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George Romney for President, 1968

Somehow that resistance broke on The Lou Gordon Program. In Vietnam, Romney told the host, referring to his 1965 trip, “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get … Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.” More recently, he had “gone into the history of Vietnam, all the way back into World War II and before, and as a result I have changed my mind … I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam.” He went on, issuing a torrent of national guilt—“We have created this conflict that is now a test between Communism and freedom there.” The governor, normally controlled, was on a rare bender, and Gordon let him go.

Brainwashing had a specific connotation then: It was the term used to describe the ways in which the Communist state sought to control people’s minds; it conjured images of The Manchurian Candidate. The reference suggested that Romney was paranoid and naïve, and perhaps it also subtly reinforced the suspicion that his religion might be a cult. The Detroit News, for years his firmest supporter in the press, condemned him, and so did virtually everyone else—the chairman of the Republican party in Iowa, even his old friend Robert ­McNamara. In the Gallup poll, Nixon’s lead ballooned to 26 points. But Romney kept trying to explain his own alienation, kept doubling down. “I’m concerned about truth and credibility in government,” Romney began a fund-raising speech in Oregon seven days later. “I believe we face a credibility crisis in America today.” He blamed the Johnson administration, and then he went further: The crisis, he said, “involves a growing disbelief in some of our nation’s basic truths.”

Nobody in the Romney campaign, with the exception of George Romney himself, thought that beginning the fall of 1967 with a tour of the American ghetto was a very good idea. The national polls were getting worse, and in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, they were disastrous. The tour seemed strangely off-point; there was possibly not a single Republican vote to be won in Watts. But Romney himself seemed on a mission. “We must rouse ourselves from our comfort, pleasure, and preoccupations and listen to the voices from the ghetto,” he said in one speech. It was, after all, his campaign. He went.

The trip required advance men for seventeen cities. In Saint Louis, Bill Whitbeck followed close behind as Romney disappeared into a housing project where a woman “poured out this tale of woe—son killed, daughter raped. A searing experience.” In Washington, D.C., Romney met with Marion Barry; in Rochester, with Saul Alinsky, near portraits of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. “I am more convinced than ever before that unless we reverse our course, build a new America, the old America will be destroyed,” he said.

Romney was talking into a vacuum. Republicans weren’t interested in the problems of the ghetto, and the ghetto wasn’t interested in Romney’s solutions. On his tour, as the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in Rule and Ruin, Romney was convinced that “independent citizens groups and local private-sector institutions could make a greater impact than federal programs in improving life in the slums.” What stayed with his staffers was the loneliness of Romney in the ghetto, the earnestness of the endeavor but also its delusion.

In Watts one day, Romney and Lenore were sitting in the back of a sedan, being chauffeured to the airport by a local driver, with Romney’s bodyguard riding shotgun. According to a story that circulated all through the campaign, Romney leaned forward: “Say, what is that word they keep saying to me? I don’t understand, it begins with an M…” The driver and the bodyguard racked their brains as Romney tried to pronounce it, working his western consonants around an inner-city accent. Then the driver straightened up and said, “Governor, I think what they’re saying is”—and here he let his voice get kind of ghetto—“mo’fucka.” And then, because Romney was legendarily a Mormon and these vulgarities may have been somewhat beyond him, the driver clarified: “Motherfucker, sir.” And Romney sank back into his seat, like a part of the car that had been mechanically retracted.

From within the Romney campaign—which is to say, from the unreconstructed core of country-club Republicanism—a kind of closeted leftward migration was under way. Moore had become so incensed with the Vietnam War that when he voted in 1972, it was for the Democratic peace candidate George McGovern. By the early seventies, De Vries had abandoned Republicans and was working for progressive Democratic candidates in North Carolina. And yet Romney, his alienation just as deep, did not follow them. Something kept him back.