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George Romney for President, 1968

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The governor, guarded by an armed policeman as he tours the scene of the Detroit riots in July 1967.  

The messianic figure for the conservatives was already apparent in 1967: Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had been governor of California for less than a year and was adamant he would not run, so the most powerful force in the party had no natural champion. It did, however, have the former vice-president, a mainstream man who nonetheless saw where the wind was blowing. Nixon, one Republican insider had told David Broder, “is trying to take the remnant of this Goldwater thing and give it some respectability.”

When Nixon first organized his aides to plan his campaign, at the Waldorf Towers in New York, he laid out the odds, as he saw them. Romney was even money for the nomination; the odds against himself, Nixon said, were two to one. The opportunity lay in the South; he and his advisers counted up the delegates they might collect there and determined a southern-based strategy would be enough.

Nixon may not have been a perfect ideological fit for his supporters, but then Romney was a misfit, too. In place of the lived-in, slightly cynical centrism of the Eastern elite, Romney had an idealism about the country and its institutions that only an outsider could manage. Romney was terrible at jokes and didn’t even try to tell them, diverting instead into homilies. He possessed, Theodore H. White wrote, “a sincerity so profound that, in conversation, one was almost embarrassed”; his politics, another writer noticed, “sounded more religious than the average Mormon sermon.” Nixon, ever shrewd, was convinced that at some point in the campaign Romney’s support would buckle as Easterners eventually tired of him.

As the national campaign arrived in Michigan, the Romneyites started to feel their own difference—a cultural earnestness that might seem anachronistic, an idealism that others might no longer feel. “I felt like I was on some planet that I’d never known existed,” Moore says. At one evening seminar, Moore watched the governor ask Kissinger if he wanted a drink. Kissinger did. The governor had a little sideboard where he kept the alcohol, strictly for guests. Moore watched him, fumblingly, pour a glass that must have been 80 percent booze, a little bit of water splashed over the top. Romney extended the tumbler. Kissinger gave a tense grin and, after a second, accepted it.

If you forget for a moment the scrim of weirdness that shades even the word Mormon—the underwear, the rites, the space-alien temples, the fact that before a 19-year-old George Romney was sent on his mission he was taken inside the Salt Lake City temple and stripped and doused with anointing oils—what you are left with is a system of belief in which America itself is hallowed. Not just the abstract ideas of freedom, liberty, and self-determination, but the design of the country is believed by Mormons to be divinely inspired: the Constitution, the separation of legislative and executive powers, even the structure of the American corporation. Jesus appeared, in the Mormon tradition, not in Jerusalem or Rome but upstate New York. The most mundane spots on the map of American suburban sprawl are empowered and made holy: Palmyra, New York; Kirtland, Ohio; Nauvoo, Illinois.

Until early in the twentieth century, Mormons had a unique, supplicating position toward the United States: They believed the country had been touched by God, and it disdained them as members of a dangerous sect. It was in George Romney’s generation—and this is in some ways the story of George Romney’s own life—that Mormon culture remade itself, from an outlaw sect into the most buoyantly, enthusiastically American thing going.

George Romney was born in 1907 in a Mormon colony in Mexico, where his grandfather had moved the family two decades earlier after the American government outlawed polygamy. (George’s parents were monogamous.) Around his 5th birthday, the colony was ransacked by Mexican revolutionaries, and the family, returning to the U.S., effectively became nomads while his father chased work as a builder. By the time he was in the sixth grade, George had attended six elementary schools; the lowest point came in Idaho, when the family’s failed attempt at potato farming barely got them through the year. As a 12-year-old, George was already doing hard agricultural work, trimming the tops of sugar beets by hand.

In Romney’s papers, archived in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, there is a long reminiscence he wrote about a trip he took back to the Mormon West with his father. George was 34 and already a success, and his essay reveals a tender nostalgia for rougher times. He recalled the polygamist families he’d known as a boy—the practice was “repugnant,” but the families had “high character” and “unity.” He visited the Mormon temple in St. George, Utah, and pronounced it as stylish as the White House. Traveling with his father, he thought about how frequently his family had been in “great distress,” and how infrequently he had realized this at the time.


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