidential candidate recalled the moment without a blush of embarrassment. “It’s easy wearing clogs,” he deadpanned in an interview. “Hats are a different matter.” The outfit was a small price for the thrill of the experience: “Campaigning and going across the state, for a 15-year-old kid, is about as good as it gets.”
As he seeks the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney is running as the anti-politician, a businessman who came to politics late in life and disdains all it entails. But Romney was steeped in politics from childhood, embracing it as his father ran three successful races for governor and his mother made one unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
The campaigns welded Romney’s ties to his home state of Michigan, where he is now locked in a tight race with Rick Santorum ahead of Tuesday’s primary. And they unfolded in the midst of the nation’s turbulent debate over civil rights and the Vietnam War — two areas where George Romney, a leading moderate, fiercely challenged conservatives within the Republican Party.
Mitt Romney has trod a far more conservative path in his own bids for the presidency, shifting his views rightward on social issues during his years as governor and later adjusting on other issues to make it through the gantlet of Republican primaries.
Still, his experiences as a bit player in the early campaigns and his close bond with his father helped shape his entrance into politics.
Romney worked as a copy boy, a yard-sign runner, a valet shuttling cars down the family’s driveway during campaign fundraisers, and as a chauffeur for both of his parents across Michigan’s 83 counties. Though he was serving as a Mormon missionary in France during George Romney’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968, they stayed in close touch through long letters, and he campaigned with his mother, Lenore Romney, two years later when she ran for the Senate.
Romney’s brother Scott said in an interview that their father was almost akin to “an evangelical preacher” in pressing his children to enter public service. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, echoed those sentiments last fall. “If you really want to know why we’re in this race, it’s because of Mitt’s dad,” she told Michigan voters at a diner in St. Ignace. “It never would have occurred to us to even do politics.”
The Romney family was in the public eye as early as the mid-1950s, when George Romney engineered the turnaround of American Motors Corp. In a 1958 issue of the Detroit Sunday Times, when Mitt was 11, Lenore Romney described an idyllic family life with nightly gatherings to “pop corn” and “exchange amusing anecdotes about the day’s doings” and Saturdays spent churning a bucket of homemade ice cream.
The Romneys drew their children into discussions about the topics of the day — relations between United Automobile Workers and the auto companies, Michigan’s financial woes and the nation’s political turmoil — that continued as George Romney organized his first campaign for governor.
Mitt Romney said he often challenged his father during the dinnertime debates — a precociousness that was encouraged. George Romney’s former aides recalled the younger Romney passing out sodas during campaign strategy sessions at the family’s cedar-and-brick home, and then sitting at the edge of the room to listen in.
“Young Mitt is eating up the excitement of our new venture,” George Romney wrote to relatives in a March 1962 letter, that, like the campaign news release about the tulip festival, is part of the collection of his papers at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. His son, he said, “has had a chance to see some of the wheels go round and he loves it.”
Mitt Romney spent hours working the campaign’s switchboard, connecting calls at the headquarters in Detroit’s old Industrial Building. He toured Michigan’s county fairs in a Ford van with another young campaign staffer, setting up campaign booths and Mitt manning the microphone: “Hello, sir. How are you?” he bellowed to passers-by. “I hope you’re going to vote for George Romney.”
George Romney’s former campaign manager, S. John Byington, said Mitt and his friends would rev up crowds at rallies with the “Romney Girls,” pretty recruits from across the state who wore white gondolier hats with blue streamers.
“He was very energetic, very enthusiastic,” Byington said. “He was clearly interested in the process, in the politics, and working in the campaign, and obviously it took.”
As they grew older, Mitt and Scott Romney, who is nearly six years older, took on more substantive roles. They were dispatched to speak to youth groups about their father’s efforts to streamline government. They went door to door in downtown Detroit, telling black residents that their father, who had pushed for a state civil rights commission, wanted to be a governor for “all the people.”
Mitt Romney also accompanied his father to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, watching him press for stronger support of civil rights and stand in opposition to Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Those heady days provided lessons for the younger Romney.
“You learn by osmosis,” he said. “It shapes your own perception of what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a person of character.... As I look back, I can’t think of him calculating a political cost to any of the decisions he was making or the positions that he had.”
Mitt Romney has been faulted for being just the opposite — generating the perception among some Republican voters that he has changed his positions to win popularity. (Romney has disputed that characterization.)
“There was nothing fake about George Romney,” said his former press secretary, Richard Milliman. “What you saw was what you got and that isn’t usual in national politicians.”
In those early years, however, Mitt Romney saw the consequences of his father’s bluntness. During his 1968 presidential campaign, George Romney explained his new opposition to the Vietnam War by saying he’d previously “had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” by the diplomatic corps and military personnel. That sparked a frenzy that contributed to dooming his candidacy.
While that misstep has often been cited as a reason that the son is a far more cautious candidate than his father, Mitt Romney said it was a lesson learned time and again during his parents’ campaigns.
“It’s not like that one experience alone brought a great revelation that words matter,” he said. “I understood that before — and was brought to understand that pointedly time there and after.”
Romney’s most humbling political experience occurred during his mother’s Senate campaign in 1970. Back from his mission and now in his early 20s, Romney tried out the role of political strategist, along with his brother. “We were way over our heads and inexperienced, and offered more ideas than good ideas,” he said.
It would be 24 years before Romney reentered politics, by challenging Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. His father was at his side — moving in with Mitt and Ann Romney for nearly six months, arriving at the breakfast table each morning with memo pads full of suggestions for his son.
The campaign ended in a loss, one that he dealt with in part by remembering his father’s reaction on election night in 1964, when an aide told George Romney, erroneously, that he was about to lose. His father, Mitt Romney said, did not show even a hint of disappointment.
Later, he said, he realized his father was following the advice he had given to his son — to build a family and a life before politics, so that a loss would never be “self-defining.”
Romney said he had approached the current race — with all its twists and turns — the same way. “If it works, great; if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.... For me, losing is not the end of the world.”
But, he added: “I prefer winning to losing.”