While Mitt Romney promised Thursday that "I'm not going to apologize for my dad's success" even as his campaign has worked to erase it from memory, portraying Romney's childhood as middle class despite little indulgences like a cook, a maid, and a laundress. Romney's presidential campaign -- like that of other political legacies like George W. Bush and Chris Dodd -- is marked by the candidate's desire to redeem the legacy of his father while making the exact opposite choices.
George Romney was gregarious; Romney is guarded. George Romney's principled positions on race hurt him in the Republican party; Romney is known for his flexibility on all kinds of issues. George Romney released 12 years of tax returns; Romney filed an extension, delaying the release of his most recent return.
Obviously, Romney's far from the first politician letting his father issues play out in such a public way. There was George W. Bush, of course, who was open and jokey and wore cowboy hats in contrast to his uptight Connecticut WASP dad. Nevertheless, the younger Bush clearly wanted to please the one-term elder Bush -- he famously said of Saddam Hussein, "This is the guy who tried to kill my dad." There's also the lesser-known case of former Sen. Chris Dodd, who ran for president in 2008, and whose dad, Todd, had been forced to quit the Senate in 1970 after being censured for misusing campaign donations. In 2009, The New Republic's Suzy Khimm explained:
The son, who arrived in the Senate ten years later, has spent his career pulled in two opposing directions: on the one hand, following in his father's footsteps by becoming one of the Old Bulls ensconced in Washington's corridors of privilege, the image that is now causing him such political headaches; but, on the other hand, presenting himself as the very antithesis of an old-style senator--a changemaker, a populist, an insurgent. Dodd, it seems, has never entirely decided whether he wants to be his father or what his father was not.
Romney talks about his dad all the time. His father's campaign poster hangs prominently on the Romney 2012 bus. In a February concession speech, he sounded emotional when talking about his dad's humble roots, how he could put nails in his mouth "and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward." It is hard to imagine the younger Romney doing such a thing. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the trunk of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas in the hotels. George Romney, the candidate said, "believed in America. And in the America he believed in, a lath and plaster guy could work out to become head of a car company and a guy who had sold aluminum paint out of his car could end up being governor..." He often tells the story of the time George was campaigning in Michigan and confused two towns, Mount Pleasant and Mount Clemens. Romney explained on Februrary 16, "And my Mom said, 'George, it's Pleasant.' He said, 'Yes, it sure is pleasant here in Mount Clemens.'" The crowd laughed. "So we can be a little slow on the uptake, too." Ouch: a nice little memory followed by a zinger.
Here are a few of the ways Romney has shown he's of two minds about his dad:
Choses words carefully.
Politico's Jonathan Martin and John F. Harris reported in January that Romney thinks often of the time George Romney said in 1967 that he'd been "brainwashed" on Vietnam, and everyone freaked out. "The shadow of that looms over every word he’s said... He’s afraid if he slips up, he’ll square the tragedy," a strategist from the 2008 campaign told Politico. A current strategist agreed: "He’s very guarded when he thinks the press are listening. He grew up in the shadow of his dad making one slip-up and forever paying for it.. So he has a force field."
Uncomfortable talking about money.
George Romney released 12 years of tax returns but Mitt Romney's only released one year, and filed an extension for the most recent one -- something the Obama campaign is attacking Romney for, just as his Republican primary opponents did. "There’s nothing behind [not wanting to release the returns] other than the fact he’s not comfortable talking about that," a Romney adviser told Politico. And while Romney said he was proud of his dad's success Thursday, The New Republic's Alec MacGillis points out that the campaign is working to make him seem not quite so successful. A Washington Post story by Amy Gardner from Thursday is misleading, he says, in reporting:
When Mitt was born, the family was middle class, moving from Detroit to the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills only after Mitt was a teenager, when his father took over American Motors. Although Mitt’s parents helped fund his college and graduate education, and helped him and his wife, Anne, buy their first home, he did not inherit his parents’ wealth; he amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune on his own, working at Bain Capital.
But the truth is, MacGillis writes, Romney wasn't middle class when he was born -- his dad was an executive at Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, which eventually became American Motors Corporation. George Romney became CEO of AMC when Romney was 6 or 7, not a teen, and they moved to a fancy suburb when he was a young kid, too. Reports from previous campaigns indicate the family had all kinds of servants growing up, including a laundress. This isn't the only incident, MacGillis writes:
Here's how Ann Romney recently cast the couple's situation in those starting-out years: "We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining.” Ah yes, the common twenty-something plight of chipping stock.
Romney's dad took a clear position on the most explosive issue of the day -- race. Capital New York's Sridhar Pappu reports, George Romney was appalled at the 1964 Republican National Convention, when Barry Goldwater was picked as the presidential nominee. Yet note how Scott Romney, Mitt's brother, explained to Pappu his dad's positions in the most careful terms: “I don’t know if he was right in his feeling... But he felt that Barry Goldwater and his group were not as inclusive on race as they should be. And that troubled him. More than anything else he felt there were implications to it."
And of course, there was Vietnam, a war Romney supported before changing his mind and inartfully explaining it with the brainwashing comment. Scott Romney recalled to Pappu the bitterness the family felt after being vindicated: "Robert McNamara’s wife was very upset with my dad and it was funny to me that after being president of the World Bank he was praised for finally being honest about what happened... 'Oh, he finally told us the truth!' Well, my dad told them they weren’t telling the truth way back when."
The younger Romney had a hard time in the primaries in part because he was seen as too maleable on lots of issues like abortion and gay rights. The New York Times' Richard A. Oppel pointed out this week, he's struggling with the task of criticizing Obama's policy in Afghanistan without actually promising to do anything different.
On July 14, 2004, Romney gave a speech to the National Press Club. He opened his remarks with this slightly awkward personal anecdote:
I have also one of my nephews here. The first of the grandchildren of my father with the last name Romney was, of course, named -- male, that is -- was named George. My brother took that name for his son, George Romney, who's also here. And I'm happy to have him and the family connection which that implies.
George Romney, it seems, is always on Mitt's mind. Even if he's messing with the old man's legacy.