George Romney’s Reputation

A man of principle — and politics. posted on

I have great respect and admiration for Geoffrey Kabaservice, whose book Rule and Ruin is among the best of this year. He writes a thoughtful rejoinder to my George Romney article over at David Frum’s Daily Beast hangout. I happen to believe that the George Romney depicted in Kabaservice’s book and the one in my article are conceivably the same guy, with the emphases on different aspects. Kabaservice tells more of George’s advocacy and later political career, and writes little of his 1962 and 1964 campaigns, except to say he had a “lone-wolf reputation,” imagery borrowed from Bob Novak. My research intended to explore this reputation, which I suspected Kabaservice did not have the opportunity to delve into while writing his excellent and wide-ranging book. He insists that he had.

Kabaservice writes that “most historians, as opposed to journalists, already knew that George Romney didn’t walk out of the 1964 GOP convention.” That certainly ought to be true, but it is curious how silent these knowledgeable historians — including Kabaservice — have chosen to be on this question. Kabaservice did not correct the record in the New York Times Book Review when he praised “The Real Romney” — which repeats the falsehood multiple times — for its “bloodhound thoroughness.” Nor did he mention this widely disseminated inaccuracy in his commentary on the Mitt-George relationship in recent months.

Kabaservice thinks I’m a Mitt apologist, and I think he’s too set in the view he laid out earlier this year, that it’s “too kind” to say that George is merely “turning over in his grave.” To sum up the complaints, Kabaservice says I downplay how bad Barry Goldwater was, overlook how virtuous George Romney could be, and am “misleading” on Romney in the context of Republican politics in the 1960s. I take exception only to the last point. In fact, one of the very things my piece adds is careful evaluation of Romney’s positioning in Republican politics in 1964.

Kabaservice explains why moderate Republicans were so up in arms about the conservative takeover of the party. If my article suggests they had no right to be upset with Goldwater and the 1964 platform, it is unintentional. What it does intend is to document how George Romney acted that June through November in relation to his fellow moderates. He did not, as is popularly believed, fight shoulder-to-shoulder with moderate Republicans in opposition to Goldwater, but in fact distanced himself. He broke away to draft separate platform amendments that made more concessions to placate the conservative wing, and then stood by while other moderates waged the fight and some walked out. Whether he did this to advance civil rights principles with a compromise platform or position himself as a neutral alternative in a deadlocked convention is open to interpretation, but the broader point is that he was not just another moderate like Nelson Rockefeller, Bill Scranton or Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Romney even criticized these men to Goldwater in the very letter Kabaservice cites. This complexity had been completely lost in the modern retelling.

Kabaservice later writes: “Bohrer sees Romney’s delay in separating himself from Goldwater’s candidacy as evidence of vacillation and poll-watching, but a more charitable explanation is that Romney acted on the assumption that Goldwater and the conservatives could be reasoned with until events proved him mistaken.”

Perhaps. But the difference between my explanation and Kabaservice’s is that I provide evidence.

Romney should have had little reason to believe that Goldwater could be “reasoned with.” I write that Goldwater had given “plainspoken” answers to Romney at the June 1964 delegation meeting not to say, as Kabaservice interprets, that Goldwater’s rhetoric lacked racist subtext. Rather, it is to emphasize that Goldwater had made his stance clear and firm. Romney claiming to still have “questions” immediately after the meeting was purely vacillation. The conservatives’ take-no-prisoners attitude at the convention should have been even more evidence of their resolve. Though Goldwater made small rhetorical concessions to the moderates in the weeks after the convention, it was always clear what he was going to campaign on.

Even if one believes, as some do, that George Romney was naive or slow on the pickup, Kabaservice does not identify the “events [that] proved Romney mistaken.” The final event that Romney pointed to in his December 1964 letter to Goldwater was the “failed” Hershey unity summit, which he called an “inadequate opportunity for discussion.” This December 1964 statement could serve as compelling evidence if only Romney had not said in August 1964, “The meeting in Hershey was helpful in clarifying Goldwater’s views” while pledging support for “the entire ticket.” That’s one of several self-serving mischaracterizations Romney makes in that letter. I further question Kabaservice’s charitable sentiment since it was not shared by Romney’s colleagues at the time. Even among the moderate Republicans who later supported his 1968 presidential bid, what they praised most was his ability to win — not his ideological virtue. Sound familiar?

Kabaservice continues: “Romney’s eventual decision to withhold his endorsement of Goldwater and to downplay his Republican affiliation in his gubernatorial reelection campaign was prudent. He needed no polls to know how unpopular Goldwater was and how disastrous association with him would be in the election.”

I agree that Romney did not need polls (though polls he had — including one to suss out a racist backlash), but what is also missing is how Romney distanced himself not just from Goldwater, but from all Republicans — including the ones he agreed with — in blatant and hurtful ways. Elly Peterson, who loved George Romney for later making her the first female Republican state chairman in American history, was so affected by her treatment on October 17, 1964 that decades later, she recounted in her unpublished memoir how angry the traveling press was with George for snubbing her, “as they knew how hard I had been working.” Through this conduct, Romney showed he valued his own political gain over leading moderate Republicans.

That is why, with all due respect to Kabaservice, it is more misleading to simply cast Romney as a generic moderate in 1964 than to look at his position relative to others.

Kabaservice concludes that, “Bohrer isn’t wrong about Romney’s flaws, but doesn’t sufficiently recognize what remains appealing about him,” and lists attributes that ought to be present in our modern politicians, including a willingness to reevaluate and change positions. Again, I see his point. After all, isn’t that what moderate and pragmatic politicians build their entire careers around? Yet George Romney based his political identity not on pragmatism but a surface rejection of politics and insistence that unlike others, he was guided only by principle. This is well documented in the piece and why the reporters who covered him and the moderate Republicans who served with him found him to be self-aggrandizing.

Look, opportunistic behavior in campaigns does not negate all the good things a person does. I agree with Kabaservice that my article could do more to spell out George Romney’s virtues — he had many. The thing is, all we’ve heard about George Romney are his virtues. The last few years of news reports, profiles and commentary have left a rose on his pillow practically every day. If people want to read what was appealing about George Romney, they can read certain sections of my article or basically every other thing that’s been written about him this century.

Of course George Romney was a man of principle. He had many admirable qualities and distinguished accomplishments won through hardship and risk. Yet, he was also a man in politics — not floating above it, as he liked to think and many have depicted him in recent years. My exploration of his campaign conduct is a necessary addition to the story of George, and a way to deepen our understanding of how Mitt became who he is.

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