The nostalgia for the progressive paternalism of Rockefeller and Romney is deep and sometimes desperate, particularly now, given the conservative grip on Republican politics. One way of viewing the 1968 election, the view that De Vries inclines toward, is as the moment when the conservative faction prevailed over George Romney’s progressivism, so fully converting the party to an individualist view of society that even Romney’s own son now embraces it.
But the story of the 1968 election is more complicated than that. The moderate Establishment wasn’t just attacked; it also collapsed from within. Faced with the crises of the late sixties, Romney turned repeatedly to the Establishment he believed in, only to find it had no solutions to offer. The effect of the ghost on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign may not only be to supply a political ideal to which he can’t measure up, but to have created for him a vision of politics that long ago became impossible.
As he began his presidential campaign, George Romney had never held office outside the state of Michigan and had rarely had to think about international affairs. When policy questions were made tangible, he could handle them nimbly, but he sometimes struggled when they grew more abstract. There were, everyone on his staff acknowledged, certain gaps. And so in the spring of 1967, De Vries scheduled a series of weekend seminars, importing experts to meet with the governor at his summer home on rustic, carless Mackinac Island. The Romney camp had hired a young foreign-policy aide named Jonathan Moore, who one Friday evening arrived at the ferry dock to collect Henry Kissinger, and with him the machinery of the modern presidential campaign. They were to return to the Romney home on a horse and buggy, and Moore signaled Kissinger over; the horse released a “warm, moist” fart right into the professor’s face. “Kissinger gave a little cough,” Moore says, “and then sort of looked off into the distance and said, ‘I see we have a lot of ground to cover.’ ”
Ever since the 1964 convention, the Republican Party’s elders had tried to persuade Romney and Goldwater to reconcile, as a step toward reuniting the party’s progressives and conservatives. What they got instead was a catalogue of picayune slights and feuds and a growing ideological distance, a kind of nuclear-arms race in the arena of epistolary dictation to secretaries. For months the two men sniped at each other by letter, extending and then retracting invitations to meet, taking offense at tiny snubs. Romney drafted a statement disavowing extremists that he insisted Goldwater sign; Goldwater refused. Let’s “ask ourselves,” the conservative wrote to Romney, “who it was in the party who said, in effect: ‘If I can’t have my way, I’m not going to play?’ One of these men happens to be you.”
This feud revealed the shape of the party as 1968 approached—there would be a conservative candidate and a progressive one, and it was obvious early on that the progressive would be Romney. Rockefeller had given Romney his backing at the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico, pledging significant northeastern support and offering the use of his policy staff.
In Michigan, particularly to the young men who clustered around him, George Romney seemed to embody the party’s future. “He was so atypical, so fresh,” De Vries says, “that he made the other Republicans seem gloomy by comparison.” Romney had the classic Republican convictions—enthusiasm for the market and for a less intrusive federal government, and a moral core to his politics. The labor-backed Democratic Party, for him, “was politically corrupt, morally wrong, economically unsound, and socially indefensible.” When he ran for office it was always as a modernizer. In 1963, President Kennedy had confided to his close friend Paul Fay, “The one fellow I don’t want to run against is Romney.”
But from his first campaign in Michigan, Romney downplayed his partisan affiliation. His first great fight was to successfully reform Michigan’s constitution, giving the state the right to tax more broadly, adding civil-rights protections, and reallocating political power from rural areas to the growing cities. His approach could be theatrical: He would barge into labor parades and union plants, environments where he was politically least welcome. When the young civil-rights activist Viola Liuzzo was killed in Alabama, he stomped to her Detroit door and told her family her death reminded him of Joan of Arc’s; he demonstrated for housing integration in Grosse Pointe. I mentioned to an old Romney aide named Bill Whitbeck that Romney seemed awfully willful. “Willful is kind of a weak word,” he said, and took a minute to think of another one. “Messianic,” he finally offered. “This guy was John Brown.”