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The lessons of the father

There, you said it. There’s no taking it back. Maybe the regret formed in your mind even before the last syllable of the Godforsaken comment had left your lips. Maybe you thought nothing of it until 12 hours later, when a voice woke you out of your REM rebound, demanding to know, “What in the hell were you thinking?” Either way, it was too late. We’ve all said something at some point in our lives that we desperately wanted to take back. In 1976, I was a precocious second-grader listening to my mother explain that she was going to a baby shower for a friend. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” I asked her, delighted to show off my knowledge of a new word I had picked up, “if she had a miscarriage and she had to give back all those baby gifts?” Not funny. All these years later, and I can still recall the look of sadness and disgust frozen on my mother’s face. I’m sure she has long since forgotten that comment, but I haven’t.

On August 31, 1967, George Romney, the voluble, vigorous three-term governor of Michigan and former automotive executive, walked into a Detroit TV station to be interviewed by a local broadcaster with a lousy hairpiece. For more than a year, Romney had been talked about as the Republicans’ best chance for winning the White House in 1968. But the national campaign trail, at first welcoming, had become bumpy. Reporters pressed Romney repeatedly to explain his ever-evolving and often confusing position on military involvement in Vietnam, which he had strongly supported after a visit to South Vietnam in 1965 but later declared a tragic mistake. Polls showed his lead fading.

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So, during that August interview, when he was asked to explain his inconsistent position on the war, Romney replied, “Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”

There, he said it. One word, brainwashing, and his presidential campaign would never recover. Worse, that one politically charged word became not just the shorthand for his aborted White House run, but the bumper sticker for his entire life’s work. Forget the poor boy who rose, Horatio Alger-style, to national acclaim. Forget the visionary of Detroit, who successfully championed the compact car over what he termed “gas-guzzling dinosaurs.” Forget the straight-talking politician who steered Michigan government from financial ruin and pushed through a new state constitution. In the four decades since that interview, there has been a Pavlovian response to the American political trivia question, “Who was George Romney?” Answer: The brainwashed guy.

There’s no taking it back.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this headline from a national Associated Press obituary in 1995: “George Romney, Who Said Military Brainwashed Him on Vietnam, Dead at 88.”

Or this lead paragraph from The Boston Globe: “George W. Romney, the three-term Michigan governor whose statement that he’d been brainwashed about the Vietnam War helped scuttle his 1968 presidential hopes, died yesterday at his home in Bloomfield Hills.”

Even an AP dispatch from Michigan meant for sentimental local consumption knew which note to hit first: “Former Gov. George W. Romney, whose remark that he was brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War derailed his presidential bid, was remembered as a man who shaped Michigan’s political landscape and automotive history.”

Now imagine you’re Mitt Romney. Like a lot of boys, you grew up idolizing your dad. But unlike many of them, for you, the glow never wore off . “He was the person who I keyed my life off of,” the 59-year-old Massachusetts governor tells me. “He was the person who I looked at as being the definition of a successful human.” Yet you have seen your father’s remarkable reputation reduced to a single sound bite. Now, as you prepare to make your own run for the presidency, do you think avoiding a fatal slip-up like your father made is going to be on your mind?

“The brainwash thing - has that affected us? You bet,” says Jane Romney, Mitt’s sister and an actress in Beverly Hills. “You go, ‘OK, can’t go there. Don’t want to get into that.’ . . . Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think that made him more so. He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”

For Mitt, the episode was even harder to make sense of because it happened in the middle of his two-year stint as a Mormon missionary in France. When he left Michigan in 1966, his father was en route to resounding reelection as governor of Michigan and the drumbeat grew louder for his presidential run. When Mitt came home in 1968, his father was already a footnote. Since then, he’s heard plenty about his father’s fateful interview, but, amazingly, Mitt Romney had never seen the actual footage until I showed it to him last month. Or maybe that’s not so amazing. For decades, political writers have invoked the exchange as Exhibit A of the perils of presidential runs. But the narrative they have collectively stitched together makes the interview seem much more dramatic and portentous than it actually was, suggesting that many people who wrote about it may have done so without ever having seen it.

So this is where we are. Forty years after the father’s birth, the son was born. Forty years after the father became a governor, the son won his own governorship. And forty years after the father’s presidential dream was dashed, along comes the son cueing up to make his own run. On the surface, the two men are near clones. Same business-world pedigree. Same storybook marriage to his high school sweetheart. Same square jaw and large forehead, made larger when he fl ashes that bright white smile and his eyes recede under a heavy brow. Same central-casting sweep of black hair with a dose of distinguished white at the temples. (Sure, it’s talked about entirely too much, but, good Lord, is that a nice head of hair.)

Beneath the surface, however, Romney version 2.0 runs on a different operating system. Whereas George Romney was often zestful, impulsive, hot-tempered, Mitt is analytical, cautious, even-keeled. Michigan reporters loved to cover George because they knew they could always get him worked up enough to deliver a headline. You never hear Beacon Hill reporters talk about Mitt like that.

We can be sure of this much: Unlike most of the governors and senators whose names get bandied about as presidential gold only to melt under the glare of the national spotlight, Mitt Romney is ready for prime time. His steady hand and media savvy running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics showed the world that. The lessons of the father have been learned, and learned well, by the son. He is not likely to flub his way to footnote status. But will he remember to breathe? Will he allow himself to go off script? Will he be able to get past that reputation for being so polished that he sometimes seems almost plastic?

His most recent test, stepping forward after 12 tons of Big Dig concrete fell and killed Milena Del Valle, suggests there may be some trouble ahead. On one level, the challenge of getting to the bottom of the Big Dig mess is tailor-made for our CEO-governor. After all, executive competence is precisely the reason that liberal Democratic Catholic Massachusetts gave a conservative Republican Mormon its top job, and Romney has shown reassuring leadership in taking charge of the investigation. No one has talked so confidently about bolts and screws since Henry Phillips named one after himself in the 1930s. But on a deeper level, the Big Dig crisis hints at an emotional deficit in the public Romney. It’s a safe bet that either Bill Clinton, with his ability to speak from the heart, or George W. Bush, with his ability to speak from the gut, would have known that shaken citizens needed more from their chief executive in his first comments after the tragedy than a perfunctory apology to the family of the deceased and a lengthy exposition on how the courts would be used to settle an old political score.

Is it possible that Mitt Romney learned the lessons of his father too well?

Mitt was a miracle baby. George and Lenore Romney had two girls and a boy, and the doctors had told Lenore she could not carry another. The couple put in papers to adopt a baby from Switzerland. But while the family was vacationing in the Dakotas, Lenore learned she was pregnant, recalls Jane Romney, who was about 9 years old at the time. “Mother was hospitalized immediately. I remember my father’s face - the worry and concern,” Jane says. “I hadn’t seen that before.” Imagine, then, the rejoicing that took place when Mitt was born and Mother was healthy.

From an early age, Mitt logged lots of time on his father’s lap, listening and questioning. This was a departure for George, who was often described as a man in a hurry. (In golf, he would play three balls at each hole to compress an 18-hole game into six.) “My father took a lot of time with his sons,” Jane says. Mitt describes his father as a Teddy Roosevelt character, blunt and larger than life. He began jogging in the 1950s, long before it was in fashion. “He’d get up every morning and go run a couple of miles in Hush Puppies,” Mitt says, “because there weren’t jogging shoes yet.”

Unlike Mitt and his siblings, who grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit, their father had known poverty as a child. George was born in a Mormon outpost in Mexico. His grandfather’s family had fled there in 1871 in response to US laws against polygamy. (Polygamy in the Romney family ended with Mitt’s great-grandfather.) When Mexican rebels seized the territory, George’s family bolted for Texas. As a young man, George made his way to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an aide to Democrat David I. Walsh, Massachusetts’s first Irish-Catholic senator. A subsequent job with an auto trade group paved the way for his move to Detroit to be an executive with what would eventually become American Motors Corp. After becoming president of that financially troubled company, he boldly bet its future on the compact Rambler. America bit, and American Motors, and George Romney, were hits.

Even though Mitt was the youngest in the family, he was their dad’s most able questioner, says his brother, Scott. When their father held family meetings to tell them he was thinking of running for office, Scott recalls: “My sisters, and I would say, ‘Gee that sounds fabulous,’ while Mitt would say, ‘Well, have you thought about this?’“

Around this time, Mitt learned to think more about what he said in front of the press. Campaigning for his father in 1962, the 15-year-old told an Independence Day gathering, “It’s really fun to be here in the United States for the Fourth of July for the first time!” (The Romneys had always spent the holiday at their vacation home in Canada, enjoying their own fi reworks show.) “That wasn’t a great line,” Romney recalls with a laugh. “Happened to be true, but it wasn’t exactly what the campaign folks were looking for. ... Yeah, I was not particularly adept at my communications with the media.”

Behind the scenes, though, he always knew how to meet his father’s passion and temper with cool logic. “Scott would get upset,” Jane Romney says. “I’d get quiet and blow later. My sister would just turn and run. But Mitt talked it through.” When it came time for graduate school, Mitt, who aspired to be a car executive like his father, wanted to go to business school. His father, who had dropped out of college and thought business school was a glorified trade school, insisted he go to law school - specifically Harvard. Mitt brokered a compromise, earning a joint degree from Harvard law and business schools.

In that way, Jane says, Mitt is much more like their mother, a stabilizing force with a gift for thinking - and talking - things through. “My dad would get emotional. Mother wouldn’t. She would be kicking him under the table to calm him down. And he would say, ‘Why are you kicking me under the table?’“

It was a good booking. In the summer of 1967, Jeanne Findlater was the producer of Lou Gordon’s Hot Seat program on UHF Channel 50 in Detroit, and she had arranged for George Romney to tape an interview. Even though she was a Democrat, Findlater always liked Romney as a governor - and a quotable newsmaker. When he sat down on the spare set, Romney looked a little distracted. His family would explain later that he had just come from the State Fair, where he had spent the afternoon with his grandchildren, and one had gone missing long enough to give the governor a good scare.

Gordon, a political junkie with a probing Mike Wallace approach, was an early practitioner of gotcha journalism. Yet his interview with Romney was cordial and seemingly uneventful. When Gordon got around to asking him about Vietnam, Romney swiveled in his chair, began speaking in a casual tone, and allowed a slight smile.

Gordon: Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was? And what do you propose we do now?

Romney: Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get. When you -

Gordon: By the generals?

Romney: Not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job. Since returning from Vietnam, I’ve gone into the history of Vietnam all the way back into World War II and before. And, as a result, I have changed my mind....”

Gordon, the pit bull, never even followed up on the brainwashing line. He had no idea what he had. But Jeanne Findlater did. Listening to the interview from the control room, she thought, “Hot dog! That’s good stuff; I’ll use that.” The program would air in a few days, and one of Findlater’s duties was to hype it to the press. So she grabbed the audio, dialed up the wire services, hung a couple of phone receivers over the back of a chair, and then hit the play button. “Did you get that?” she asked the wire editors. “Play it again,” they said. So she did.

Chuck Harmon, Romney’s press secretary, was at his desk the morning after the Gordon program aired. When a reporter called asking about the brainwashed line, Harmon, who hadn’t seen the show, stalled long enough to get the transcript. Then his stomach sank. He says he and a few other aides went to Romney, advising him to backtrack and do damage control. But Romney refused.

Coverage began slowly, with an AP story and then a small piece in The New York Times. Then it snowballed, as rival campaigns - notably those of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson - delighted in making hay of the comment. How could we trust this guy to sit across the table from the Russians if he couldn’t resist pressure from a few American generals and diplomats?

It would take another five months before Romney would drop out of the race. But the ending had already been written. Years later, George Romney downplayed the damage done by that one line. More to blame, he said, was that he got boxed out by Nixon from the right wing of his party and by Nelson Rockefeller, his onetime supporter, from the left. In reality, the remark was probably more of an accelerant than the cause of the fatal fire, exposing how flimsy Romney’s national support was. But it was one hell of an accelerant.

The word "brainwash" didn't even exist before the early 1950s. That's when a red-baiting journalist named Edward Hunter introduced it to the West as the translation of what he said Mao Zedong's government called its systematic process of indoctrination. The term gained traction in the United States after American POWs began returning from Korea with horrific reports of their captivity. Early on, the word was reserved exclusively for the Communists' sinister, mystical approach toward thought reform, says Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard psychiatrist who is one of the nation's top scholars on the topic. But it didn't take long for a looser meaning to emerge, describing even modest efforts to influence the opinions of others. Romney clearly intended the latter, but in wartime, the word was raw. "The two meanings clashed," Lifton says, "and George Romney appears to have gotten caught in the middle."

Forty years later, from her home in Florida, Findlater concedes, "I really never understood what was wrong with that remark." She knew it was juicy, because here was an older, Republican political leader saying what a lot of young, liberal antiwar activists had argued for years - that the US government was grossly misrepresenting the facts in order to bolster support for misguided war. But she can't understand how that one comment blew up like it did.

After I read her the lead paragraphs from Romney's obituaries, Findlater lets out long sigh. "For a long time I just put it out of my mind. But whenever I've heard people talk about it, I've felt terrible. George Romney deserved better than that. He deserved to be understood."

IN THE WINTER OF 2002, WALT DEVRIES looked at his TV set and saw his past. Watching Mitt Romney command center stage in Salt Lake took DeVries back to the 1960s, when he was George Romney's chief strategist. "He has the same hand gestures, the same face," DeVries says. "You look at him, and it's like watching George Romney."

Four years later, as the 75-year-old semi-retired political consultant watches the next presidential race begin to take shape, he sees something missing in Mitt. "I see all the similarities with his father, but don't see the risk-taking," says DeVries, who now lives in North Carolina. Where, he wonders, is the daring that George Romney showed in taking on his own party and refusing to back Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of Goldwater's opposition to civil rights? Or in pushing for the politically suicidal creation of a state income tax?

Instead, Mitt Romney has spent the last year recasting some of his more moderate positions, which served him well in Massachusetts, to make them more palatable to the most conservative wing of his party. Politically, those moves make sense. But all those acrobatics may send a troubling message. "When you talked to George Romney," DeVries says, "he would tell you exactly what he thought."

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says the Romney relationship brings to mind another father-son presidential duo. George W. Bush saw his father denied reelection because he'd lost the right wing. So tending to that base became the obsessive concern of Bush the younger. "Those are the lessons of winning the election," Goodwin says. "But his father had much more important lessons to impart about governing - building that coalition for the Gulf War, marshaling support."

Perhaps Mitt Romney, in trying to avoid repeating his father's fatal improvisation, may be neglecting some of George Romney's other lessons, notably that his energy, candor and at times utter lack of calculation helped him connect with voters and lawmakers en route to becoming one of the most successful governors in Michigan history.

"Remember, " Goodwin says, "caution can be as much of a problem as free wheelingness." MITT ROMNEY, WEARING A CRISP WHITE shirt, powder-blue tie, and navy slacks, is seated by the fireplace in his office when I hand him my laptop, on which I've cued up a DVD. For the first time, he is about to see the interview that killed his father's campaign. Staring at the screen, Romney, for a moment, channels some of his father's animation. "Imagine how different the world would have been had he been elected president," he says, "instead of Richard Nixon. It would have been very different. There would not have been a Watergate. Who knows . . . what mistakes he would have made. But he was way ahead in the polls. And then this happened. And that was it." He gestures to show a sharp drop-off. "Phseuw," he says. "Just disappeared."

As Lou Gordon's image comes up on the screen, Romney chuckles, "Bad toupee!" Then he stares silently, transported back in time. When it's over, Romney shakes his head. So does his communications chief, Eric Fehrnstrom, who'd been watching along and says that in today's controversy-a-day news cycle, "there's no question he would have survived something like that." Romney says that, until now, he had assumed his father's brainwashed line had been more of straight- ahead statement. "But it was a parenthetical comment leading into a discussion about why he had changed his view. . . . It was a word that slips into your head. You're on TV; you don't stop and say, 'No, let me take that back. Let me use this word instead.'"

Then there is what Romney calls the "excessive response of the Fourth Estate." It goes like this: "If John Kerry misspells potato, it's not an issue. It doesn't even get printed. But when Dan Quayle misspells potato, it's like, 'See, he's an idiot.'"

He's right. Candidates, facing the pack journalism coverage of national campaigns, get tagged with identities - the stiff one (Gore), the dumb one ("Dubya"), the aloof one (Kerry), the hothead (Dean). Once formed, the shorthand is hard to recast, since every campaign stop holds the potential for some minor incident or offhand comment to offer yet more evidence for the wisdom of the tag. In his father's case, Romney says, "he was being criticized for the fact that he was a governor, you know, and . . . he'd changed his position on Vietnam, and, 'What do you know, anyway?' and so it sort of fit into that."

Of course, if Romney runs for president, it will also be as a governor relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, campaigning during an increasingly unpopular war he is on record as supporting. Still, he's not likely to get saddled with the same identity that dragged his dad down, namely the governor in over his head on international relations. That's because Mitt Romney already wowed the world media while running the first post-9/11 Olympics. And a strong case can be made that, on the issue of the horribly mismanaged Iraq war, the skill most needed in the next president is - here's that phrase again - executive competence.

No, the identity Romney has to be wary of getting tagged with is "the air-brushed one," the politician who is so scripted and safe that he has to be nudged to take chances, who has to be reminded to lead emotionally, as well as politically, during crisis like the Big Dig, who has to be tutored by Rudy Giuliani during a 2002 stop in the North End not to blow off a guy offering to buy him a cannoli, but instead to buy the guy one himself. He's bound to be even more guarded after a recent trip off -script - using the racially loaded phrase "tar baby" to describe the Big Dig - required morning-after apology.

Then again, if Mitt Romney is a little too cautious, he has every reason to be. While blaming the media is the most predictable move on the part of losing candidates, it happens to be justified when it comes to his father. Who knows if George Romney would have been a great president or a terrible one - or even held up as his party's nominee. It just would have been nice if he'd gotten a fair shot. Had he never sought the presidency, he would be remembered foremost as a great governor and visionary businessman. Instead, outside of Michigan, at least, he's the brainwashed guy.

If Mitt runs and flames out spectacularly, that stain will displace his role as Olympic savior in the lead paragraph of his eventual obituary. But if he wins, well, that changes more than just his obit. Instantly, George Romney becomes not just someone who fathered a president - only 42 other men in American history have done that - but also one of only three presidential fathers who himself ran for the highest office in the land. That, of course, would prompt the question about what happened in his race, which would, regrettably, require mentioning that he dropped out after saying he had been brainwashed. But at least, at long last, that Godforsaken clause would have migrated to the end of the story.

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