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George Romney for President, 1968

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The city continued to burn. What would come to characterize the Detroit riots—and make them uniquely terrifying—was the presence of a novel figure, the radical black sniper. Two days into the riots, a group of 40 National Guardsmen and police were pinned down at Ford Hospital by snipers. A 51-year-old white woman named Helen Hall, visiting Detroit on business, was shot through the window of the Harlan House Motel. It now appears likely she was actually killed by a Guardsman’s errant bullet, but the cops at the time insisted it was a sniper with a deer rifle.

The imagery of Vietnam was replicating itself; for a few days, the ghetto really was a war zone. To Nixon, the implications were clear. “We must take the warnings to heart,” he would later declare, “and prepare to meet force with force if necessary.” The reaction to the riots, in his hands, was an incubator for the politics of white backlash. To court conservative voters, Nixon could play “the white side’s field marshal,” as the historian Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland. In private, the former vice-president was negotiating with Senator Strom Thurmond the terms of Southern influence within the party—his White House would not oppose integration, but neither would it implement it speedily. In public, the riots allowed him to focus racial anxieties on something more immediate: the fear of violence. Nixon would tell a national radio audience, “our first commitment as a nation in this time of crisis and questioning must be a commitment to order.”

Romney’s perspective was different, and his reaction to the riots far more fraught. The governor had spent years working to improve Detroit’s black inner city, to incorporate it, to give it access to the broader society. Though his church refused to ordain black clergymen until 1978, Romney was deeply committed to civil rights and clearly felt a bond with members of another persecuted minority. One of his great causes was the integration of the suburbs (his aides called it the “Romney Right to Walk to Work Program”), so blacks could join the middle class, too.

But the black middle class itself was revolting. When Romney staffers drove through Detroit during the riots, they noticed that “the looting and the fire bombing was supported by a number of middle-income Negroes.” The black homeowners they interviewed refused to intervene; the black ministers they encountered blamed the extortionate practices of the burned businesses. Blacks were repudiating Romney’s buy-in from the left, just as Nixon was repudiating it from the right. Driving toward Woodward Avenue, on the city’s West Side, the staffers noticed that many buildings had signs written on them, in chalk or paint: “Soul Brother lives upstairs. Please do not burn.” “Soul Brother. Do Not Burn.” Then, simply: “Soul Brother.”

It took about a week for the violence to dissipate, once the troops sent by Washington finally arrived. Forty-three people were killed in the rioting; hundreds of stores were looted. Romney was, first, furious at the White House. His second reaction, De Vries says, was deeper: “I think he had a hard time explaining why this had happened.”

Fall, 1967.

On August 31, one month after the riots, Romney showed up at a Detroit television station for an interview on The Lou Gordon Program, which mattered quite a lot locally and not much at all to anyone else. The summer had both preoccupied and diminished him. When he could get away from Michigan, Romney was focusing on small campaign events where the force of his personality might move a few votes. Nixon, meanwhile, was running a brilliant mass-media campaign, soon to be orchestrated by his aide Roger Ailes—“no baby-kissing, no handshaking, no factory gates,” Nixon said. At the beginning of the year, the race had been a dead heat; now Romney was eleven points behind.

Romney had been devoting his attention to the wrong cataclysm. The race riots were important, their political aftereffects profound. But the crisis that the news reporters kept returning to—the question that for them defined who could handle the presidency—was not the riots but Vietnam, and here Romney had less familiarity, and even less clarity. On the eve of a big Vietnam speech, unsure of himself, he’d sent the draft to Rockefeller for approval. Now, as he trudged from doorstep to doorstep, the governor’s Vietnam position was still “unresolved,” Moore says. Reporters had noticed. At the taping that day, Gordon asked whether Romney had changed his position since 1965, when he had just returned from a rushed governors’ trip to Vietnam, when he said the intervention in Vietnam was “morally right.”

Romney moralized everything; whether something was morally right was the question that interested him the most. That trip, back when the war was smaller and still dimly understood, when the governor had pinned Purple Hearts on wounded soldiers, had convinced him to support the president. In the years since, his doubts had coalesced—as Johnson tried to bully him into support, as figures like Martin Luther King Jr. issued denunciations—and he was becoming “more and more convinced that the war was a mistake,” says Moore. “And yet he had this patriotic instinct he had to get past.”


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