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A Visit with Mitt Romney's Mother

by William McGaughey, Jr.


As Mitt Romney approaches the moment of his nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for President, I cannot help recalling a world many years ago when the Romneys were neighbors and personal acquaintances. As a young man, I was a passionate supporter of George Romney for President. My father was his friend and co-worker at American Motors. Mitt’s older brother, Scott, was my friend. Mitt himself I knew less well since he was seven years younger.

Scott Romney and I went to Camp Chicopee together in northern Ontario in the summer of 1953. Three years later, we both took night courses in welding and housewiring at Cass Technical High School. I was told that the Mormons believed that, whatever a person’s career ambition, he should have a practical skill to fall back on in case of hard times. After we successfully completed the courses, George Romney took us to a Detroit Tigers ballgame.

The elder Romney was then CEO of American Motors, the fourth largest U.S. automobile manufacturer. My father had just been named AMC’s vice president of communications. He had worked with George Romney since 1940. Romney was managing director of the Automobile Manufacturers Association; my father was its director of public relations. During World War II, they together worked with the National Council for War Production, which coordinated the conversion of automobile plants to war production. In 1946, they organized the Automotive Golden Jubilee celebration, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Henry Ford and Frank King driving a car on the streets of Detroit. Romney was the event manager, and my Dad its public-relations director.

When Romney went to Nash-Kelvinator to become executive vice president under CEO George Mason, my father took a position there as Romney’s assistant. It was he who, having charge of the advertising budget, recommended that American Motors, Nash Kelvinator’s successor, sponsor the Disneyland television show which made the Rambler one of the nation’s hottest automobile brands and made George Romney, pitch man in the commercials, a celebrity. My father also worked on “Con-Con”, Romney’s project to hold a constitutional convention for state of Michigan. George Romney resigned from American Motors to run for Governor of Michigan in 1962. My father took a job in New York a year later.

As a young man, I was excited that George Romney, my father’s friend, was a possible candidate for President of the United States. I even wrote a book about this, a conservative manifesto, which I thought might be coordinated with the Romney campaign, and handed a copy to the governor at a “Michigan Day” event in Flint in 1963. However, Romney was not a political conservative. I never heard what he thought of the book if, indeed, he ever read any of it.

The last time I saw George Romney was in 1967 when he came to Minnesota in connection with his presidential campaign. I was a Young Republican, hoping to help in that campaign. As I shook hands with Romney in the receiving line, his only comment was a question: What are you doing here? Shortly afterwards, George Romney’s presidential campaign came to an abrupt end. In February 1968, he pulled out of the race even before the New Hampshire primary because polls showed him losing badly to Richard Nixon.

For a long time, I lost track of George Romney and his family. The Michigan governor went on to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon cabinet. I read that Romney and Nixon did not get along well. The President excluded Romney from his inner circle. George Romney resigned as HUD secretary shortly after Nixon’s reelection victory in November 1972. This began a twenty-year period in which George Romney promoted volunteer work through an organization called the National Center for Voluntary Action but otherwise remained largely out of the public eye.

Fast forward to September 1994. My brother Andy and I, coming from Minneapolis, were driving through the lower peninsula of Michigan on our way to northeastern Pennsylvania. We had spent the night in Alpena bordering Lake Huron, and were approaching the Detroit area. It was in the late morning. Suddenly I had an idea: Let’s call on the Romneys.

I knew the location of their rambler-style house in Bloomfield Hills. It was on Rathmore Road, on the east side of the Bloomfield Hills Country Club, where George Romney used to play an abbreviated game of early-morning golf. I knocked on the front door of this house. The woman who answered said the Romneys did not live there any more. To my relief, she added that they lived in a smaller house behind this house where they had once lived.

Lenore Romney, George’s wife, answered my knock. Recognizing me and my brother, she invited us in. George was not at home. He was in Massachusetts helping Mitt with a political campaign. Yes, she remembered the McGaugheys. She had heard stories of us and was glad my brother and I had stopped by after so many years. She also talked of others we had known. Andrew Court, our neighbor in the Indian Village neighborhood of Detroit, had occasionally written her husband offering advice while he was Governor. By then, he had grown a long beard and “looked like Father Time”.

Lenore Romney mentioned that her husband had served in Nixon’s cabinet. With some pride, she said that she and her husband had recently been invited to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, to spend the weekend. Finally, she said that Mitt was running against Ted Kennedy for a seat in the U.S. Senate. She proudly contrasted her clean-living son with the scandal-ridden Massachusetts Senator. The two candidates were then running neck and neck in the polls. This was the first time I had heard that Mitt was running for elective office. When I remarked “this is very exciting”, his mother just beamed. My brother and I then took our leave, energized for the remainder of the trip.

My father received a short letter from George Romney a month or two later saying that his wife had enjoyed our visit and expressing regret that he had not been there as well.

George Romney, Mitt’s father, died in the same house on July 25, 1995, less than a year after the visit. Lenore Romney, his mother, died three years after that, in July 1998. My own parents died in 2001 and 2004. My two younger brothers, Andy and David, died in 1999 and 2005 respectively. The collective memory of our time with the Romney family is now largely extinguished.

Even though Mitt Romney lost the election to Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate campaign, he was now in the public eye. News reports informed me of his role in rescuing the 2002 Summer Olympics in Salt Lake City and his election as Governor of Massachusetts in the same year. In 2008, he campaigned in the primaries for the Republican presidential nomination but lost to Senator John McCain. Four years later, in 2012, he has gained the nomination and has good prospects for winning the general election.

I have been haunted by my brother’s and my brief visit with Mitt Romney’s mother, Lenore, eighteen years ago. Why did the Romney parents give up their home on Rathmore Road where Mitt and the other children were raised to live in a smaller house at the back of the lot? Did they have financial problems? Did they wish a lower profile after so many years of being in the public eye? Was there, perhaps, an element of shame? I wanted to fill in the blanks to solve the mystery of what had happened to George and Lenore Romney after my parents moved from Detroit and, indirectly, the mystery of Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate.

In June 4, 2012, a cover story by Barton Gellman in Time magazine titled “Raising Romney”, told how, “when Mitt was 23, his mother ran for Senate. How that race shaped his life.” Like a clap of thunder, new bits of information were added to the story that I knew. Suddenly the picture became much more clear. My brother and I happened to visit Lenore Romney twenty-four years after she was a candidate for U.S. Senate but, more importantly, just at the time when this story was entering a phase of redemption.

I knew that Lenore Romney, George’s wife, had been the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 1970 and that she had lost badly. The incumbent Democratic Senator, Philip Hart, had won the election by a two-to-one margin, 67% to 33%. What I did not know was the role that Mitt Romney had taken in his mother’s campaign. He was with her throughout the campaign, driving to all 83 of Michigan’s counties. He was her constant companion. I also had not known how badly this experience had bruised Lenore and George Romney. It was deeply humiliating to them both. The campaign seared their son Mitt.

The Time article tells the story: “Square jaw set, white mane swept back, George Romney stormed into the Lansing Civic Center one day in November, 1970, spoiling for a fight. His wife Lenore had just lost an ill-advised campaign for the U.S. Senate. Her husband blamed disloyal Republicans - Michigan Governor William Milliken most of all. George said privately that Milliken had ‘weaseled and, frankly, destroyed my wife as a candidate.’ Now he grabbed a microphone and denounced the room at large, where GOP leaders had gathered in Milliken’s honor. Silence fell. George set his eyes on Joyce Braithwaite, as 30-something party activist and an intimate of Lenore’s. He leaned in, pushed a thick forefinger toward her and demanded that she admit he was right. Braithwaite demurred. George raised his voice and insisted. Lenore, standing alongside him, burst into tears. The campaign had drained her, body and spirit, and ‘she was horrified that George was behaving that way in public,’ a witness recalls.”

A Republican opponent in the primary had accused Lenore Romney of being a political stand-in for her husband while he served in Nixon’s cabinet. He produced bumper stickers that read: “Lurleen Romney for the U.S. Senate” - a reference to Lurleen Wallace who became Governor of Alabama after her husband, George, left office. The implication was that Lenore Romney was a woman of little substance, a mere puppet for her husband.

The gender put-downs were frequent. Lenore Romney later told her former daughter-in-law that “her liberal Democratic opponent, Phil Hart ... could be painfully condescending behind the scenes. ‘He would bring me a flower or a little bottle of perfume or something and say, “I wish I could see you in a drawing room.”’ The candidate’s 23-year-old son Mitt was on hand each day to witness how his mother’s political opponents, both on the left and right, savaged her relentlessly. Lenore Romney was a gentle, refined lady. Anyone who talked with her for any period of time would sense her great intelligence and good will.

The Time article focuses upon how this brutal experience shaped Mitt Romney’s political style and identity. He became much more cautious. He avoided ideological stances that might erupt into major controversies. Like his mother, he was a diplomat who tried to find common ground with critics. By the same token, however, Mitt’s flexible style has led to accusations of flip-flopping and of being an opportunist lacking principles. He has been compared unfavorably to his father, George, who would stand on principle and fight for what he believed in. Father George must be turning in his grave to see the unprincipled son that Mitt has become, some say.

I see a different picture. The George Romney I witnessed as a teenager was a man of action who cared more for getting things done than striking the right political pose. I understand now, or can imagine, that after his wife’s bruising Senate campaign which followed his own disastrous campaign for the Presidency, the two Romneys went into a twenty-five year funk in which they largely withdrew from politics and community affairs. That may account for their moving into a small house behind where they had once lived. People who live in the shadow of failed dreams may want to live secluded lives, out of the limelight, to nurse their wounds in private.

I was privileged, however, to see Lenore Romney reemerging into the light at the other side of the tunnel as her son Mitt gave Ted Kennedy the run of his life to retain his Senate seat. Eighty-eight year old George Romney became his old boisterous self, filling in for his son at campaign events and marching in parades. A photograph taken of Mitt’s parents as their son announced for the Senate shows how elated they were; and I was privileged to see the same pride in his mother’s face as she described what Mitt was doing. He was his parents’ redeemer, bringing next-generation hope to heal old wounds.

I think or suspect that Mitt Romney has consciously lived this story. His political enemies would paint him as a tool of Wall Street, champion of the rich in the class warfare directed against the poor. But Romney is already rich enough; there is no reason why he would favor a society serving rich people only.

No, Mitt Romney is primarily his father’s son and his mother’s son, too. His father would not have condemned him for being the kind of candidate he has become. Mitt knows how to survive in the snake pit of presidential politics where his father, George, succumbed at the first bite. George would have been proud of that accomplishment. He predicted that his son would surpass him in politics. If alive, George Romney would be on the sidelines cheering Mitt all the way.

Therefore, in my view, Mitt Romney will not be a sell-out President but a one who will do all in his power to do what would have made his parents proud. As a Mormon, he will also be a President who wants to be a source of pride for his church. After all, the first Mormon to run for President of the United States was the prophet Joseph Smith. Mormonism is an American religion, headquartered in the United States. Mitt Romney will want to be a credit to this religion as the first Mormon President.

As a kind of Forrest Gump catching personal glimpses of some of history’s major players at various times in my life, I believe we are witnessing a story of two generations climaxing in events of the current year. I am moved by the situation a half century ago, which I personally knew, coming to fruition today in events which I see only on television.

Mitt Romney is not the privileged son of a rich man who coasted to power and fame. There is a compelling multigenerational story here.

(written on the eve of Mitt Romney's nomination, August 27, 2012)

 

P.S.

The theory expressed here regarding Mitt Romney’s core motivation and identity received partial confirmation from his wife, Ann Romney, in an interview with CNN that aired before the first presidential debate on October 3, 2012. Ms. Romney disclosed that before each debate her husband looks out over the audience to find where she is sitting. Then, after each statement that he makes during the debate, he looks to her for some sign of how well he has done. She, of course, gives him nothing but positive feedback.

Even more striking, Mitt Romney writes “Dad” on a small piece of paper which he takes with him to the debate podium, his wife said. “Dad” is, of course, Mitt’s late father, George Romney. What to make of this? Gloria Borger, a CNN political analyst, thought that this paper would be a reminder not to make the same political mistakes as his father but be careful in what he said. David Gergen, another analyst, had a better understanding of the situation. He said only that this was “sweet”; it showed a son’s abiding affection for his father. Contrary to popular opinion, Mitt Romney is not just a machine-like, calculating politician but a human being capable of love.

Ann Romney herself offered an explanation. She said the slip of paper was to remind her husband to conduct himself in a way that would have made his father proud. This moral imperative describes who Mitt Romney is.

This situation also has another meaning for me. It is scarcely possible to imagine someone under more pressure to perform well than Mitt Romney on the evening of October 3rd. The last month or so had not gone well for him politically. He was trailing in the polls in key swing states. He had been ferociously attacked by his Republican primary opponents earlier in the year. Had Mitt Romney given a lackluster debate performance or even worse, it would have thrown his campaign into a tail spin leading to likely defeat in the November election. For the rest of his life, Mitt Romney would then have had to live down the legacy of being a poor candidate who wasted his party’s opportunity to regain the White House.

But Mitt Romney did perform well in the first presidential debate after many weeks of preparation. He did not choke under the pressure. He came to the debate, with its uncertain requirements, in a frame of mind to win the debate; and by all accounts he did.

My philosophical book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, discusses the dynamics of peak performance in an athlete, musician, or other performer such as political debater. The chapter about self-consciousness is especially appropriate here. See Kindle e-book “A Philosophy of Rhythm” (ASIN: B0059NXJEM) and also “A Philosophy of Self-Consciousness”, both available for $3.50. There is also a NOOK edition.

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