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For Romney, Father Doesn't Know Best

August 27, 2012

One of the inevitable developments of any modern presidency is the "psycho-history" cottage industry. That is, academics, physicians, amateur psychologists and dishonest partisans predictably produce elaborate psychological theories tracing the conscious and subconscious roots of the President's personality and political worldview.
But on the eve of this week's Republican National Convention that will officially nominate Mitt Romney, concerned conservatives and puzzled pundits are already paging Dr. Freud. Team Romney continues to fret over the "empathy gap" with Barack Obama. His supporters struggle to explain the paradox between Mitt's apparent dedication and generosity to those within his small circle of family, friends, business colleagues and fellow church members, and his jaw-dropping detachment towards everyone outside it. In many ways, it seems, Mitt Romney remains unknowable to us.
As it turns out, in January Nixonland author Rick Perlstein offered what may be the keenest insight into the mind of Mitt thus far. In his almost Shakespearean tale of filial piety gone wrong, Mitt is an undoubting Hamlet figure, the son who must avenge his beloved father George's 1968 defeat most foul at the hands of Richard Nixon. As Ann Romney put it, "He is why Mitt is running." But to succeed in his quest, Mitt the Redeemer had to become Mitt the Repudiator. In pursuit of votes, the son cast aside the bluntness, candor and authenticity that also made his father politically vulnerable, replacing it with secrecy, serial flip-flopping and almost pathological dissembling about what he believes and what he would do. The result, as a quick glance at his positions on taxes, civil rights, education and unions shows, is that Mitt Romney has essentially become George Romney's opposite.
Which is more than a little ironic--and disturbing. After all, Mitt has used his dad as a human shield for years, telling Americans that he "saw" his father march with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960's (he didn't see that) and fondly remembered joining Pop for Detroit's Golden Jubilee in 1946 (Mitt wasn't born yet). But even more than a mask for Mitt to wear to connect to workers and minority voters, father George Romney became a proxy for the rags-to-riches story his son obviously lacked. In February, for example, Mitt used George's humble roots as a substitute for his own privileged background:

My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed, as a lath and plaster carpenter, and he was darn good at it. He learned how to put a handful of nails in his mouth and spit them out, point forward. On his honeymoon, he and Mom drove across the country. Dad sold aluminum paint along the way, to pay for gas and hotels.
There were a lot reasons my father could have given up or set his sights lower. But Dad always believed in America; and in that America, a lath and plaster man could work his way up to running a little car company called American Motors and end up Governor of a state where he had once sold aluminum paint.

As he has for months, Romney claimed that questions about his mysterious finances and Darwinian business practices were an attack on "success and free enterprise." When President Obama said that all Americans deserve a "fair shot," even those who like him weren't "born with a sliver spoon in my mouth," Mitt took umbrage:

"I'm certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life. He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn't have a college degree. And one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters."

But as Rick Perlstein explained, AMC CEO turned Michigan George Romney's compassion didn't end with his family:

His vision of how capitalism should work was in every particular the exact opposite of the one pushed by the vulture capitalist he sired. (If George Romney's AMC was around now, Mitt Romney's Bain Capital would probably be busy turning it into a carcass.) A critic once said he was "so dedicated to good works his entrance into politics is like sending a Salvation Army lass into the chorus at a burlesque house." As a CEO he would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that "rugged individualism" was the key to America's success, he snapped back, "It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed."

As we'll see time and again below, that kind of talk wasn't going to endear Mitt Romney to today's Republican Party.
George's ethos also led him to establish in 1968 the precedent that presidential candidates release their tax returns. And his disclosure was, as Paul Krugman recalled, "not one, not two, but 12 years' worth of tax returns, explaining that any one year might just be a 'fluke.'" As it turns out, Krugman noted, the auto magnate and Michigan governor not only paid a lot to the U.S. Treasury, but probably much more than he needed to on an annual income worth $5 million today:

Those returns also reveal that he paid a lot of taxes -- 36 percent of his income in 1960, 37 percent over the whole period. This was in part because, as one report at the time put it, he "seldom took advantage of loopholes to escape his tax obligations."

Now, Mitt Romney insists that people like his father aren't merely suckers; they should be disqualified from becoming President of the United States. As he recently explained to ABC News:

"From time to time I've been audited as happens I think to other citizens as well and the accounting firm which prepares my taxes has done a very thorough and complete job pay taxes as legally due. I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires."

But Mitt's beloved father George committed another sin: he lost. The man who in 1966 was the frontrunner for the 1968 GOP presidential nomination was crushed by Richard Nixon, in part because of his infamous 1967 comment that "I just had the greatest brainwashing" on Vietnam. (William F. Buckley snarked, "I would have thought a light rinse would do.") What George was selling on shared prosperity, opposition to the Vietnam War and support of civil rights Republican voters weren't buying. According to Perlstein, the lesson young Mitt took away from his father's humbling defeat was a powerful one:

Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy's left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded individual mandate into Massachusetts' healthcare system. Then he raced to the right to run for president.

In a nutshell, to win the Republican nomination for the White House, Mitt Romney concluded he had to either reject almost everything his father stood for or, more often, simply stand for nothing at all.
Consider civil rights. As Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey recently detailed, George Romney challenged his party and his church in championing civil rights:

In 1963, George Romney was able to forge a bond with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King that seems virtually inconceivable across today's political divide. The year was a pivotal one for both men. In between launching his spring campaign in Birmingham and delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington at the end of August, King led a march in Detroit in June.
Romney had just become Governor of Michigan and declared the occasion "Freedom Day in Michigan." He sent an emissary to join the crowd of about 120,000 (had the march not been on a Sunday, he likely would have been there himself). The following year, in his State of the State address, the governor said that "Michigan's most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination--in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment."

In what would become one of the funnier ironies of the 2012 GOP primary campaign, it turned out that Michigan Governor George Romney in the wake of the devastating 1967 riots in Detroit urged his state's political establishment to work with the now-dreaded Saul Alinsky:

When slum organizer Saul Alinsky, with the West Side Organization's militant Negroes and clerics, wanted to meet with the white Detroit rulers, Romney indirectly arranged the meeting, and attended. Democratic Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh avoided the rough company.
"I think you ought to listen to Alinsky," Romney told his reluctant white friends. 'It seems to me that we are always talking to the same people. Maybe the time has come to hear new voices." Said an Episcopal bishop, 'He made Alinsky sound like a Republican.'"

Forty-four years later, George Romney would be persona non grata in his son's Republican Party. In April, Mitt voiced his support for the GOP's nationwide minority vote suppression efforts, proclaiming "I like Voter ID laws." This week, even the AP reported "Romney pushes on with discredited welfare attacks" which with good reason "could open Romney up to criticism that he is injecting race into the campaign." And on Friday, Romney joined his endorser, fundraiser and wife's birthday bash host Donald Trump in pandering to the GOP's birther base. As he put it at an event in Michigan:

"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

With statements like that, it's no wonder Mitt Romney "expected" to get boos when he went to address to the NAACP in July. (Many have argued he wanted to get those boos, precisely because his real audience wasn't the African-American attendees in the room but the white Republicans watching on Fox News at home.) "I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African American families," Mitt told the assembled activists, "you would vote for me for president." (If they looked not to his heart but his record in Massachusetts, they would have learned that Governor Mitt Romney moved immediately--and unilaterally--to shutter the state's affirmative action office.) But unable to muster examples of his own commitment to civil rights, Romney the Younger nevertheless used his father's instead.

Yet always, in both parties, there have been men and women of integrity, decency, and humility who called injustice by its name. For every one of us a particular person comes to mind, someone who set a standard of conduct and made us better by their example. For me, that man is my father, George Romney.
It wasn't just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did. It wasn't just that he helped create Michigan's first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit - though he did those things, too.
More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.
I'm grateful to him for so many things, and above all for the knowledge of God, whose ways are not always our ways, but whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever.

Mitt's mercy, he and his party have made clear, apparently does not extend to America's immigrants, legal or otherwise. If it did, Romney would not have turned to the architects of Arizona's draconian SB 1070 as campaign advisers. He did not stop the 2012 Republican platform from reflecting that hardline because he was too afraid to stop it. As millions of Hispanic Americans no doubt still astonished by his language of "self-deportatation" could repeat by rote, "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake."
Earlier this month, Mitt Romney granted an exclusive interview to Bloomberg News in which he spoke of how he learned about leadership from his father. The example he chose was a curious one:

"I watched him at American Motors as he interacted with not only executives, but workers there. I remember going to Milwaukee as he addressed UAW employees at the Milwaukee stadium and described to them the new profit-sharing program that he and the head of the UAW had put in place."

Of course, Mitt's not shy when it comes to revealing his real feelings about the UAW or any other union. As we learned in March, the man who pretends he used to worry about getting a "pink slip" stills gets a chuckle thinking about those who did when his father moved AMC jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin. It's no wonder Mitt Romney turned his back on his former home town in 2008, declaring, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Earlier this year, he explained why he opposed the Obama rescue package that saved the U.S. auto industry and with it over a million American jobs:

"I call it crony capitalism. I've taken on union bosses before. I'm happy to take them on again because I happen to believe that you can protect the interests of the American taxpayers and you can protect a great industry like automobiles without having to give in to the UAW, and I sure won't."

Mitt Romney may love American cars, just not the people who make them.
Mitt's disdain for workers and their unions hardly ends there. The Bain Capital business tycoon didn't merely extract millions in management fees and dividends even as his portfolio companies shed employees or even went bankrupt. Mitt Romney is a strong supporter of so-called "Right to Work" laws. He has repeatedly deceived voters about federal employees making more than their private sector counterparts and then complained about "our servants who are making a lot more money than we are." In January, Romney blasted President Obama for appointing "union stooges" to the National Labor Relations Board, only to have one of the NLRB's members resign over leaking confidential information to the Romney campaign and other Republicans.
In his Bloomberg discussion of his dad, Mitt Romney also recalled of his idol, "I later saw him work on policy that related to the state of Michigan, particularly its education system." Apparently, watching his dad at work had no impact on shaping his own voucher scheme designed to redirect taxpayer dollars from public to private and religious schools. As the American Prospect recently lamented:

"Without neighborhood integration, Mitt Romney's school-choice plan won't close the achievement gap. George Romney knew better."

The Father knew better than the Son, it would seem, on just about everything. But 2012 is not 1968. And to honor his father's legacy by winning the Republican nomination for President George Romney could not, Mitt Romney cast off his dad's politics like an old coat. Their shared church and large bank accounts notwithstanding, the only thing Mitt Romney may have in common with his father is the same chronically awkward style on the stump. As columnist Mark Shields recalled:

George Romney, an admirable man and valuable public servant, is, sadly and unfairly, best remembered politically for his "brainwashed" gaffe. Ohio Republican Gov. Jim Rhodes, who backed his Michigan neighbor in that campaign, remarked afterward that "watching George Romney run for president was like watching a duck 'make love' to a football."

Unfairly or not, George Romney became something of a joke. But if American voters put his son in the White House, it will be no laughing matter.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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