America has known successful political dynasties in the last generation or two–the Bushes, the Clintons, the Kennedys. Not quite on the same level are the Romneys. George Romney made an unsuccessful run for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. His son, Mitt, is currently seeking the same goal. Like his father, he is touting himself as a successful businessman, popular big-state governor, devout Mormon and family man.
But he can be forgiven if he hopes the similarities end there. For it was 40 years ago this month that Mitt Romney’s father was the victim of one of the more noteworthy “gotcha” moments of the media age, when he talked of being “brainwashed” by U.S. military and diplomats on a fact-finding visit to Vietnam. It set in play a slow motion political suicide that culminated several months later with the expiration of the Romney campaign before a single primary state had voted.
The episode began innocently enough. On Aug. 31, 1967, the senior Romney–then in his third term as governor of Michigan – taped an interview for a Detroit-based news show. In the process, he undertook to explain his early support of the war still raging in Vietnam–a support that had begun to wane. “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam (in 1965),” Romney said, “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get…not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.”
According to Theodore White in his book, The Making of the President 1968, it appeared to be an unscripted “tossaway” line. But the comment was the one that the interviewer chose to accent in hyping his show to others in the media. The interview was telecast in Detroit on Sept. 4. The next day, the New York Times ran a brief piece on page 28 titled: “Romney Asserts He Underwent ‘Brainwashing’ on Vietnam Trip.” Two days later, on Sept. 7, 1967, the Times’ Tom Wicker, picked up the remark for his national column, and the unraveling of the Romney campaign was under way.
Basically, Wicker concluded, Romney was a well meaning flip-flopper who was out of his depth on the national stage. “If Romney really meant that he had succumbed to high-pressure sales talk and V.I.P. treatment from generals and admirals out to pull the wool over his eyes,” Wicker wrote, “then how does he expect anyone to look ahead with confidence to the day when he might be dealing with foreign leaders, pressure groups and those who want a few billion appended to the budget?” … He has given his opponents, Wicker continued, “the perfect phrase with which to deride him.”
The effect on the Romney campaign was virtually instantaneous. In late August of 1967, the Gallup Poll showed him the favorite of 24 percent of respondents for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, a solid second to the front-running Richard Nixon. The next survey in mid-September, taken after the “brainwashing” remark and resulting flap, found Romney had plunged to 14 percent, and had fallen behind two fellow governors (and non-candidates), Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan.
The Romney campaign limped on for several months, but as a thinly veiled object of ridicule for political pundits, cartoonists and fellow candidates. In a quip that was not atypical, Democratic contender Eugene McCarthy mused that no “brainwashing” should have been needed when a “light rinse would have been sufficient.” Romney finally exited the race in late February 1968–his Gallup Poll standing down to 7 percent and a landslide loss in the upcoming New Hampshire primary lying dead ahead.
To be sure, Mitt Romney’s current bid for the Republican presidential nomination has seen its own share of rhetorical mishaps–from his inability to escape charges of flip-flopping on social issues such as abortion and gay rights to his comment equating his sons’ work on behalf of his presidential campaign to service in the military. The remarks have the capacity to linger, hurting the younger Romney’s efforts to win support among social conservatives, as well as fueling the perception that the candidate is a patrician at heart, leading a charmed life vastly different from that of the average voter he is trying to woo.
Yet none of Mitt Romney’s statements thus far have come close to derailing his campaign. Potentially more serious in the long run is voter reaction to his Mormon religion, an issue that played hardly any role at all in the demise of his father’s candidacy.
When George Romney’s Mormonism came up in the 1968 campaign, it tended to be indirectly. His liberal stance on civil rights was occasionally contrasted to his church’s position at the time prohibiting African-Americans from the Mormon priesthood. And his birth in a Mormon colony in Mexico drew questions as to whether he was constitutionally eligible to run for president.
The latter was a potentially serious problem for Romney. While he was born of American parents and became an American citizen at birth, legal scholars argued back and forth throughout his presidential campaign whether that was enough to meet the constitutional requirement of being a “natural born citizen.” Romney and his advisors insisted that it did, but the issue was never definitively resolved before he quit the race.
Yet there was also the feeling among some Mormons that if his campaign had lasted longer and had been more successful, his faith would have become an issue. The New York Times quoted an anonymous Mormon leader in the fall of 1967 as saying that “I’m glad his chances are slipping, because we’d be judged by what he did and there’d be an awful lot of mudslinging in the campaign about polygamy and the Negro thing.”
With Mitt Romney’s candidacy, the spotlight that the Mormon leader feared has finally been turned on the church, certainly to a far greater degree than in 1967. According to a survey this August by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 25 percent of respondents indicated reservations about voting for a Mormon for president, a higher rate than said they would have trouble voting for an evangelical Christian (16 percent), a Jew (11 percent) or a Catholic (7 percent).
What is worse for Romney is that resistance runs much higher among the religious conservatives that he and other Republican candidates covet. More than one-third of white evangelical Protestants in the Pew survey expressed their reluctance to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, a figure that rose above 40 percent when only those evangelicals who attend church weekly were surveyed.
Why the considerable concern now with Mormonism?
John C. Green, a senior fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Pew Forum, suggests three reasons. First is what he calls “candidate viability,” the fact that Mitt Romney’s candidacy shows more potential to be successful than his father’s relatively quick-burning campaign a generation ago. Second, says Green, is more negative publicity these days about the church, from the current trial of dissident Mormon polygamists to the HBO television series, “Big Love,” about the trials and tribulations of a polygamist family in Utah. Third, is what Green views as the nation’s changing religious landscape, in which a candidate’s faith has become an integral piece of information for many voters in deciding whom to support.
The last explanation may be the most plausible, says Green. “But the picture is complicated: people really don’t know much about Mormons, so it is hard to tell if the source of their concern is the negative press, religious disagreement, or just the fact that Mitt has a chance to be president.”
And at this point in the campaign, having a viable chance to be president is more than can be said about his father 40 years ago.
The email contained a couple of illustrations which I will not attempt to reproduce.