Why Did President Nixon Show George Romney the Door as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development?





5-14-12

Michael H. Ebner is James D. Vail III professor emeritus of American history at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Mitt Romney coyly hints -- premised on his winning the presidential election in November -- that he might very well eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His father, George Romney, held this cabinet-rank portfolio from 1969 to 1972. It is self evident that Mitt Romney's rationale for excising HUD entails his ardor to cut costs -- and jobs -- in the federal bureaucracy.

But largely forgotten is the fact that President Nixon unceremoniously pushed Secretary Romney out of his cabinet. (For the record, Romney was not fired. Understanding that he had lost the confidence of the president, he knew enough to resign. So did John A. Volpe, a another former governor of Massachusetts, who served Nixon as Secretary of Transportation).

Why did this happen? Secretary Romney, as Roger Biles details in his The Fate of the Cities (University Press of Kansas, 2011), vigorously promoted an accelerated federal role in the racial integration of suburban America tied to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. For his bold effort -- officially known as the Open Communities initiative -- Secretary Romney found himself consigned to the margins of power by President Nixon and his staff. His initiative had threatened to upend the president's political calculus to secure Republican electoral dominance in the nation's predominantly white suburbs. (Nixon soured on Volpe because he successfully promoted the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1970, with sizeable federal subsidies totaling $10 billion.) In one instance John Ehrlichman wrote to President Nixon characterizing "a serious Romney problem." Much of this entailed Nixon’s great obsession with getting re-elected in 1972, but that is another story unto itself.

Secretary Romney wasn't alone in his ardor for affordable housing, either. One hundred Republicans in the House of Representatives, including Representative George H.W. Bush of Texas, voted for of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Bush's support for this legislation ended in his own political vilification when he unsuccessfully campaigned for election to the United States Senate in 1970.

I've wondered why -- in the course of the long campaign leading up to the general election in November of 2012 -- we've barely heard a word at all about the ouster of Secretary Romney. Surely the passionately devoted son harbors some sense about how and why President Nixon showed his father the door.

It seems altogether probable that George Romney’s experiences in the Nixon cabinet some forty years ago helped to shape the political education of Mitt Romney. But it also seems entirely unlikely that Mitt Romney would ever reflect upon that during this campaign any more than he would speak in detail about the health-care mandate he championed as governor of Massachusetts. Talking about either federally-subsidized integrated housing or government-mandated health insurance -- would derail Romney's carefully cultivated public image as a conservative.

If asked about his father's experience as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, one might conjure up the image of Mitt Romney dismissively invoking the aphorism made famous by Henry Ford: "History is bunk."


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