What Mitt Romney Learned From His Dad
Source Dave Anderson
Date 12/01/20/01:58
What Mitt Romney Learned From His Dad
By Rick Perlstein

HERE IS A truism about the psychology of politicians: there is almost
nothing so soul-definingly traumatic for them as losing an election.
You believe yourself a great man, a figure of destiny. You love your
job, or covet an even more important one—and then suddenly one day
it's gone, all because the public decides it doesn’t love you any
more. The trauma shapes future ideology: if you’re a conservative, for
example, you might become more conservative. That was the case for two
pioneers of the Democratic Party's long march to the right: Joseph
Lieberman, who lost a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, and
Bill Clinton, who lost his reelection as Arkansas governor, both in
1980, a year of profound reckoning for Democrats who got blindsided by
Ronald Reagan and his coattails.

I say there is almost nothing as traumatic for a politician than
losing an election. Here's what might be even worse: You are an
aspiring office-holder, a young and handsome and ambitious man on the
rise, and your father loses an election. Dad is your hero, and then
the world's goat; you start rethinking your vision of how the world
works. Consider a third pioneering Democratic corporate sellout, Evan
Bayh, who managed the 1980 Senate reelection campaign in which his
fighting liberal father Birch Bayh lost to baby Reaganite Dan Quayle.
Thereafter, as senator from Indiana between 1989 and 1997, the son
hardly met a right-wing idea he couldn't embrace.

In my first weekly online column for Rolling Stone, I'm here to write
about another loser and son: George and Mitt Romney – both
almost-certain Republican presidential nominees. Pollster Lou Harris
said late in 1966 that George Romney, then governor of Michigan,
"stands a better chance of winning the White House than any Republican
since Dwight D. Eisenhower." Then, just over a year later, he was
humiliated with a suddenness and intensity unprecedented in modern
American political history (of which more below). His son was 19 years
old. What makes Mitt – né Willard – Romney, run? Much, I think, can be
understood via that specific trauma.

I wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed four years ago, just before Romney
dropped out of the 2008 race, arguing that he would "go down as the
most robotic big-ticket presidential candidate in history." I chalked
it up to psychobiography: Even more than most kids, Mitt couldn’t help
but view his dad as a messiah – because much of America did, too.
George Romney's first appearance on the cover of Time, in 1959, came
just before Mitt's twelfth birthday. As CEO of the Americans Motors
Corporation, he had single-handedly set Detroit on its ear by calling
its products "gas-guzzling dinosaurs." The first full biography of him
came out in 1960. Soon after, he became Michigan's James Madison,
heroically leading a bipartisan effort to redraft the state's
messed-up constitution. By 1963, he was governor, a Republican in a
Democratic state, a politician so beloved that John F. Kennedy was
terrified at the thought of running against him in 1964. After his
reelection in 1966, he ran 54-46 in a hypothetical 1968 match-up with
Lyndon Johnson.

His calling card was his shocking authenticity; his courage in
sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary. In
January of 1964, for example, the second-year governor received a
letter from a member of the top Mormon governing
body reminding him of the "teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith" that
"the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro." Drop your support for
the 1964 civil rights bill, the elder warned, arguing that God might
literally strike Romney dead for his apostasy: "I just don't think we
can get around the Lord's position in relation to the Negro without
punishment for our acts," the letter said. Romney only redoubled his
commitment – leading a march the next year down the center of Detroit
in solidarity with Martin Luther King's martyrs for voting rights' in
Selma, Alabama. In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral
fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged them,
unsuccessfully, not to. "This fellow really means it," an amazed
Southern Republican said when Romney toured Dixie pushing civil rights
in his presidential campaign; after America's worst riot broke out in
Detroit under his watch, the governor said that America could respond
with a crackdown on law and order – "but our system would become
little better than a police state."

Then, most famously, there was the Vietnam War. He supported it after
returning from a trip there in 1965. Then, courageously, after a
second trip in 1967, he began to criticize it. On September 4, 1967, a
TV interviewer asked, "Isn't your position a bit inconsistent with
what it was, and what do you propose we do now?"

The line everyone remembers from his response: "When I came back from
Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get
when you go over to Vietnam." But he continued with a devastating,
prophetic, and one-thousand-percent-correct assessment: that staying
in Vietnam would be a disaster. The public, and certainly the pundits,
weren't ready to hear it. All they heard was the word "brainwashing" –
not in the colloquial sense in which Romney obviously intended it, but
as something literal. Here was this weird dude accusing our generals
and diplomats of Svengali-like mind control. The mockery was swift and
furious. ("I would have thought a light rinse would do," William F.
Buckley said – hilarious! Only an idiot would criticize the Vietnam
War!) Romney nose-dived sixteen points in the next Harris poll. As I
wrote in my book Nixonland, on Vietnam a national brainwashing
continued apace.

The Mormon bishop, however, did not quit. Instead he leapfrogged
across New Hampshire telling unseasonable truths – that LBJ was
"spinning a web a web of delusion," and that "when you want to win the
hearts and minds of people, you don't kill them and destroy their
property. You don't use bombers and tanks and napalm to save them."

His opponent, meanwhile, running what you might call a robotic
campaign, just bullshitted about Vietnam, hinting he had a secret plan
to end it. The truth was a dull weapon to take into a knife fight with
Richard Nixon – who kicked Romney's ass with 79 percent of the vote.
When people call his son the "Rombot," think about that: Mitt learned
at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding
the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an
inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy's
left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded
individual mandate into Massachusetts' healthcare system. Then he
raced to the right to run for president.

He's still inauthentic – but with, I think, an exception. Every time
he opens his mouth on the subject of capitalism, he says what he
sincerely believes, which happens to fit neatly with present-day
Republican ideology: that rich people deserve every penny they have,
and if people complain about anything rich people do, it's only
because they're envious.

That's another rebellion against his late dad. Not only was George
Romney, that loser, ironclad in his ideological commitments; his
vision of how capitalism should work was in every particular the exact
opposite of the one pushed by the vulture capitalist he sired. (If
George Romney's AMC was around now, Mitt Romney's Bain Capital would
probably be busy turning it into a carcass.) A critic once said he was
"so dedicated to good works his entrance into politics is like sending
a Salvation Army lass into the chorus at a burlesque house." As a CEO
he would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he
thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing
plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that
"rugged individualism" was the key to America's success, he snapped
back, "It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed." He was
the poster child for the antiquated notion that corporations have
multiple stakeholders: the workers that breathe them life, the
communities in which they are situated, and the nation to whom they
owe a patriotic obligation – most definitely and emphatically not just
stockholders, as Mitt and his defenders say.

Today's Romney insists there is no reason to question
the distribution of wealth in America except for envy of the
rich – did his rich dad question the distribution of wealth in America
out of envy for the rich? – and that it was a subject only appropriate
for discussion in "quiet rooms." (His dad didn't talk about it in
quiet rooms; he talked about it at a Sunday worship service at the
1972 Republican convention, praying, "Help us to help those who need
help.") Even if Mitt Romney is not the most right-wing candidate for
the nomination, when he wins it, in a Republican Party becoming more
extreme with every passing day, he may still be – because the party
won’t have it any other way – the most right-wing nominee in the
history of the country.

It wasn't that way at first, of course. Four years ago, Romney
announced his presidential candidacy — anyone remember? — in front of
a state-of-the-art hybrid car. Positioning himself as an ecology
president, he boasted about his father – "The Rambler automobile he
championed was the first American car designed and marketed for
economy and mileage" – and pointed to the car next beside him as "the
first giant step away from our reliance on the gasoline engine."

Now, of course, he's a global warming denier. Little Willard is all
grown up now. He's his own man. And he's the the likely Republican
nominee. Which now means he's Wall Street's man. And Focus on the
Family's, and the Tea Party's, and Grover Norquist's too.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and
the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a
President and the Fracturing of America.

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