One of the strange things about America—a country founded on a revolution against a hereditary monarchy—is that so many of our politicians seem to inherit their professions. John Adams begat John Quincy Adams. Senator Prescott Bush begat President George Herbert Walker Bush, who begat President George W. Bush. Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee begat Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. Governor Brown of California, Sr., begat Governor Brown of California, Jr.
Even the ties between Barack Obama, Sr., the Harvard-educated Kenyan socialist, and Barack Obama, Jr., the Harvard-educated incumbent president, are the subject of much discussion and debate. Whether one believes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, or whether one believes sons rebel against their fathers, there’s a power to the notion that the careers of the fathers can tell us something about the characters of the son.
So expect to hear more, between now and Election Day, about George Romney, the CEO of American Motors-turned governor of Michigan who is the father of Mitt Romney, the CEO of Bain Capital turned governor of Masschusetts turned Republican presidential candidate.
I stumbled across a portrayal of George Romney the other day while reading The Pleasure of His Company, Paul Fay Jr.’s 1966 memoir of his friendship with President Kennedy. Fay reports that Kennedy told him in the spring of 1963: “The one fellow I don’t want to run against is Romney. That guy could be tough.”
Kennedy added, according to Fay: “You have to be a little suspicious of somebody as good as Romney. No vices whatsoever, no smoking and no drinking. Imagine someone we know going off for twenty-four hours to fast and meditate, awaiting a message from the Lord whether or not to run.”
Robert F. Kennedy also recalled that George Romney was the Republican presidential opponent that John F. Kennedy "feared the most....He thought he had this appeal to...God and country.....He spoke well, looked well."
A different spin on George Romney’s meditation on his candidacy is available in the 1967 book The Romney Riddle, by George O. Plas. Plas reports that “faced with a decision to run for Governor in 1962, Romney called a news conference and announced he was going into seclusion on Friday night (February 9) to pray and to seek guidance beyond that of man. It was never revealed what advice he received during his seclusion, but he did announce himself as a candidate for governor on Saturday morning.”
Reports Plas: “another version of the story barely made print. Romney's son. Mitt, then 14, told reporters that his father had informed the family around the supper table on Friday night that he had made up his mind to run for Governor at 3:30 Friday morning.” Comments Plas, drily: “Perhaps Mr. Romney entered his vigil to seek a consensus on his candidacy.”
The Plas book is unremittingly negative toward George Romney with the exception of some comments about his physical appearance: “He is a beautiful man, photogenic from any angle, with a jutting, confident jaw and temples grayed the way few men's temples gray outside the hair styling studios of Hollywood.”
The book goes on to report that rather than entering politics after a career in industry, George Romney had started in politics, working as an aide to a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, David Walsh. Romney then went to work as a Washington lobbyist, first for the aluminum industry, then for the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and only in 1948, after 18 years as a lobbyist, joined American Motors. George Romney, in other words, had taken the same path for which Mitt Romney has criticized Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, passing through the revolving door.
As for George Romney’s governing philosophy, Plas writes, “Mr. Romney is neither truly liberal nor conservative nor moderate....the Romney Way is to obliterate partisan distinctions, and run government as though it were a ruthless corporation.” In the first five years of George Romney’s administration, Michigan’s overall state budget grew to $2.4 billion from $1.3 billion, powered by the implementation of an income tax in a state that until then had not had one.
Richard Nixon’s memoir reports that in 1963, Nelson Rockefeller told Nixon, “Romney wants to run, but the regular Republicans don’t like his independent attitude toward the party. His greatest weakness is that he knows too little of the world and is too sure of what he doesn’t know.”
The Wall Street Journal’s big article Monday on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain is illustrated with a photograph of Mitt and George Romney together in 1994, the year before the senior Romney’s death. George Romney was a national figure in Republican politics in 1964 and 1968, though he never won the presidency. He served until 1973 as President Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development. That may be ancient history to many of today’s voters. The Romney running now is Mitt, not George. But it would be well within bounds for voters to try to figure out how the father and son are alike and how they differ.
Ira Stoll is the editor of Future of Capitalism and the author of Sam Adams: A Life.