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George Romney's Job Creator

The dynasty’s forgotten kick-starter.

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David Ignatius Walsh was a trailblazer. The first Irish Catholic elected governor of Massachusetts, he was also the first son of immigrants to claim the office from Boston’s Brahmins. In 1918, Walsh was elected the commonwealth’s first Irish Catholic in the U.S. Senate, where he spent the better part of 30 years advocating for progressive domestic programs and isolationist foreign policy and against racial and religious bigotry.

Walsh was also reputedly gay, neither open about his sexuality nor taking great measures to hide it. He once told an interviewer that he enjoyed the company of women as “non-romantic companions.” Gore Vidal claimed Walsh tried to “make” his father at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. A November 1929 issue of Time noted Walsh’s “dandified” outfits, reporting that “ironic comments are sometimes heard on the contrast between his political representation and his social activities.”

In that same year, a 22-year-old George Romney moved from Utah to Washington to persuade his high-school sweetheart, Lenore LaFount, to marry him. With little money and needing work (and lacking a college degree), Romney saw an ad for a stenography job with the address of the Senate Office Building. He managed to score an interview with Walsh and land the position. But there was a problem: He wasn’t a stenographer.

It took Walsh all of two days to discover his new aide couldn’t take dictation. But rather than dismiss Romney, Walsh allowed him to swap roles with another man in the office. Thus did Romney become the senator’s tariff specialist—and there was no better time in history to be a Senate staffer with that specialty than in 1929. Congress was in the thick of writing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Romney met scores of powerful men as they sought to influence the bill.

Among those men were executives from Alcoa. Romney supplied them with info and introductions; they offered to pay him for the trouble. After Romney refused, they offered him a job and promised to double his Senate salary. Months earlier, with the Great Depression bearing down, George Romney, fresh from his Mormon mission, had taken a train across America with 35 cents in his pocket. By June 1930, he was embarking on a decade as a handsomely paid lobbyist in New Deal Washington. (His Alcoa paycheck also gave George the means to finally get Lenore to give up her acting career and marry him.) That job led to one with an even bigger paycheck in Detroit’s auto industry and, from there, to governor of Michigan and national notoriety.

Walsh’s trajectory was not so happy. In May 1942, the New York Post accused the senator of frequenting a Boerum Hill “house of degradation” that doubled as a Nazi spy nest. After a two-week investigation, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley exonerated his colleague—a case of mistaken identity, it was concluded. But the damage was done. When Barkley discussed the situation with the president, FDR suggested that in the military, a man in Walsh’s position would be left alone with a loaded revolver to do the only thing left to do. Walsh, worn down, lost his next election and died a few months afterward. By then, the roots of his very short-term stenographer’s dynasty were already well established.

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