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For Romney, a course set long ago

His father’s ghost hovers constantly over Mitt Romney's campaign for the White House.
Image: George Romney, Mitt romney
Gov. George Romney and his son, Mitt, look out over the New York World's Fair grounds May 18, 1964, from the heliport after attending a Michigan breakfast at the Top of the Fair Restaurant.AP
/ Source: The New York Times

George Romney had big ideas for his youngest child.

Mitt Romney had already made millions as the founder of a giant buyout firm. But his father wanted Mitt to follow him into politics, convinced he could unseat Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts.

“It was Mitt’s dad that kicked us over that one,” Ann Romney, Mitt Romney’s wife, recalled of the losing 1994 Senate race. “If people understood that equation of George Romney and his impact on my life and on Mitt’s life, they wouldn’t be so curious about why Mitt is running for president. He is why Mitt is running.”

George W. Romney made his fortune turning around the American Motors Corporation before becoming governor of Michigan, then staged a bid for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, only to watch his hopes collapse on the eve of the first votes. Now nearing that pivotal time in this year’s race, Mitt Romney said he felt as if his own campaign to become the Republican nominee was, in a sense, an extension of his father’s.

“Like a baton has passed, like a relay team where the baton passed from generation to generation,” Mr. Romney said in an interview. He added, “I am a shadow of the real deal.”

In style and biography, father and son are a stark contrast. George Romney was an autodidact who never finished a year of college and stumbled into politics while opening a restaurant. He was a fiery campaigner who relished a fight, an earnest speaker who could never tell a joke and a last champion of the liberal wing of the Republican Party. Mitt earned dual Harvard degrees in law and business, pulls off a practiced one-liner at almost every debate and presents himself on the campaign trail as the candidate to return the Republican Party to its conservative roots.

Mr. Romney, though, insists the similarities far outweigh the differences. The label that best fits him, he suggests, is George Romney Republican — what he describes as “a very intensely practical person” less committed to any ideology than to bridging divides and “helping people.”

On the trail, his father’s ghost hovers constantly over the Romney campaign. They look so much alike that a photograph of Mitt might be easily mistaken for a picture of his father, although by 60 — they ran for president at the same age — the gray hair now visible at Mitt Romney’s temples had circled his father’s face like a halo.

Impatient ambition
Both father and son have displayed an impatient ambition, each turning his attention to the White House almost as soon as he was elected governor — the father in Michigan, the son in Massachusetts. When Mitt started planning his own race, he took lessons from his father’s 1968 run, even handing his campaign manager a study that identified 20 reasons for his father’s defeat. Mitt Romney’s first draft of every speech, his campaign aides say, includes at least one story about his father.

Both have also struggled against charges of inconsistency — George Romney for abandoning his early support of the Vietnam War with the explanation that he had had a “brainwashing,” his son for moving away from liberal positions he had taken in Massachusetts.

Some Romney advisers see a connection there, too. “George was blunt, candid and stubborn,” said Richard Eyre, a family friend who worked on George Romney’s campaign and wrote the study of its failings. It was that shoot-from-the-hip style that got him in trouble in 1968, Mr. Eyre argued, and it was a reaction to his father’s careless candor that has led Mitt Romney to rely on polished sound bites of Republican orthodoxy.

“He is trying so hard not to make the same mistake as his father at the expense of swinging a little too far the other way,” Mr. Eyre said. “Everything he says sounds like he has practiced it three times.”

Mr. Romney, for his part, says he often imagines his father in heaven looking down at the race. “There is no question in my mind that he is chomping at the bit, saying, ‘Let me in there, coach! Let me go down there and give him some help!’” the younger Mr. Romney said. “Can you imagine in a presidential race how much he would like to be giving me advice?”

George Romney introduced Mitt to politics at the age of 14. The elder Romney was leading dual campaigns for the governor’s office and a new state constitution. Mitt was the only one of the four Romney siblings still at home, and his father often took him to political meetings or on the campaign trail. “Not only did I watch it, he taught me how to do it,” Mitt Romney recalled.

When his father was leading a drive to collect signatures for a revision to the Michigan Constitution, he would drive to softball games or other gatherings, then send Mitt into the crowd with a clipboard. “We would drive from event to event in the evening and he would sit in the car and tell me, ‘Go out there and see how many signatures you can get,’” Mitt Romney recalled.

Born in 1907 in Mexico in a colony of Mormons who had fled an 1885 crackdown on polygamy, George Romney watched his own mother and father go bankrupt twice as the family tried to make a living in Idaho and Utah. As a Mormon missionary, he was assigned to proselytize from a soap box in Hyde Park in London, where he developed a gift for salesmanship that became the hallmark of his career.

He first came to Washington in 1929, dropping out of college to pursue his high school girlfriend and future wife, Lenore LaFount, whose father was named a communications commissioner in the Coolidge administration. Inspired by their friend J. Willard Marriott, whose root beer stand would grow into a hotel empire, George Romney opened a dairy bar across the Potomac River that quickly folded. But he talked his way into a job as a legislative aide in the office of Senator David I. Walsh, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Revolving door
“It was that first job that gave him the perspective of, ‘Hey, I can do this, too,’” Mitt Romney said of his father’s interest in politics.

It also opened a familiar revolving door. A year later, George Romney left to become a lobbyist and spokesman, first for the aluminum monopoly Alcoa and then for the Automobile Manufacturers Association.

It was late in his career, in 1950, when the company that later became American Motors hired him and put him in charge of promoting its novel compact car. Four years later, he became chief executive and bet the company on the small vehicle, called the Rambler. He drove one around the country as pitchman-in-chief, railing against “gas-guzzling dinosaurs.” By 1959, the company’s stock had soared to $90 a share from $7 a share, and Time magazine had put him on its cover.

Even at American Motors, though, George Romney was never far from politics or Washington. He made headlines testifying on Capitol Hill about the twin evils of “big labor” and “big business” and calling for a federal breakup of the Big Three car makers. He led a push for a tax-increase to improve the Detroit schools, then a new state constitution to make raising revenue easier. And as soon as he became governor he flirted with a run for the White House, drawing a friendly reprimand from the editorial page of The Detroit News: “Come Home, George.”

Mitt Romney always idolized his father. As a child, he was so fascinated by his father’s work that he learned to imitate car-engine noises and devoured issues of Automotive News. Their bond was so close that 19-year-old Mitt welcomed his father’s help in keeping up the courtship of his high school girlfriend, Ann Davies, while Mitt was in France on his own Mormon mission.

George Romney, then governor, cultivated a bond with Ann, taking her to events and converting her to Mormonism. “Your gal looked lovely, as always,” George Romney wrote to Mitt on Feb. 16, 1967, saying he had sat next to her in church and asked about “that ring of yours on her engagement finger.”

At Harvard, Mitt Romney carried an old leather brief case bearing his father’s initials, GWR, and wrote a seminar paper on a car maker and its dealerships — an issue his father had faced. Later, Mr. Romney arranged a private meeting for his father with William F. Weld, then governor of Massachusetts.

George Romney talked about volunteerism — a personal passion — for an hour, but his son’s reaction is all Mr. Weld remembers. “He sat there hunched forward a bit with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands just beaming at his father from a distance of two or maybe three feet,” Mr. Weld recalled. “It was undiluted hero worship.”

A campaign begins
After urging his son to take on Senator Kennedy, George Romney “just about came out of his skin” with delight when the younger Romney entered the race, Mitt Romney recalled. His father stood with him when he announced his candidacy, and practically moved in with him for the race.

Mitt and Ann woke up each morning to find that his 87-year-old father had already gone running, made breakfast, and filled a yellow legal pad with campaign ideas. “It was like, ‘Oh dear,’” Ann Romney recalled. “We would be just barely getting up, and he has already got 10 things he has just got to tell us.”

At the bitter end, when polls showed Mr. Kennedy had re-election locked up, George Romney insisted that the family could still turn it around. Summoning scores of children and grandchildren, he assigned each a precinct for a last face-to-face push. “We can still win this thing for Mitt,” he told them, Mitt’s older brother, G. Scott Romney, recalled.

Mitt Romney went along with the plan. But when he walked into the hotel conference room where the army of Romneys had gathered, he lay on the floor with a white lily on his chest. “Welcome to my funeral,” he said.

George Romney died the next year, before Mitt Romney was ever elected to office. But the 1994 defeat did not end the pull of his father’s ambitions. Three years later, citing Steve Forbes as an example of a businessman-candidate, Mr. Romney mentioned to his brother that he was thinking of a run for the presidency.

“I didn’t tell him he had not even been elected dogcatcher yet,” said Scott Romney, a Michigan lawyer.

When he did start planning a run for the presidency, Mitt Romney said, he set out to avoid the mistakes of his father’s campaign: failing to raise enough money, to build an effective national campaign team, to start early enough in the first primary states, or to end feuding between his dual headquarters in Washington and Detroit.

Mitt Romney also studied up. He said his father had jumped into the race unprepared, before he was “fully briefed” on national issues. One result was a visible change over time in his reactions to the Vietnam War, epitomized by his disastrous remark about “brainwashing.”

Some challenges are different. Attention to George Romney’s membership in the Mormon Church concentrated on its policy at the time of excluding blacks from full participation. Today, the conservative Christian movement is focusing scrutiny on Mormon theology itself.

But the younger Mr. Romney is also mounting his campaign from the opposite end of the party — courting Christian conservatives and anti-tax activists. His father was a hero to party liberals. Among his signature accomplishments were increasing public school budgets, and introducing a civil rights commission, income tax, and state minimum wage to Michigan. At the 1964 Republican convention, with Mitt watching, George Romney picked a fight with supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater by suggesting he planned a “racist campaign.” Four years later, he kicked off his own campaign with a tour of slums.

Some of George Romney’s former advisers said they were not sure he would even be a member of today’s more conservative Republican Party. Two argued that the father would not have changed positions on matters of principle, the way they believe his son has on abortion and other issues. (Opponents say Mr. Romney has shifted on gun control, gay rights and immigration as well).

“George would have made up his mind and his public positions much earlier, and stuck with it regardless of the political consequences,” said Richard L. Milliman, a former adviser.

Charles E. Harmon, another former adviser, agreed: “He was not a man who went from one thing to another. That is a difference, and it bothers me.”

Mitt Romney, though, said there was “no question” that his father would be a Republican today, one very much like his son. They shared the same commitment to faith and family, he said. Both saw inner city schools as “the civil rights problem of our time” and teachers unions as an impediment to solving it. And, he said, his father had also eventually concluded that government was “growing out of control.”

‘Concentrations of power’
On his 80th birthday, in 1987, George Romney took family members on a tour of Washington, instructing them in the three dangerous “concentrations of power:” “big labor,” “big business” and “big government.”

Mitt Romney said he learned his political values from his father, pointing to the health insurance program he introduced in Massachusetts as something his pragmatic father would have favored. It provided private insurance for the poor by tapping taxpayer money set aside to cover their emergency room visits, winning bipartisan support.

“If you listen to what my opponents have to say — ‘Romney is just trying to move to the right to appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party’ — well, why is it that in the last months of my governorship that I helped push through a plan to help give health insurance to everybody in the state?” Mr. Romney said.

Expect more of the moderate side of Mitt Romney if he makes it to the general election, said Mr. Eyre, his friend and his father’s former aide. “I think you will say to yourself, ‘That looks a lot like George,’” Mr. Eyre said. “You are going to see a different part of Mitt than what we see now and, frankly, I think it will come to him more naturally.”