George and Mitt Romney: Like Father, Like Son?

The similarities between Mitt Romney and his father may only be skin deep.

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In conservative political folklore, the 1964 election was a crushing defeat that laid the philosophical groundwork that ultimately led to Ronald Reagan's triumph.

No one likes to talk as proudly about 1968's razor-thin election of Richard Nixon. It's much more sanitary to take Sen. Barry Goldwater and skip straight to Reagan. But '68 was at least as important as '64, and maybe more so; it was that campaign that yielded the potent Southern strategy; the counter-counterculture; the full-throated resentment toward coastal elites. If '64 was aimed at the conservative mind, '68 was aimed at the conservative viscera.

The late Gov. George Romney, of course, was a minor figure in the drama of '68. A moderate Rockefeller Republican, he would lose soundly to Nixon, the former vice president and California senator.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

With all this in mind, I looked up one of my favorite modern political histories, Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.

Here's what Wills had to say about that era's candidate Romney:

Romney built up a belief in his "nonpolitical" background: here was a man (men thought) who worked his way up in the business world and then—sincere novice amid deal-fettered pros—entered politics with the innocence of an outsider. The truth is that Romney began his career in politics, after three unsuccessful attempts (at three different schools) to get a college education. He went to Washington, in pursuit of his childhood sweetheart, the intense Lenore, and got a job as an aide to Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts. He did work on tariff bills that equipped him for a new career—a lobbyist for Alcoa, he spent nine years as a Washington glad-hander around Burning Tree Country Club and the National Press Club. Then he became an automobile lobbyist (on the carmakers' Trade Advisory Commission), dealing with the National Recovery Administration. From this post he rose to become manager of the AMA (American Manufacturers Association)—an office that made him, in wartime, managing director of the Automotive Council for War Production. He had now spent nineteen years fronting for big business among politicians.

Hmph. This sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? To be fair, former Gov. Mitt Romney succeeded in business before failing at politics, and he never was a lobbyist. But there's still the same " pious baloney" about a private-sector white knight riding in to save government.

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Yet here are a couple of key differences between Romney pere and fils. According to Wills, George Romney wasn't known for smarts: "Robert McNamara, who urged Romney to get into politics when they were both auto men around Detroit, later came to know him better: Romney's trouble, he concluded, is that the man 'has no brains.' "

Even more interesting, there's this. Romney's presidential ambitions were significantly thwarted by his change of heart over the Vietnam War. He'd gone from supporting it as "morally right and necessary" to calling for peace "at an early time." He compared a briefing he'd received in November 1965 to "brainwashing."

This was no convenient flip-flop, however. Wills notes:

His greatest gift had been mesmeric power to convince others because he so convinced himself. The blue eyes burn toward you under that low white cap of hair; the block of athletic face is rigid with fresh seizures of sincerity. He has a fanatic's belief in everything he says or does, and a prophet's fierce anger if anyone questions him. A desire to keep his burning conviction unsullied by earthly ties explains his later aloofness from politics and politicians. ... He went down, thrashing ridiculously, in 1968; yet he maintained to the end that it was a public service for him to call his briefing a case of successful brainwashing.

In this, the son is strikingly unlike the father. It's clear that, whatever else Mitt Romney gleaned from the experience of '68, he learned about the sometimes necessary art of insincerity. Everything about Mitt's political career to this point suggests that he's not content to go down in honorable defeat, as Goldwater did. He will not be undone by "seizures of sincerity" or a "prophet's anger." He is smarter, more devious, and more contemptuous than his father.

If he could speak to his father on the other side, he might say, "You tried your way, Dad. Now I'm trying mine. This is how a Rockefeller Republican overcomes the 'muttonheads' who fell for Goldwater and Nixon."