On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between Mitt Romney and his father, George. Both Republicans, both governors, both CEOs — it would be easy to assume that Mitt is just an extension of his illustrious dad’s legacy.
But while both Mitt Romney and George Romney sought the presidency, their similarities end when you start looking at what they did while the national spotlight shone upon them. Because when you look at George Romney and his son, it quickly becomes apparent that for all the similarities in their résumés, the two could hardly be more different.
George Had a Hardscrabble Upbringing, Mitt was Privileged
George Romney did not have it easy growing up. The grandson of Mormons who fled to Mexico in order to practice polygamy, George and his parents fled back to the United States when civil war broke out in Mexico. George’s father worked as a carpenter and farmer, and George himself worked in construction. George didn’t graduate from college, but worked his way up through Alcoa as a salesperson, and later a lobbyist, before getting a job with American Motors.
You can’t fault George for trying to give his children the advantages he himself lacked. Mitt Romney was educated at a fine private boarding school, earned his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, and then gained both law and business degrees from Harvard. He was able to finance college in no small part thanks to stock that he’d been given by his father.
By the time Mitt graduated college, George had already served as a governor and cabinet secretary; it’s impossible to know if Mitt got his shot in business because of his father’s connections and reputation, but it certainly didn’t hurt his chances.
The different backgrounds of the two men show in their approaches. George Romney was blunt, driven and willing to work for the downtrodden. Mitt, on the other hand, cheerfully writes off the downtrodden if they’re not going to vote for him.
George Was Blunt, Mitt’s Polite
Mitt Romney has developed a reputation as a careful campaigner, almost to a fault. Mitt panders to the audience he’s addressing, always trying to find the magic bullet that will let him win the favor of the people listening to him. It’s the reason that Mitt was able to be a pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights governor in Massachusetts, and an anti-choice, anti-LGBT governor in Massachusetts. He’s not the kind of figure who will stand up for what he believes; he believes in tailoring his message to fit.
George Romney was anything but careful. He had a reputation for bluntness, one that appeared both in public and private. Mitt’s mother, Lenore, had a similarly brash temperament, and the two earned the nickname “The Bickersons” from their family, as neither was willing to back down to the other.
The way the two men have dealt with their religion — Mormonism — is instructive. Mitt has sought to keep his faith relatively quiet; while it’s impossible for people not to know Mitt is a Mormon, he has made few mentions of it. He’s even sought to keep from being seen at church during the campaign. George, on the other hand, invited traveling reporters to church with him, where both he and his wife spoke about their faith and the way it affected their beliefs.
While minor, the comparison speaks volumes about the men. George was who he was, and was unafraid to show it; Mitt is trying to sweep minor inconveniences under the rug and avoid giving offense to anyone if he can avoid it.
Mitt is Pro-War, George was Skeptical
Mitt Romney has maintained a relatively incoherent foreign policy, but one thing that he has been clear on is that he is ready, willing and eager to go to war. Mitt’s reaction to the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the Benghazi, Libya consulate was to call for “strength” and to insinuate that President Barack Obama, by engaging with the Middle East, was being “weak.” Romney supported the war in Iraq and has criticized Obama for creating a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
George Romney was, at one point, in favor of the war of his era, the Vietnam War, at one point comparing the cause to fighting Nazi Germany. By the time he began his run for president, however, George had turned against the war. In an interview, Romney said, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” arguing that the generals who he’d met with had misled him about the progress in the war.
Of course, George was running against Richard Nixon for the GOP nomination, and Nixon had no problem ignoring the clear meaning of George’s statement. Nixon turned the statement on its head, using it to insinuate that George was not quite stable.
Again, though, the comparison is instructive. George Romney initially supported a war, but after reflection, he came to oppose it — and was blunt in arguing why he’d been wrong. Mitt has never seen a war he didn’t like (except, briefly, the war in Libya), and when he does change his position — as he has often — he’s rarely as direct as his father.
George was Transparent, Mitt is a Mystery
Perhaps no single political act divides George Romney from his son as his decision to release his tax returns. Like Mitt, George initially balked when a reporter asked to see his tax returns — because one year didn’t seem like enough. “One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show, and what mattered in personal finance was how a man conducted himself over the long haul,” said T. George Harris, reporting the reason Romney initially declined to hand over tax information.
Instead of giving Harris the one year he’d asked for, George Romney did something remarkable — he turned over twelve years’ worth of joint tax returns, including from the years when he’d made his fortune as CEO of American Motors. The unprecedented openness became precedent; presidential candidates routinely turned over tax returns over the next forty years.
The streak ended with George’s son, Mitt, who has so far released one incomplete tax return, and who has said he will release one more.
Mitt has said that he won’t release his tax returns because they could be used as a launching pad for political attacks. Of course, Mitt has been facing withering political attacks for not releasing his own tax returns, which begs the question of how much worse the information in the returns could be. We’ll never know, most likely; Mitt has none of his father’s openness, and none of his interest in transparency. That extends to his time in office; Mitt let staffers destroy computer records from his time as Massachusetts governor and has kept his Olympic records tightly sealed.
George was an advocate for civil rights, Mitt fights against them
George Romney was a passionate advocate for civil rights, even bucking his own church when they pushed against him. In 1964, Romney walked out of the Republican National Convention, rather than support the states-rights bent of the Goldwater campaign. As Governor of Michigan, George declared “Freedom Day” in his state to coincide with a march there by Martin Luther King, Jr. (George Romney did not march with King, as Mitt would later claim, but only because the event took place on a Sunday.)
George received pushback from the Mormon church. Delbert Stapley, a high-ranking church official, sent George a note urging him to consider Joseph Smith’s writing about the “curse” God had put on African-Americans. Despite this, George Romney continued to work for civil rights, and was so committed to it that during his time as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, George ran afoul of Richard Nixon, who saw Romney’s actions to stop housing discrimination as counterproductive to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”
Compare George’s willingness to buck his party and church to do the right thing to Mitt’s willingness to sell out anyone who isn’t a rich white guy. There’s no sign that Mitt cares deeply about social issues — he was willing to hire undocumented immigrants until he was running for office, for Pete’s sake — but he’s been more than willing to take a hard line against immigrants, women and the LGBT community, all to win the votes of his party. Mitt’s dad was willing to lose political power and face the opprobrium of his church to do the right thing. Mitt himself won’t buck anyone if he doesn’t have to.
George Believed in Things. Mitt Does Not.
When Romney was marginalized by Nixon, he reportedly complained to a friend. “I don’t know what the president believes in,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t believe in anything.”
Indeed, that quote aptly described Nixon; it also aptly describes George Romney’s son. Mitt Romney has shown a willingness — indeed, an eagerness — to change any position, to trample any group, to pander to any audience, so long as it allows him to win.
George Romney was willing to lose in order to stay true to his core principles. He lost the GOP nomination, lost power during the Nixon administration — but he did not compromise his beliefs. Perhaps, in watching this, Mitt Romney learned precisely the wrong lesson. Perhaps Mitt determined that he would never care deeply enough about anything to risk his career over it.
It’s impossible to know just why George Romney was willing to stand on his principles, while Mitt Romney chooses to eschew his. All that’s certain is that despite their similar accomplishments, the two men could hardly be different. It’s just unfortunate that the one who ultimately earned the GOP nomination is the lesser of the two.
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