Mitt Romney: Out of the '50s

Like that decade, he can seem corny and phony, but remember that he missed out on much of the '60s.

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Many political observers see Mitt Romney as contrived, artificial, faux. This impression comes partly from his quite recent switches on political issues like abortion and also from his manner. He seems too platform perfect, too given to clichés, too saccharine to be true.

But maybe this is the real Mitt Romney. Or at least, so my theory goes. Mitt Romney, to a greater extent than most candidates and most public figures, is a guy out of the '50s. If you remember the '50s, as I do, you probably sometimes hear yourself using phrases and expressions that no one else seems to use anymore. Or you hear others your age doing the same thing. Most Americans, after all, are younger than you are. The popular culture of the 1950s is as strange to them as the silent movies of the 1920s are to you. And you sound somehow phony (does anyone use that word anymore? J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield used it a lot in the 1950s) to them.

As it happens, I know a little bit more about Mitt Romney's past than do most pundits. He was three years behind me at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. I didn't know him, but I was very much aware of who he was. When I graduated in 1962, he was a ninth grader who was enormously proud of his father, who was running for governor. The student body of this boarding/day school was overwhelmingly Republican; in a straw poll in 1960, it voted 92 percent for Richard Nixon and 8 percent for John Kennedy. I was part of the minority, which was the fun place to be; Romney basked in the admiration of the 92 percent or more who backed his father. I still have trouble thinking of him as anything other than a 14-year-old boy not obviously suited in any way to be president of the United States.

Romney graduated from Cranbrook in 1965 and spent two quarters of the school year 1965-66 at Stanford. Culturally, America and America's campuses were still in the '50s in those years. Student riots were panty raids, not rebellions; marijuana was used by just a few avant-garde types, the sort of people who went to see French films; lots of students at elite schools were Republicans.

Then Romney spent 30 months, presumably from early 1966 to mid-1968, as a Mormon missionary in France. I doubt that he had any exposure to the Paris student uprising in May 1968; he would have been part of a group of Mormon young men closely monitored by and monitoring their peers, largely cut off from American and French popular culture. In June 1968, he was seriously injured in an auto accident in southern France.

The years 1967 and 1968 were for America the two worst years of the second half of the 20th century. Black riots in our big cities (including Detroit, where as an intern for Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh I had firsthand contact with Gov. George Romney), campus uprisings and shutdowns, high casualties and seeming lack of success in the war in Vietnam, the tumultuous 1968 presidential campaigns, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Mitt Romney evidently missed all of that; perhaps he saw some of it on French TV.

In the fall of 1968, Romney started attending Brigham Young University, surely one of the least radical campuses in America. In 1969, he married his high school sweetheart, Ann Davies (she attended Kingswood, Cranbrook's sister school; they have since merged). There he showed greater academic prowess than he had at Cranbrook, at least during the years I was there. He graduated in 1971 summa cum laude and valedictorian of his class. Then he attended a joint program at the Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools and graduated in 1975. He graduated cum laude from the law school and was a Baker scholar at the business school—both impressive academic achievements.

More impressive than those of George W. Bush, who overlapped with Romney at the business school in 1973-75. Each has told me that he didn't know the other. You can see why when you think about it a minute. Bush was single, evidently didn't study hard much of the time, drank a lot of beer, and chewed tobacco. Bush had seen the '60s emerge on the Yale campus in 1967 and 1968 and didn't like it a bit (I was at Yale Law School in 1966-69 and saw some of that, too).

In contrast to Bush, Romney was married, and he and his wife had five sons born from 1970 to 1981. He must have studied very hard and spent much of his spare time with his children; he and his wife, though from affluent families, weren't rich then and presumably had little household help. He wouldn't have had time to absorb much of the popular culture of the '60s, which was still going strong in the early 1970s. Ditto in the years after he started his business career at Bain & Co. in 1975. Business, family, and the Mormon church would have taken up almost all of his time.

So Mitt Romney, unusually for an American born in 1947, missed the '60s altogether. The prevalent culture in his formative years was the '50s, and for him it has presumably remained the formative culture ever after. The cheerfulness, energy, and community spirit of the Mormons still embody much of that culture, and so does Mitt Romney. That's why he seems so corny and, to some, so phony. Or at least, so my theory goes.