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George Romney for President, 1968


A moment of meditation before speaking live on television about the riots.   

Mormons earn salvation, in part, through their deeds, and in this respect the religion is more like Catholicism than Protestantism. When scholars explain the extreme success some Mormons have had in business, they tend to emphasize this feature. But Matthew Bowman, a young historian at Hampden-Sydney College and the author of The Mormon People, thinks there is another implication, too. Institutions have an essential place in Mormon thought; they are the mechanisms by which the individual is transformed. In Romney’s private correspondence this theme is vivid: Asked repeatedly by young men for his advice, he suggests they dedicate themselves to their church, to their professional organizations, to volunteerism. This was the sustaining idea of his life—that buying in would bring rewards.

There was always a purposefulness about Romney, an intensity to his ascent up the social ladder. At 17, he fell in love with Lenore LaFount, the strikingly beautiful daughter of a successful Mormon businessman. (One day, she would be offered a studio contract by MGM.) His pursuit was assiduous. In Scotland, serving a church mission, he deflected accusations that the Mormons were out to steal Scottish lassies by brandishing a picture of Lenore; rather than finishing college, he followed her to Washington, D.C., and took a job as a stenographer in Senator David Walsh’s office to prove his dedication.

This won him Lenore (they would be married 64 years, and each morning he would place a fresh rose by her bedside); it also gave him a career. Soon, the Walsh job became a substantive staff position working on tariff policy, and from there he moved into a career as a lobbyist with Alcoa, and then went into the automotive industry. Three decades after his family went bust farming potatoes, Romney was overseeing Detroit’s work for the war effort, and this, too, had for him an Evangelical tone; by 1942 he was sending enthusiastic dispatches back to church headquarters detailing the “many miracles” he was watching American industry achieve.

After the war, Romney was hired as an assistant to the president of what would become American Motors, and eventually became president himself. By the late fifties, convinced that Detroit was betting too heavily on expensive, unnecessarily large cars, Romney committed his company to a smaller, cheaper, more efficient model, the Rambler, and the resulting success landed him on the cover of Time. In front of Congress, he testified against the concentration of power in large companies and unions; in Detroit, he built the beginnings of a political career, working to reform the city’s schools and, eventually, the Michigan constitution.

What was taking shape was his vision of a perfect society, one in which government need not intervene because the “independent sector”—community organizations, professional and religious groups, and American businesses—could fix social problems on their own. Whenever they were detailing a solution to a policy problem, Romney’s aides learned to look first to these groups before turning to the government. He believed “that these contexts would help the individual, that they would give meaning,” says De Vries. No one, after all, is more invested in a good elite than the outsider who has had to work to join it. “I think he believed that America would always work,” De Vries says, “because America had always worked for him.”

Summer, 1967.

The riot started Sunday at dawn in Detroit, July 23, 1967, after police tried to raid an unlicensed after-hours club, but it took several hours before it was clear that the crowds that gathered there, throwing bottles at the cops, were not going away. Romney’s aides were soon driving down Interstate 696 from Lansing to Detroit, and as Bill Whitbeck arrived the streets were almost empty of cars. “Eerie,” he remembers. From the freeway he could see smoke rising from the West Side, where the conflict had begun, but also from the East. As another group of aides inched along, trying to navigate the roadblocks, they noticed that the looting seemed strategic—some stores had been left alone while others on the same block had been emptied entirely. “We observed that we were the only white men in the area, driving,” they would write in a memo. “We decided that it would be to our advantage to leave the vicinity as soon as possible.”

Romney had been at home in Bloomfield Hills that first day, working on a foreign-policy speech, but in the evening he took a helicopter flight over the city to get a feel for the scale of the damage. The fires had spread over an area of eight square miles. Romney had asked a contingent of National Guardsmen to deploy to Detroit and stand by, but it wasn’t clear whether these forces could contain the violence. When he held a press conference with the Detroit mayor after midnight, the two officials told reporters that “the difficulty” now consumed 139 square miles, and Romney told reporters he had called the attorney general to request federal reinforcements. “It is the only prudent thing to do,” he said. But it was Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, and Romney was a political threat, and so Washington seemed to delay: First, Romney was told the request needed to be in writing; then, when he sent a telegram, that he had used the wrong language. Romney, furious, was convinced that the Democratic White House was cynically stalling.


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