REALITY CHECK: Mitt Romney — Some relevant family history. Part II, “Brainwashing.”

Yes, Mitt Romney has flip-flopped.  In 2002, he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a pro-choice moderate.  Today in 2012 he paints himself a dedicated pro-life conservative.  Who is the real Mitt?  This contradiction has raised alarms for true believers on both sides, making it his biggest single vulnerability today as a candidate for President of the United States.  

But Mitt Romney has navigated this minefield with spectacular ease.  It’s as if he’s been preparing for it his entire life.  And that, in fact, is where the real truth lies.  Mitt has a family skeleton on this point.

In Part I of this post (click here), I mentioned that Mitt’s father, three-term Michigan governor George W. Romney, also ran for the White House back in 1968, when Mitt was just 21 years old.  But George Romney in late 1967, just as his campaign was getting started, saw it collapse over a classic verbal gaffe — telling a reporter he had been “brainwashed” by Pentagon officials into supporting the Vietnam war.  (See the full actual 1967 clip, above.)

For his father George, this ultimate “flip-flip” exploded as a national embarrassment.  For young Mitt, it taught a painful lesson.

The gaffe

Son and father, Mitt and George Romney, with mother Lenore, early 1960s.

George Romney started his campaign for president with high hopes.  He had won his third election as Michigan governor in 1966 by a 580,000 vote margin, making him one of the most successful and popular Republicans in the country.  He had strong backing from Party leaders wanting to avoid a repeat of Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat.  He led Richard Nixon by 8 full points in the Gallop Poll for the Republican nomination at the opening of 1967.  

But George Romney still had to address the key burning issue facing the country that year: the Vietnam War. 

Since August 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson had pressed the US Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military intervention in South Vietnam, Johnson had escalated American involvement from 16,500 to almost 500,000 troops in 1967, including large numbers of draftees and accompanied by massive bombing of the North.  Casualties mounted; over 30,000 US soldiers would die under LBJ’s watch with no clear strategy and no end in sight.   

Still, at this early stage, few American politicians dared to publicly criticize the War for fear of being labelled disloyal, unpatriotic, or weak — despite the fact that an increasingly militant antiwar movement was taking hold across the country.  

George Romney had visited Vietnam in 1965, been briefed by military leaders, and been an early strong supporter of the War.  But like many Americans, he grew skeptical over time.  On August 31, 1967, in a routine interview with Detroit station WKBD-TV, reporter Lou Gordon confronted Romney on the issue.  He quoted Romney’s early support of the War, then quoted his recent criticism, and asked about the contradiction.  The result was disaster.

Listen to Romney’s answer (click on the image above).  At the time, most people simply heard the word “brainwashing” and ignored the rest.  And why not?  It was a terrible choice. Barely a decade since the Korean War in which North Koreans used psychological torture against American POWs — actual “brainwashing” — it sounded whiney and evasive, like Romney was charging the American generals with bad faith, while also acknowledging his own ignorance and suggesting some psychological disorder.  All this, plus he was criticizing a wartime president with soldiers under fire.

The reaction was immediate.  Vermont Governor Philip H. Hoff, a friendly Republican who had accompanied Romney on his 1965 trip to Vietnam and attended the same briefings with the generals, called Romney’s remark “outrageous, kind of stinking … Either he’s a most naïve man or he lacks judgment.”  Senator Eugene McCarthy (D.-Minnesota), running against LBJ for the Democratic nomination, turned it into a joke, saying that in Romney’s case, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”  Within days, Romney’s support cratered, plummeting from 24% down to 14% in the Gallup Poll, giving Richard Nixon a large lead.

After that, critics would label Romney as indecisive and  inept.   Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary in March 1968, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller would announce his own availability for the Republican nomination and George Romney would pull out of the race.  

But listen to the rest of Romney’s actual answer to the 1967 question — not just the word “brainwashing.”  What he said, in sum, was that on his original 1965 visit to Vietnam, the generals gave him an unrealistic, over-optimistic report based on bad information, and that, since then, he had done his own independent homework, studied the facts, and changed his mind.   The bottom line?  George Romney was right about Vietnam.  LBJ and his generals had misled the country into a war that ultimately cost some 58,000 American lives.

Impact on young Mitt
Young Mitt Romney was not at his father’s side during this crisis.  Instead, Mitt was off in France in 1967 and 1968 on a Morman missionary adventure.  Still, he followed his father’s campaign closely.  At the end, he received a letter from his father telling him simply “Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved.”    

Mitt as a 21 year-old, certainly understood his father’s 1967 views on Vietnam, and was even quoted himself as criticizing the War in a 1970 interview with the Boston Globe.  “If it wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam,” he told the reporter, “I don’t know what is.”    

Recently, Mitt Romney talked about the episode to the Washington Post, how it made him more cautious and circumspect.  “My own experience has taught me you have to exercise care,” he explained.   For instance:   “After 9/11, I got a question about whether the [Olympic] Games [which he was then managing in Salt Lake City] would be cancelled if another terrorist incident occurred … I could see the headline.  ‘Romney May Consider Canceling the Games’ … So I knew I couldn’t answer the question directly.  I said that it would be ‘unthinkable’ to cancel the Games.”

As for the “brainwashing” episode itself, Mitt said this: “My father later did not look back…. It was not a big issue in our house.”  

Let’s hope that Mitt Romney learned the right lesson from his father’s 1967 disaster.  Right or wrong, in politics, how you say something can be just as important as what you say.   Mitt has had several years to prepare to explain his flip flops on Obama’s health care bill, his Massachusetts pro-choice statements, and the rest.  You won’t hear Mitt Romney complain about being “brainwashed” by anyone.  But hopefully, this will not stop him in the future from actually keeping his mind open and changing it when it’s the right thing to do.

REALITY CHECK: Mitt Romney – Some relevant family history. Part I, Goldwater 1964.

It is no secret that Mitt Romney — this week’s Iowa Caucus winner and now clear frontrunner for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination — is not the first member of his family to seek the White House.  Mitt’s father, three-term Michigan governor George W. Romney, also made the attempt back in 1968.  Mitt was just 21 years old at the time, and his father came achingly close before seeing his campaign for the Republican ticket collapse over a classic verbal gaffe — telling reporters he had been “brainwashed” by Pentagon officials into supporting the Vietnam war.  But more on that later.

  Then-Michigan Gov. George Romney (father of now-presidential
candidate Mitt Romney), seated in 1964 with then-Republican presidential
candidate Barry Goldwater, whom Romney refused to enforse and called
an “extremist.”  At the podium is future president Gerald Ford, then still 
a Congressman from Michigan.

Mitt’s father also played a key role in the bitter 1964 Republican split over its nomination that year of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the arch-conservative who lost in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson while inspiring future conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan.  This is where we’ll start right now.

Today’s 2012 Republican presidential contest has much in common with 1964.  Then as now, conservative activists had launched a strident revolt against what they considered a much-too-“moderate” party elite.  
Today, the two sides are personified by Mitt Romney, the more moderate, versus several competing conservative “anti-Romneys” — Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and the rest.    Back in 1964, these two sides were led by Goldwater on the right and, for the moderates, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  George Romney stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Rockefeller.
It is easy today to forget the passions of 1964.  President John Kennedy had just been assassinated a few months earlier in November 1963.  Americans feared nuclear annihilation from Soviet Russia, and agitation for (and against) Civil Rights reached its peak.  The watershed 1964 Civil Rights Act passed the Senate that summer only after a two-month filibuster.   
Barry Goldwater, a World War II Air Force pilot, two-term US Senator, and author of  The Conscience of a Conservative, happily represented the far right.   He saved his sharpest elbows for eastern moderates in his own Party.  “[S]ometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea,” he once told reporters in 1961.  As for Russian communists, he joked that the U.S. military should just “lob one [nuclear bomb] into the men’s room of the Kremlin” and solve the problem for good.  
Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act which, in the heat of that year, drew major attention, especially in the South.  He denied being racist, but when asked to renounce prejudice in a formal way, he refused — presumably to avoid offending southern white supporters. In your heart you know he’s right,” chanted friends.  Enemies replied: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

Nelson and Happy Rockefeller on their 1963 honeymoon.

 Nelson Rockefeller, by contrast, oozed with eastern elitism.  The wealthy grandson of Standard Oil titan John D. Rockefeller, the New York governor not only practiced liberal big-city politics but also crossed a cultural taboo in 1963 by divorcing his wife and immediately marrying a women fifteen years younger named Happy who also had recently divorced her own husband and ceded him custody of their four children.  Few doubted that the two had carried on a secret affair for years.  In 1964, adultury still mattered.

Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller fought a string of bitter primary contests in early 1964, but Goldwater’s triumph in California gave him by far the most delegates.  When the Party met for its nominating convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, tension boiled.  A last-ditch stop-Goldwater effort quickly materialized.  Leading it was George W. Romney.

George Romney had been elected Michigan governor in 1962.  A former auto executive, he had created a state income tax and, like Rockefeller, was a strong civil rights backer.  In June 1964, watching the growing split in his Party, Romney had no trouble picking sides.  He joined 12 other Republican governors that month in blasting Goldwater, declaring “I will do everything within my power to keep him from becoming the party’s presidential nominee.”  Reaching the convention in San Francisco, he told the platform committee to “unequivocally reject extremism of the right and the left” — a clear slap at Goldwater and his followers.

Charges of “extremism” against Goldwater crescendoed over the next few days, culminating in an ugly scene as Nelson Rockefeller himself was loudly booed when he addressed the convention(see clip above).  Eight different candidates received first ballot votes (including 41 for Romney), but this was not enough to stop the inevitable.  In accepting the nomination, Goldwater shot back at his critics: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  

After San Francisco, Republican moderates abandoned the party in droves.  Still, Barry Goldwater hoped he might be able to win over George Romney.  He reached out, and Romney apparently was willing to try to bridge the gap.  That August, just prior to a meeting in Pennsylvania, Romney sent Goldwater (via his vice presidential running mate Congressman William Miller (R-NY)) a brief statement on civil rights and asked Goldwater to endorse it as a way to de-fuse the issue.  According to journalists Roland Evans and Robert Novak, the statement read in part as follows: “The rights of some must not be enjoyed by denying the rights of others.  Neither can we  permit states rights at the expense of human rights.”

Goldwater refused, and after that George Romney drew the line.  He refused to endorse Goldwater or to appear with him publicly.  Later, he wrote Goldwater a twelve page private letter explaining his reasons, focusing on civil rights  In the end, Romney won re-election that year as Michigan governor by 380,000 votes as Goldwater was losing the state by over a million.

All of which brings us back to Mitt Romney and 2012.  Talking a few years ago to Tim Russert about his father (who died in 1995), Mitt described the 1964 confrontation in these terms: “my dad walked out of the Republican convention in 1964 in San Francisco in part because Barry Goldwater in his speech gave my dad the impression that he was someone who would be weak on civil rights.”

As Mitt Romney today prepares to fight the conservative wing of his modern Republican Party in a contest not much different from the Goldwater insurgency of 1964, will Mitt have the same backbone as his father to stand up for his “moderate” beliefs, even at the cost of catcalls and boos from the right wing chorus?   Stay tuned…..

In Part II, we’ll talk about that “brainwashing” episode.   I think you’ll be surprised at the truth…..