Rick Perlstein: Mitt Romney ... Not in His Father's Footsteps

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Perlstein is the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America."]

Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race last week, will go down as the most robotic big-ticket presidential candidate in history -- "the Platonic ideal of inauthenticity," as Harold Meyerson put it in a Washington Post column. I chalk it up to psychobiography. Growing up, he learned that authenticity kills.

It's perfectly normal for young boys to view their fathers as terrestrial gods. The young Romney's experience was unique in that the rest of the country thought his dad a terrestrial god too.

It all started with the Rambler. Already by the late 1950s, Detroit was breaking out in cold sweats at mounting competition from more fuel-efficient imports. The auto industry was only getting what it deserved, George Romney, then chairman of American Motors Corp., would thunder "wherever he could find a soapbox," as Time magazine put it in a 1959 cover profile. He would pull a toy dinosaur from his briefcase: "This fellow here is triceratops. He had the biggest radiator ornament in prehistoric history. It kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he could no longer hold up his head. He had a wheelbase of nearly 30 feet."

Dramatic pause.

"Who wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?"

His Rambler was small, but that didn't keep Romney from sleeping in it some nights during the 70,000 miles he traveled in 1958 to preach its wonders. It was a hit and a pop-culture sensation, the subject of a million-selling ditty about the "Little Nash Rambler" that bagged a Cadillac on the road without shifting out of second gear.

Pundits swooned; "George Wilcken Romney, at 51, is a broad-shoulder, Bible-quoting brother of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal," Time's profile began.

A political career soon followed. But an unconventional one. Michigan was holding a new convention to replace its inadequate Constitution and needed a reconciling figure to manage the task. Romney was chosen -- and before the convention had hardly begun, he was being talked up as a presidential contender. He was Michigan's James Madison.

By the time the new Constitution passed in 1963, he was the state's governor -- a Republican in a Democratic state where the United Auto Workers was almighty. That holy grail of the pundit class, bipartisanship, runneth over. "Romney Prestige Lifts on Narrow Vote Victory," said the New York Times headline. His prestige could hardly lift more. As talk turned in the White House to the 1964 election, John F. Kennedy uttered, "The one fellow I don't want to run against is Romney." The first full-dress biography of him had been already published three years earlier.

At the National Governors Conference in 1964, his Republican colleagues, stunned by Barry Goldwater's ascendancy, practically begged Romney to accept the presidential nomination by acclamation. In 1966, he won reelection overwhelmingly, and he would now be the savior not merely of Detroit or the Republican Party but of the nation, opinion leaders decided. By 1967, the Harris polling organization reported that he had a better chance of winning the White House than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His son, Mitt, was then 19. At the age when most kids are awe-struck by their dad's ability to change a tire, Mitt was seeing his dad on the cover of Time and in TV commercials. By the time he approached maturity, his father was seen as something near to a national messiah.

The reason for the George Romney cult was simple. The world called him a "maverick." In a Republican Party trending right, he called America's cult of rugged individualism "nothing but a cover for greed." His forthright honesty was his calling card. His contrast with the wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson and the used-car salesman Richard Nixon made him -- along with that strong, square chin and silvering hair -- look like his party's only hope.

Then it all started to unravel.

An exploratory campaign office sprung up a few blocks from the state Capitol. A reporter noticed a line of books on Vietnam on the unpainted bookshelves. Romney kicked off his six-state tour warning that he wouldn't say anything about Vietnam until he had a chance to study the situation more, perhaps after a second visit (his first had been in 1965, on a junket with other governors). But the longer he said nothing, the more the reporters pressured him to say something.

Honesty was a dull blade to take into a knife fight with Nixon, who was also running for president. Romney was being chased by about 40 reporters early in 1967, each vying to see if he had what it took to play at this level of the game. In Anchorage, he uttered the apparently inoffensive observation that Republicans had a better chance of taking a fresh look at Vietnam because LBJ was "locked in." In Salt Lake City, he said the problem was LBJ's flip-flopping between escalation and negotiation offers. A salivating scribe pointed out the contradiction: Was LBJ "locked in" or a flip-flopper? In Idaho, Romney fended off Vietnam questions for 40 minutes. Then he mentioned Johnson's "political expedience ... getting his country in trouble at home and abroad, including Vietnam." He had violated his moratorium not to talk about Vietnam, the vultures said, demanding a follow-up: Would he give an example of LBJ's expedience?

"No, I will not."

"Why not?"

"Well, because I choose not to."

It portended disaster. Romney issued clarifications that clarified nothing.

On Sept. 4, a TV interviewer asked him about Vietnam: "Isn't your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?" Romney decided to lay it on the line: "When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only the generals but also the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job."

He was improvising.

"And since returning from Vietnam, I have gone into the history of Vietnam all the way back into World War II and before that, and as a result I have changed my mind in that particularly -- I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop aggression in Southeast Asia and to prevent Chinese communist domination of Southeast Asia."

An intelligent observer studying America's history in Vietnam since World War II might come to the same conclusion. But all people heard was the word "brainwashing."

"Brainwashing" as a term came into use after the Korean War to explain why some prisoners of war, supposedly insufficiently sturdy in their patriotism to resist, chose to stay behind in enemy territory and denounce the United States -- what the ruthless did to the soft-minded. Neither side of the association appealed to voters: the notion that the architects of Vietnam were ruthless, and the notion of a president who was soft-minded.

As Romney attempted to "clarify," the Detroit News demanded that he step aside so his financial backer, Nelson Rockefeller, could enter the race in his stead. The paper pointed out that he'd supported the war publicly for two years after his trip: "How long does a brainwashing linger?" In the next Harris poll, Romney dropped 16 points.

Meanwhile, Nixon got the world's attention when, in the middle of a patriotic stemwinder in a rural town, he said that "if in November this war is not over, I say that the American people will be justified in electing new leadership, and I pledge to you that new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific." He simply told Americans what they wanted to hear: not that Vietnam was an unmanageable mess, but that under a President Nixon, Vietnam would be over.

A limping Romney dropped out two weeks before the New Hampshire balloting. Overnight, he had transformed himself from national messiah to national laughingstock, a ruined man. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Can you imagine what it would be like to watch that happen to your dad?

If you ended up going into the same profession, you just might choose to do things differently.

Read entire article at LAT

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/15/2008

You are mistaken. While polite about it, Ronald Reagan never accepted the negotiation "between equals" nonsense, but insisted we maintain superior military strength, which is why he won the Cold War. Gorby could not keep up--he could not match our spending or technology. The Democrats and West Europeans made it very difficult for Reagan, too. He was barely able to get our advanced missiles planted in Europe a short time before Russia caved. Reagan and Casey were much more willing to incite resistance from the people of captive nations, too, than were Nixon and Kissinger, who seemed much more interested in "coexistence." Perhaps our relative financial strength was greater under Reagan, but you had inferior presidents like Truman who resorted to flying coal into West Berlin at a time when we had a nuclear monopoly. It was not just having the edge which was important, but having the will to use it. Reagan was not willing to accept any "equality" of power, nor the MAD theory, beyond certain limits. Henry K. and Ford and Zbig and Carter were, but not Reagan.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/15/2008

The fall of the USSR on George Bush's watch doesn't mean that Reagan's strategies were "better" than Nixon's: the times were different and the issues were different. Reagan was much more willing to negotiate arms control than the Cold Warrior tradition suggests, and any comparison which casts Nixon as less aggressively anti-Communist is pretty absurd on the face of it.

Reagan followed Nixon/Kissinger's approach with regard to both the USSR and China: strong rhetoric, aid to proxy allies (legal or otherwise), and the realization that direct conflict was a no-win situation which needed to be addressed through negotiation between equals.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/15/2008

Yes, I think LBJ was as much as 90% motivated by "saving face." In all honesty, it was very hard for him to pullout and take a devastating loss of 5,000 or 10,000 or 30,000 dead, with no gain. More blame attaches to Kennedy for going in there in the first place, though, in my view, and the niggardly way he went in, with small forces. Kennedy sent the first 17,000 men, and then was murdered. At about that time Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley went on TV one night together for 30 minutes (I think Bradley was a Democrat), and both argued that the president should hit them with everything we have, or never go in, because the final price we would pay would be much smaller that way... It did no good. Kennedy was weak. He lost his nerve at the Bay of Pigs, too, when failing to send in the air force according to plan. He didn't have the nerve to stay out of Vietnam, and he didn't have the nerve to hit them with everything we had... And LBJ was calling practically every air raid target himself, and dancing around with one hand behind his back, as in, "Oh, we must not cross the border into Cambodia (where the VC took sanctuary)." You cannot conduct war like that, and his vacillation cost us more lives than Kennedy's did in a sense, but Kennedy made the key initial mistake.... In 1968 I didn't think George Romney was a serious contender, nor Bobby Kennedy, either. The night Bobby was shot his vote in the California primary was very disappointing. Humphrey had it locked up, especially with all the machine delegates, and LBJ's men, Connally and Daley, at the controls on the floor.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/15/2008

Maybe, but the "decent interval" quote from Kissinger is accurate and rings a bell. Kissinger was something of a snake, and often wrong, as with his "Detente" idea, completely disproven later by Reagan.

We all have a low opinion today of Peter Arnett, and certain other ideological bedfellows of the communists. I don't know about the Goldwater quote, but if you make it up you usually get caught--sometime in the next 30 years.

The worst part of that war, however, was what we got in our living room every night from CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. There weren't any pictures of the village headmen being disemboweled by the Viet Cong, only Napalm spread by us. We got hours and hours of My Lie, for weeks and months, very little of the major massacre at Hue, for maybe a day or two... General Giap said they were lost at the time CBS saved them by proclaiming Tet to have been an American defeat.

Maarja Krusten - 2/13/2008

It’s not enough for a President to decide on a course of action, he also must persuade a majority of the public which votes for President and for Congress that his policies are worth supporting. You have to consider what he and his advisors discussed privately as well as publicly. You can’t look at Vietnam during the Nixon and Ford administrations without considering also how decision making played out during the Johnson administration. There are many other books that delve into this but I recently was reminded of Johnson’s struggles, again, in the book I’m currently reading, Taylor Branch’s _At Canaan’s Edge_: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.

In his famous brainwashing comment in 1968, Romney referred to briefings he received from the military in 1965. Branch describes a high level White House meeting convened by LBJ in 1965 to hear the results of a “diagnostic mission” to Vietnam. One of McNamara’s senior advisors candidly laid out “apportionment of war motives: ‘70% to avoid a humiliating defeat . . . 20% to keep SVN (and the adjacent territories from Chinese hands, 10% to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.’” [Branch, _At Canaan’s Edge_102.]

As someone who as a young undergraduate in Washington, DC between 1969 and 1973 wore “Tell It to Hanoi” and “Silent Majority” buttons to support Nixon’s policies, it was very interesting for me to later work with Nixon’s tapes as a NARA employee and also to study published revelations about LBJ’s thinking. None of us knew the extent to which LBJ felt trapped by his Vietnam options in 1965 (can’t win with what I’ve got, can’t get out) at the time we listened to his public speeches. The contrast between the Johnson administration’s private and public comments provides a framework for assessing Romney’s comments in 1968.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/12/2008

Mr. Brooks, don't apologize to Mr. Perlstein. You're right; he's wrong. The war in Vietnam was all but won when Nixon pulled out the last combat troops. The pro-Communist Democrats in Congress snatched victory (for the Communists) out of the jaws of defeat by (1) preventing the U.S. from enforcing the Paris Peace Accords and then by (2) cutting off aid to South Vietnam at a time when the USSR was pouring billions of dollars of aid into another North Vietnamese military offensive. Attempts by the likes of Mr. Perlstein to rewrite history are to be expected.

Btw, Mr. Perlstein, a Google search for the Goldwater quotes you provide returns no matches except to your own writings. Can you provide independent sources?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/11/2008

Perhaps you are right, and I should have said merely that Nixon attempted to bring peace with honor.

All those bombs Nixon dropped were nothing compared to the clubbing in Cambodia, the boat people and the Re-education Camps which followed from the U.S. retreat. Those murdered by communists numbered more than three million. Ask the friendly Vietnamese-American at your corner market about who the bigtime killers were.

You probably would deny John Kennedy was responsible for getting us into Vietnam in the first place... Leftists often try to represent the Vietnam War as "Nixon's War," which is absurd.

The leading name on any list of people who lost Vietnam should be Walter Cronkite, by the way, and not Nixon, Kissinger, Evans, Novak, McClure, Bellmon, Hatfield or Jackson.

I missed the canonization of Gerald Ford. He was the GOP's Harry Truman, in the sense that those two were our only stupid presidents. Curiously, Truman has been canonized, too.

Rick Perlstein - 2/11/2008

What a sickening comment. Nixon "delivered" peace five years and twenty thousand American lives, and several times more bombs dropped on Indochina than all sides during World War II, five years after his pledge to do so. And the withdrawal was as bipartisan an affair as can be imagined--despite conservative lies to the contrary. As I wrote in The New Republic:

Early in 1974, Nixon requested a support package for the South Vietnamese that included $474 million in emergency military aid. The Senate Armed Services Committee balked and approved about half. A liberal coup? Hardly. One of the critics was Senator Barry Goldwater. "We can scratch South Vietnam," he said. "It is imminent that South Vietnam is going to fall into the hands of North Vietnam." The House turned down the president's emergency aid request 177 to 154; the majority included 50 Republicans. They were only, as I wrote in The New Republic ("The Unrealist," November 6, 2006), honoring what Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger privately believed. They had gladly negotiated their peace deal under the assumption that South Vietnam would fall when the United States left. What would it have cost to keep South Vietnam in existence without an American military presence? The Pentagon, in 1973, estimated $1.4 billion even for an "austere program." Nixon and Kissinger were glad for the $700 million South Vietnam eventually got (including a couple hundred million for military aid), because their intention was merely to prop up Saigon for a "decent interval" until the American public forgot about the problem. By 1974, Kissinger pointed out, "no one will give a damn."

Apparently, they didn't tell Gerald Ford. He addressed the nation in April of 1975, eight months after becoming president, and implored Congress for $722 million in military aid. The speech was overwhelmingly and universally unpopular--the kind of thing that made Ford seem such a joke to the nation at the time. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called it "blundering." Seventy-eight percent of the public was against any further military aid; Republicans like James McClure of Idaho and Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma opposed the appropriation. Republican dove Mark Hatfield said, "I am appalled that a man would continue in such a bankrupt policy"--and Democratic hawk Scoop Jackson said, "I oppose it. I don't know of any on the Democratic side who will support it." The Senate vote against it was 61 to 32.

Leading up to the vote, however, Saint Gerald made extraordinary claims--saying that "just a relatively small additional commitment" to Vietnam (compared with the $150 billion already spent there) could "have met any military challenges." With it, "this whole tragedy"--the imminent fall of Saigon--"could have been eliminated."

So much for the Pentagon's claim that $1.4 billion would be an "austere program." So much for Nixon and Kissinger's belief that "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway." Ford's miraculous $722 million somehow became enshrined in public memory as the margin that assured American dishonor.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/11/2008

Eventually, Nixon delivered "peace with honor" in Vietnam, though it took him a couple of years, a peace which was sabotaged for the Indo-Chinese people--millions of whom died as a consequence--by the Democratic Congress in the wake of Watergate. In those days Republicans were always cleaning up wars started by the Democrats, such as when Eisenhower ended the Korean War.

George Romney was not as bright nor as articulate as his son Mitt, who also benefits from his mother's genes. Lenore was a better politician than George, too. George Romney had too many moments when he looked like a deer caught in headlights. George was considered a moderate Republican, and not only because he refused to support Goldwater in 1964. That legacy was a part of Mitt's recent problems, together with the stands he had to take in Massachusetts.

George Romney's 1963 constitution for Michigan was an improvement and took a big fight, but the power of the U.A.W. continued to sink the state inexorably. The trouble with Michigan was and is that the U.A.W. and auto manufacturers come to working agreements which screw everybody else--year after year. The auto manufacturers control the state Chamber and the state GOP. Everything agreeable to both the UAW and the "Big Three" goes through the leglislature like a greased pig, so conservatives have no voice. When Romney departed, his ultra liberal RINO Lt. Gov., Bill Milliken, was much worse. Romney was personally popular, and Milliken came in on his "coattails," which worked to diminish Romney's reputation as Milliken showed his true colors. Later, Gov. John Engler fought for the shopkeeper class for a short while, but the state has now sunken again under the auto unions, and even heavier pressure from expanded government employee unions, so cannot possibly revive economically for a long time to come, if ever.