The governor was not an intellectual. He found uncertainty uncomfortable. But on my second morning going through Romney’s papers, I found some notes he had made, on the stationery of the 1966 Midwestern Governors’ Conference. Beneath some doodles, from nowhere, Romney turned philosophical: “A great issue of our time: Does the urgent need to correct social injustice justify disobedience to law?” Something about this question seemed very important to him. “Need for Revelation,” Romney wrote, and he underlined that last word, Revelation.
He was having deep doubts. This was how liberals perceived the crises of the sixties. What followed was a searching internal inquiry, which Romney kept up over eight pages of furious scrawls, citing Martin Luther King Jr. in favor of radicalism in the name of justice, and Socrates and Abraham Lincoln against. Romney wrote down another quote: “Conscious of the fact that I cannot separate myself from the time in which I am living, I have decided to become a part of it.” The thought, improbably, is from Camus.
There are occasional moments in George Romney’s political career (the ghetto tour, for instance) in which you can feel his certainty dislodge, his attachment to the Republican Party loosen, his political commitments—to an American Establishment he would never fully inhabit, to an underclass culturally foreign to him, to a vision of the future swiftly becoming out of date—buckle under their contradictions. But if those notes from 1966 hold any insight, it is that in these moments of internal crisis, his faith was always decisive. His sprawling inquiry eventually turned to Christ, and then to some notes on Mormon teaching, recalling Joseph Smith’s admonishment to obey the law of the United States, even as it had discriminated against the Mormon Church. “God has given the answer,” Romney wrote. Mormons had made a compact with the United States: a deep loyalty in return for acceptance. “As Latter-Day-Saints,” Romney wrote, “let us obey the commandment of God to obey the law. Article of Faith.”
By November, Romney had had it. His campaign’s operating budget had been halved, and the line was that all of the remaining staffers were preparing memos explaining why the collapse was not their fault. Nixon flew into New Hampshire to give weekend speeches in front of crowds of 5,000; Romney trudged around milk plants. On a National Governors’ Conference cruise in the Virgin Islands, he visited Nelson Rockefeller’s cabin three times, pleading with the New York governor to run so that he could drop out. Rockefeller wouldn’t let him.
Romney kept going. His focus seemed on something other than winning. In November, he formally announced his candidacy in Detroit, giving a roaring speech about civil rights. Bill Whitbeck was sitting in the crowd, and the guy next to him said, “The governor wouldn’t give that speech in Missouri, would he?” Whitbeck said he would. Just after Christmas, a campaign pollster concluded that Nixon’s support in New Hampshire outnumbered Romney’s five to one. By the end of February, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary—before anyone had cast a vote for him—Romney dropped out. Mitt was in France at the time, on his church mission. “Your mother and I are not personally distressed,” George wrote his son. “As a matter of fact, we are relieved.”
Even before Romney’s breakdown on The Lou Gordon Program, he seemed bound to lose. And yet that word—brainwashing—betrays a great deal. What Romney had blurted out was that the destabilization of the sixties had reached those who believed most in the American Establishment. The military, the presidency, the centers of authority in American life could no longer be trusted. When Romney was asked by a reporter about American greatness, whether the country really compared with imperial Britain or ancient Greece, he replied, “It’s an open question.”
It is possible to think of the difference between George and Mitt Romney as a series of adaptive changes, in which the original moderate instincts have devolved so completely that Mitt’s response to a rising and angry conservatism resembles Nixon’s far more than his father’s. Perhaps Mitt noticed, following the 1968 campaign intently from Europe, that it was Nixon’s opportunism, his skill at exploiting fears of unsettling demographic change, that won. But it is also true that George Romney’s cherished institutions have lost their power, and the vision in which they would make a better society has collapsed. In Mitt’s politics, his father’s fervent progressivism has become instead an ideologically empty pragmatism that succumbs to whatever his audience wants to hear. What remains is the peculiar character of the current Republican nominee for president, an organization man without organizations.
By 1972, the era of the moderate Republican was already mostly over. One Friday, Whitbeck picked Romney up at the Detroit airport and drove the former governor home to Bloomfield Hills. Romney was, by this point, three and a half years into a job in which he had long ago become irrelevant but which he refused to leave, as Nixon’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. There he had tried and failed to persuade the White House to pursue a policy of racial integration in housing, which is to say he tried and failed to implant some progressive habits in the heart of the modern Republican party, that odd amalgam of privilege and alienated rage. Romney was contemplative, and they talked about Washington for a while, until they were nearly home. “Bill,” Romney said then, quietly, “politics will break your heart.”