Mitt Romney mentioned in an opinion piece for a Michigan newspaper last week that he learned to love “chrome and fins and roaring motors” while growing up in Detroit. His father might have disagreed with such sentiment.
George Romney, a onetime chairman of the now defunct American Motors Corp., was a pioneer of small, fuel-efficient cars, most notably the Rambler. He even kept a plaque in his office from the Cleveland Auto Dealers Association that read: “To George Romney, critic, lecturer, anthropologist, white hunter of the American dinosaur.” To the elder Romney, the gas-guzzling, chrome-laden automobiles of his era were doomed just like the prehistoric beasts.
“This fellow here is called a triceratops,” he told a Time magazine interviewer in 1959 as he pulled a miniature dinosaur from his briefcase. “He had the biggest radiator ornament in prehistoric history. It kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he could no longer hold up his head.”
Car detail tastes aside, there are numerous ways George Romney and Mitt Romney differed, both in their personalities and politics. The contrasts come into view as the son seeks to wrap himself in the popularity and success of his father -- a three-term governor in Michigan during the 1960s -- before the state’s Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary.
Volcanic Vs. Calculating
George, who died in 1995, was effervescent and volcanic. He pushed through the first state income tax in Michigan and supported the civil rights movement, actions that carried political risk. Mitt is more calculating and disciplined.
“George was a leader. Mitt is a manager,” said J. Bonner Ritchie, a retired business professor at Brigham Young University who was a friend of George’s and has interviewed Mitt for an unpublished book about his father. “George was willing to take risks. He was less concerned about what people would think about him. Nobody ever accused George of flip-flopping or playing to the audience.”
Ritchie said he and his two co-authors haven’t titled their book yet and are delaying its publication at the request of Mitt Romney, 64, who helped fund the project.
Too much focus on George Romney carries risk for Mitt Romney as he fights for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in a year when the party’s opposition voices to government spending, abortion rights, and immigration are the loudest.
Advocated Civil Rights
His father was part of the Republican Party’s moderate wing and he used his platform to advocate government assistance to the poor in housing and other areas. In 1964, he refused to support the party’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, in part because of Goldwater’s opposition to national civil rights laws, which ended segregation and provided minority voting rights.
Complicated relationships between fathers and sons in political families aren’t unusual. Former President George W. Bush went out of his way to keep distance between his presidency and that of his father, George H.W. Bush.
The younger Bush rarely talked about his father on the campaign trail, while Romney, the youngest of four children, routinely brings up his dad as he recounts how the family took cross-country drives to see national parks.
When he lost three Republican state caucuses on Feb. 7 to former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Romney talked about his father as he sought to highlight the family’s working-class credentials. He said his dad once apprenticed as a carpenter and could “take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward.”
The public support and affection between father and son went both ways. George Romney was a confidant to his son and campaigned at his side in Massachusetts in 1994 when he unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, who died in August 2009.
The two Romneys lived in different eras defined by their own political dynamics, so some comparisons aren’t easy fits. Still, their governing styles and backgrounds could hardly be more distinct.
George relied on gut instinct, while Mitt depends on homework and preparation. George never finished college, while Mitt attended an elite high school, Brigham Young University and Harvard University’s law and business schools.
George once inadvertently ripped the lapel off the coat of a state lawmaker during an argument, while as Massachusetts governor Mitt was known for his well-mannered behavior.
“George Romney was very outspoken, extroverted, candid and dynamic in a way that Mitt has just never been able to be,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “He was a very straight-forward, straight-shooting guy and Mitt has always had this trouble of people thinking that there is something artificial about him.”
George was also a natural salesman who showed determination in whatever he undertook, Ritchie said, including the courtship of his wife, Lenore, then an aspiring actress.
His pursuit of Lenore began in high school, and ended successfully years later after he followed her first to Washington, D.C. and then to Hollywood.
“He was persistent in a way that very few people are,” he said.
The senior Romney served as a lobbyist in Washington for the aluminum industry, before entering the automotive industry. He returned to Washington after his governorships as secretary of housing and urban development in the Nixon administration. He resigned that position in 1972, expressing frustration with the “inherent limitations” in the political processes that make reforms “too dependent upon a crisis.”
Given his views about taxes and an activist government, George likely wouldn’t mesh well in the current Republican Party. Even in his own era, he got himself into political trouble and was known for occasional gaffes, like his son.
In one of those misstatements, George damaged his own presidential bid when he told an interviewer in 1967 that he’d suffered a “brainwashing” in 1965 from military commanders and diplomats during his travels in Vietnam.
After initially backing American involvement in the war, his newfound criticism was in conflict with his party’s collective view as it prepared to challenge incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. It also appeared inconsistent and included a word that for some Americans carried negative connotations about U.S. soldiers. After the remark, George saw his standing in polls drop and his presidential bid was fatally damaged.
How much George Romney’s name will help his son in next week’s primary remains unknown. It could be overstated, considering the family’s presence on the state’s political stage ended years ago. Mitt Romney’s mother ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1970 and his brother, Scott, lost his bid to become the Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general in 1998. Last week, a few blocks from the home where Mitt Romney spent the majority of his childhood, raising the name of his father often drew puzzled looks from younger residents.
As different as father and son are politically, there are similarities, including their frugality. Mitt has been seen doing his own laundry in hotels on the campaign trail. George was known for eating at McDonald’s and grabbing roses from the bushes of his neighbors during his morning jogs to give to his wife, said Ritchie, the retired business professor.
They also shared a commitment to physical fitness. Mitt Romney routinely runs or uses a treadmill while on the campaign trail, while his father played a jogging version of solitary golf at first daylight using luminous balls at a country club across the street from their home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Both father and son also shared a sincere desire to help others, Ritchie said.
“There is no question of the centrality of their commitment to the community, their faith and family,” he said.