The Lessons of the Father
The rap on Mitt Romney is that he's scripted, safe, skin-deep. But if you saw your dad endure what his did, you might watch what you say, too.
There, you said it. There's no taking it back. Maybe the regret formed in your mind even before the last syllable of the Godforsaken comment had left your lips. Maybe you thought nothing of it until 12 hours later, when a voice woke you out of your REM rebound, demanding to know, "What in the hell were you thinking?" Either way, it was too late. We've all said something at some point in our lives that we desperately wanted to take back. In 1976, I was a precocious second-grader listening to my mother explain that she was going to a baby shower for a friend. "Wouldn't it be funny," I asked her, delighted to show off my knowledge of a new word I had picked up, "if she had a miscarriage and she had to give back all those baby gifts?" Not funny. All these years later, and I can still recall the look of sadness and disgust frozen on my mother's face. I'm sure she has long since forgotten that comment, but I haven't.
So, during that August interview, when he was asked to explain
his inconsistent position on the war, Romney replied, "Well, you know,
when I came back from
There, he said it. One word, brainwashing, and his presidential campaign would never
recover. Worse, that one politically charged word became not just the shorthand
for his aborted White House run, but the bumper sticker for his entire life's
work. Forget the poor boy who rose, Horatio
Alger-style, to national acclaim. Forget the visionary of
There's no taking it back.
audio slideshow: Lessons of the Father
Rare footage: George Romney's "Brainwashed" interview
Think I'm exaggerating? Consider this headline from a
national Associated Press obituary in 1995: "George Romney, Who Said
Military Brainwashed Him on
Or this lead paragraph from The Boston Globe: "George W. Romney, the three-term
Even an AP dispatch from
Now imagine you're Mitt Romney. Like a lot of boys, you
grew up idolizing your dad. But unlike many of them, for you, the glow never
wore off . "He was the person who I keyed my life
off of," the 59-year-old
"The brainwash thing - has that affected us? You
bet," says Jane Romney, Mitt's sister and an actress in
For Mitt, the episode was even harder to make sense of
because it happened in the middle of his two-year stint as a Mormon missionary
So this is where we are. Forty years after the father's birth, the son was born. Forty years after the father became a governor, the son won his own governorship. And forty years after the father's presidential dream was dashed, along comes the son cueing up to make his own run. On the surface, the two men are near clones. Same business-world pedigree. Same storybook marriage to his high school sweetheart. Same square jaw and large forehead, made larger when he flashes that bright white smile and his eyes recede under a heavy brow. Same central-casting sweep of black hair with a dose of distinguished white at the temples. (Sure, it's talked about entirely too much, but, good Lord, is that a nice head of hair.)
Beneath the surface, however, Romney version 2.0 runs on a
different operating system. Whereas George Romney was often zestful, impulsive,
hot-tempered, Mitt is analytical, cautious, even-keeled.
We can be sure of this much: Unlike most of the governors and senators whose names get bandied about as presidential gold only to melt under the glare of the national spotlight, Mitt Romney is ready for prime time. His steady hand and media savvy running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics showed the world that. The lessons of the father have been learned, and learned well, by the son. He is not likely to flub his way to footnote status. But will he remember to breathe? Will he allow himself to go off script? Will he be able to get past that reputation for being so polished that he sometimes seems almost plastic?
His most recent test, stepping forward after 12 tons of Big Dig concrete fell and killed Milena Del Valle, suggests there may be some trouble ahead. On one level, the challenge of getting to the bottom of the Big Dig mess is tailor-made for our CEO-governor. After all, executive competence is precisely the reason that liberal Democratic Catholic Massachusetts gave a conservative Republican Mormon its top job, and Romney has shown reassuring leadership in taking charge of the investigation. No one has talked so confidently about bolts and screws since Henry Phillips named one after himself in the 1930s. But on a deeper level, the Big Dig crisis hints at an emotional deficit in the public Romney. It's a safe bet that either Bill Clinton, with his ability to speak from the heart, or George W. Bush, with his ability to speak from the gut, would have known that shaken citizens needed more from their chief executive in his first comments after the tragedy than a perfunctory apology to the family of the deceased and a lengthy exposition on how the courts would be used to settle an old political score.
Is it possible that Mitt Romney learned the lessons of his father too well?
Mitt was a miracle baby. George and Lenore Romney had two girls and a boy, and the doctors had told Lenore she could not carry another. The couple put in papers to adopt a baby from Switzerland. But while the family was vacationing in the Dakotas, Lenore learned she was pregnant, recalls Jane Romney, who was about 9 years old at the time. "Mother was hospitalized immediately. I remember my father's face - the worry and concern," Jane says. "I hadn't seen that before." Imagine, then, the rejoicing that took place when Mitt was born and Mother was healthy.
From an early age, Mitt logged lots of time on his father's lap, listening and questioning. This was a departure for George, who was often described as a man in a hurry. (In golf, he would play three balls at each hole to compress an 18-hole game into six.) "My father took a lot of time with his sons," Jane says. Mitt describes his father as a Teddy Roosevelt character, blunt and larger than life. He began jogging in the 1950s, long before it was in fashion. "He'd get up every morning and go run a couple of miles in Hush Puppies," Mitt says, "because there weren't jogging shoes yet."
Unlike Mitt and his siblings, who grew up in a wealthy
Even though Mitt was the youngest in the family, he was their dad's most able questioner, says his brother, Scott. When their father held family meetings to tell them he was thinking of running for office, Scott recalls: "My sisters, and I would say, 'Gee that sounds fabulous,' while Mitt would say, 'Well, have you thought about this?'"
Around this time, Mitt learned to think more about what he
said in front of the press. Campaigning for his father in 1962, the 15-year-old
told an Independence Day gathering, "It's really fun to be here in the
Behind the scenes, though, he always knew how to meet his father's passion and temper with cool logic. "Scott would get upset," Jane Romney says. "I'd get quiet and blow later. My sister would just turn and run. But Mitt talked it through." When it came time for graduate school, Mitt, who aspired to be a car executive like his father, wanted to go to business school. His father, who had dropped out of college and thought business school was a glorified trade school, insisted he go to law school - specifically Harvard. Mitt brokered a compromise, earning a joint degree from Harvard law and business schools.
In that way, Jane says, Mitt is much more like their mother, a stabilizing force with a gift for thinking - and talking - things through. "My dad would get emotional. Mother wouldn't. She would be kicking him under the table to calm him down. And he would say, 'Why are you kicking me under the table?'"
It was a good booking. In the summer of 1967, Jeanne Findlater was the producer of Lou Gordon's Hot Seat program on UHF Channel 50 in
Gordon, a political junkie with a probing Mike Wallace approach, was an early practitioner of gotcha journalism. Yet his interview with Romney was cordial and seemingly uneventful. When
Gordon got around to asking him about
Gordon: Isn't your position a bit inconsistent with what it was? And what do you propose we do now?
Well, you know, when I came back from
Gordon: By the generals?
only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a
very thorough job. Since returning from
Gordon, the pit bull, never even followed up on the brainwashing line. He had no idea what he had. But Jeanne Findlater did. Listening to the interview from the control room, she thought, "Hot dog! That's good stuff; I'll use that." The program would air in a few days, and one of Findlater's duties was to hype it to the press. So she grabbed the audio, dialed up the wire services, hung a couple of phone receivers over the back of a chair, and then hit the play button. "Did you get that?" she asked the wire editors. "Play it again," they said. So she did.
Chuck Harmon, Romney's press secretary, was at his desk the morning after the Gordon program aired. When a reporter called asking about the brainwashed line, Harmon, who hadn't seen the show, stalled long enough to get the transcript. Then his stomach sank. He says he and a few other aides went to Romney, advising him to backtrack and do damage control. But Romney refused.
Coverage began slowly, with an AP story and then a small piece in The New York Times. Then it snowballed, as rival campaigns - notably those of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson - delighted in making hay of the comment. How could we trust this guy to sit across the table from the Russians if he couldn't resist pressure from a few American generals and diplomats?
It would take another five months before Romney would drop out of the race. But the ending had already been written. Years later, George Romney downplayed the damage done by that one line. More to blame, he said, was that he got boxed out by Nixon from the right wing of his party and by Nelson Rockefeller, his onetime supporter, from the left. In reality, the remark was probably more of an accelerant than the cause of the fatal fire, exposing how flimsy Romney's national support was. But it was one hell of an accelerant.
The word "brainwash" didn't even exist before the
early 1950s. That's when a red-baiting journalist named Edward Hunter
introduced it to the West as the translation of what he said Mao Zedong's government called its systematic process of
indoctrination. The term gained traction in the
Forty years later, from her home in
After I read her the lead paragraphs from Romney's obituaries, Findlater lets out long sigh. "For a long time I just put it out of my mind. But whenever I've heard people talk about it, I've felt terrible. George Romney deserved better than that. He deserved to be understood."
IN THE WINTER OF
2002, WALT DEVRIES looked at his TV set and saw his past.
Watching Mitt Romney command center stage in
Four years later, as the 75-year-old semi-retired political
consultant watches the next presidential race begin to take shape, he sees
something missing in Mitt. "I see all the similarities with his father,
but don't see the risk-taking," says DeVries,
who now lives in
Instead, Mitt Romney has spent the last year recasting some
of his more moderate positions, which served him well in
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says the Romney relationship brings to mind another father-son presidential duo. George W. Bush saw his father denied reelection because he'd lost the right wing. So tending to that base became the obsessive concern of Bush the younger. "Those are the lessons of winning the election," Goodwin says. "But his father had much more important lessons to impart about governing - building that coalition for the Gulf War, marshaling support."
Perhaps Mitt Romney, in trying to avoid repeating his father's fatal improvisation, may be neglecting some of George Romney's other lessons, notably that his energy, candor and at times utter lack of calculation helped him connect with voters and lawmakers en route to becoming one of the most successful governors in Michigan history.
"Remember, " Goodwin says, "caution can be as much of a problem as free wheelingness."
MITT ROMNEY, WEARING A CRISP WHITE shirt, powder-blue tie, and navy slacks, is seated by the fireplace in his office when I hand him my laptop, on which I've cued up a DVD. For the first time, he is about to see the interview that killed his father's campaign. Staring at the screen, Romney, for a moment, channels some of his father's animation. "Imagine how different the world would have been had he been elected president," he says, "instead of Richard Nixon. It would have been very different. There would not have been a Watergate. Who knows . . . what mistakes he would have made. But he was way ahead in the polls. And then this happened. And that was it." He gestures to show a sharp drop-off. "Phseuw," he says. "Just disappeared."
As Lou Gordon's image comes up on the screen, Romney chuckles, "Bad toupee!" Then he stares silently, transported back in time. When it's over, Romney shakes his head. So does his communications chief, Eric Fehrnstrom, who'd been watching along and says that in today's controversy-a-day news cycle, "there's no question he would have survived something like that."
Romney says that, until now, he had assumed his father's brainwashed line had been more of straight-ahead statement. "But it was a parenthetical comment leading into a discussion about why he had changed his view. . . . It was a word that slips into your head. You're on TV; you don't stop and say, 'No, let me take that back. Let me use this word instead.'"
Then there is what Romney calls the "excessive response of the Fourth Estate." It goes like this: "If John Kerry misspells potato, it's not an issue. It doesn't even get printed. But when Dan Quayle misspells potato, it's like, 'See, he's an idiot.'"
He's right. Candidates, facing the pack journalism coverage
of national campaigns, get tagged with identities - the stiff one (Gore), the
dumb one ("Dubya"), the aloof one (Kerry),
the hothead (Dean). Once formed, the shorthand is hard to recast, since every
campaign stop holds the potential for some minor incident or offhand comment to
offer yet more evidence for the wisdom of the tag. In his father's case, Romney
says, "he was being criticized for the fact that he was a governor, you
know, and . . . he'd changed his position on
Of course, if Romney runs for president, it will also be as
a governor relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, campaigning during an
increasingly unpopular war he is on record as supporting. Still, he's not
likely to get saddled with the same identity that dragged his dad down, namely
the governor in over his head on international relations. That's because Mitt
Romney already wowed the world media while running the first post-9/11
Olympics. And a strong case can be made that, on the issue of the horribly
No, the identity Romney has to be wary of getting tagged with is "the air-brushed one," the politician who is so scripted and safe that he has to be nudged to take chances, who has to be reminded to lead emotionally, as well as politically, during crisis like the Big Dig, who has to be tutored by Rudy Giuliani during a 2002 stop in the North End not to blow off a guy offering to buy him a cannoli, but instead to buy the guy one himself. He's bound to be even more guarded after a recent trip off -script - using the racially loaded phrase "tar baby" to describe the Big Dig - required morning-after apology.
Then again, if Mitt Romney is a little too cautious, he has
every reason to be. While blaming the media is the most predictable move on the
part of losing candidates, it happens to be justified when it comes to his
father. Who knows if George Romney would have been a great president or a
terrible one - or even held up as his party's nominee.
It just would have been nice if he'd gotten a fair shot. Had he never sought
the presidency, he would be remembered foremost as a great governor and
visionary businessman. Instead, outside of
If Mitt runs and flames out spectacularly, that stain will displace his role as Olympic savior in the lead paragraph of his eventual obituary. But if he wins, well, that changes more than just his obit. Instantly, George Romney becomes not just someone who fathered a president - only 42 other men in American history have done that - but also one of only three presidential fathers who himself ran for the highest office in the land. That, of course, would prompt the question about what happened in his race, which would, regrettably, require mentioning that he dropped out after saying he had been brainwashed. But at least, at long last, that Godforsaken clause would have migrated to the end of the story.
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.