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George Romney for President, 1968

When the governor of Michigan ran for the Republican nomination, in 1968, he tried to stand up against the more radical wing of his party. His defeat was swift, tragic, and, for his son, instructive.

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You could say that the end of the moderate-Republican Establishment—the days when the smoke-filled rooms started to empty of father figures, and the casual country-club banter was replaced by something angrier—began at the party’s 1964 convention, at the Cow Palace, just south of downtown San Francisco, a week that ended with Barry Goldwater nominated for president. Political revolutions are often apparent only in retrospect, but this one was obvious to everyone right away, as if some great national timing mechanism had been involved. The conservatives, arriving and feeling triumphant, gave the event an explosive, adolescent, rumspringa energy.

This atmosphere was alarming enough to George Romney, the governor of Michigan, that he arrived a few days early, to support an amendment to the official party platform that would denounce extremism of all types. After his testimony, which also included support for an enhanced civil-rights amendment, Romney found himself in conversation with a leading southern delegate. Romney’s amendment, the delegate explained, was a nonstarter. He “made it clear that there had been a platform deal that was a surrender to the southern segregationists,” Romney later wrote in a furious letter to Goldwater. Romney was too late. The trajectory of the party had already been arranged.

The feeling of right-wing ascendance was almost physical. Some young moderates compared the atmosphere to a Nazi rally. “The booing, the hissing—it was frightening,” says Walter De Vries, who was Romney’s chief political strategist. Dwight Eisenhower, who just four years earlier had been president and was still the moderates’ icon, would later tell reporters that his niece had been “molested” on the convention floor; the plutocratic New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, trying to give a speech condemning right-wing extremism, was booed and catcalled until no one could hear him. (Rockefeller, characteristically, gave as good as he got.) Romney’s camp had long regarded Michigan’s conservatives as provincial unmentionables, deeply angry men who showed up at state conventions armed with megaphones, trying to shout the governor down. But clearly they had figured something out. In his acceptance speech, Goldwater confirmed their power. “Extremism in the defense of liberty,” he said famously, “is no vice.”

The convention was, of course, not ­really anything like a Nazi rally, but the comparison suggests something about how essential the moderates believed their fight to be. It was obvious to them—in some cases for the last time in their political careers—exactly who was right and who was wrong. “With such extremists rising to official positions of leadership in the Republican party, we cannot recapture the respect of the nation and lead it to its necessary spiritual … and political rebirth,” Romney said. He walked out of his own party’s convention, taking with him De Vries and his 17-year-old son Mitt, and became, in that moment, a candidate for president in 1968. He also became an idea of himself—the tragic, alienated moderate Republican, a character he would spend nearly a decade performing, until, in 1972, he resigned from the Nixon administration and more or less retired from public life.

The matter of what, exactly, happened to George Romney, and what became of the progressive Republican tradition he embodied, has ghosted into the current presidential campaign, in which his own image has been overlaid with that of his son Mitt—taller and less blockily built, but the same jaw, the same hair, the same gestures, the same ringing, pressured manner of speech, caught in a similarly uneasy negotiation with conservatives. When Mitt Romney declared his candidacy for the presidency for the first time, in 2007, it was in Michigan, a state in which he’d never had a public role, in front of a Rambler, the compact car that was the triumph of his father’s business career, not his own. Politics had never preoccupied Mitt Romney growing up, and his family was surprised he had sought office at all; there is the hint that he only became a politician to complete his father’s legacy. “My dad is Mitt’s hero,” G. Scott Romney, Mitt’s older brother, told me. “And, look, I think my brother’s an exceptional person. But Mitt has said he’s a shadow of his father.”

De Vries was friends with the late, legendary Washington Post political reporter David Broder, and in 2007 spent much of his time researching a book he planned to write, with Broder’s help, about Mitt Romney, through the lens of his father’s politics. He gave the manuscript the working title Governors George and Mitt: Like Father, Like Son. But during the 2008 campaign, as De Vries was working on the manuscript, it began to occur to him that the attributes that had once drawn him to George were not so apparent in his son. The almost sacramental faith in the institutions of American life; the moral convictions so clear they frequently became rigid; the almost physical charisma—somehow none of that had survived. One day, De Vries sat down at his computer and, with no clear precipitating cause, deleted the manuscript’s title. In its place, feeling peevish, he typed in a new one, The Political Mitt Romney: Not His Father’s Son. Then he called Broder, and told him that his thesis needed to change.


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