George Romney

Governor George Romney

Governor of Michigan

George Romney, now known primarily as the father of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was a distinguished politician himself, as well as being a successful businessman. Born on July 8, 1907 in the Mormon Colony in Mexico, his family moved to Utah due to the upheavals caused by the 1911 Mexican Revolution. In high school, he fell in love with the woman who became his wife, Lenore Romney, the daughter of Harold Arundel LaFount, an English immigrant and Mormon who later was appointed to the Federal Radio Commission by President Calvin Coolidge. Romney continued to woo her after she moved to Washington, D.C.

Lenore was an aspiring actress who gave up a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to marry George in 1931. They were married for 64 years, until George's death in 1995. In addition to Mitt, their last child, they had another son and two daughters and many grand-children. An executive with Alcoa, George's business career took them to Michigan, where they set down roots as when he became an automobile industry executive and then a politician.

After his stint as the first C.E.O. of American Motors (1954-62), George won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1962 and was elected governor of Michigan, a state that generally trended Democratic. The popular governor was re-elected in 1964 for another two-year term and in 1966 for a four-year term.

In November 1966, the Gallup Poll had him eight points ahead of Richard Nixon among likely Republican Presidential candidates, making him the front-runner as Nixon, who lost the 1960 Presidential election to 'John F Kennedy' in a squeaker but then was a sore loser when he was soundly beaten by incumbent Edmund G. Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest, was uncommitted. Romney launched an exploratory campaign in February 1967, but as Nixon warmed to another run, Romney's poll numbers began to slide.

In July, he oversaw one of the worst riots in U.S. history when Detroit exploded as African Americans rebelled against what they saw as police harassment. Ironically, Romney had done much to foster better race relations, including politically embracing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and distancing himself from the paleo-conservative Barry Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Michigan National Guard was unable to contain the riot, necessitating an appeal to his potential rival, President Lyndon Johnson, for federal troops.

LBJ was the civil rights president, and Romney was a civil rights governor, albeit, a Republican and possible foe in the 1968 Presidential election. The Johnson administration demanded that Governor Romney declare that Detroit was in a state of insurrection before federal troops would be committed, a move Romney was reluctant to make. With Detroit burning down, he had to relent; troops were sent in to restore order, and Romney denounced LBJ for playing politics.

By the time he formally launched his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in November 1967, he was 28 points behind Nixon. The problem was a comment he had made about the Vietnam War.

Romney had been a supporter of the war, having traveled to South Vietnam in 1965. In 1966, his son Mitt, a freshman at Stanford University, had even staged a pro-draft demonstration that was a counter-demonstration to a "sit-in" against the Stanford University President. Before Mitt came back from a 30-month stint as a Mormon missionary in France that began after his freshman year in college, his father had changed his mind.

At the end of August '67, in a taped interview with a Detroit radio talk show host, Romney made one of the greatest gaffes in American political history when he said, "When I came back from Vietnam, I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

The former hawk announced that he was now against the war. "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia," and called for "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time."

The reversal of his position on the war, which he had earlier said was "morally right and necessary", was a major negative for a Republican, but his "brainwashing" comment effectively doomed him. It got a huge play in the media, which portrayed him as a bumbling buffoon. Republican and Democratic politicians alike commented that Romney must be weak-minded if he was able to be brainwashed. U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate whose strong second place finish in the 1968 New Hampshire primary would knock LBJ out of the running, said that in Romney's case, "a light rinse would have been sufficient."

By the time he formally announced his candidacy on November 18, 1967, he was 28 points behind Nixon in the polls. He began to campaign in New Hampshire, which held its primary on March 12th. Returning to Vietnam in December 1967, he made speeches that anticipated Nixon's Vietnamization policy of turning over the war to South Vietnamese troops while winding down U.S. combat troop involvement.

His poll numbers remained poor, with Nixon being the overwhelming favorite in New Hampshire a fortnight out from the primary. Romney's dismal showing led Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York who had been a supporter, to announce that while he still supported Romney, he would be open to a draft. (Rocky had lost the 1964 nomination to Goldwater, whose candidacy the moderate Romney, a liberal on civil rights, had bitterly opposed. Rocky's decision to forgo 1968 was one reason Romney had gotten into the race.)

Rockefeller's announcement, setting him up as a heavy-weight alternative to Nixon and incumbent President Johnson (who was still in the race), was national news and effectively doomed Romney's candidacy. Romney blamed Rockefeller's entry into the race as the major factor that derailed his bid for the presidency. He quit the race two weeks out from the New Hampshire primary. LBJ, in turn, dropped out after his humiliation by McCarthy, and Nixon went on to best Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan at the GOP convention and defeat LBJ's Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in November.

President Nixon appointed Romney his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a position he held through Nixon's first term and one for which he was well suited. After leaving the Nixon Administration in January 1973, Romney began a life of public service. He was a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, becoming a top official of both the Michigan and national churches.

George Romney died on July 26, 1995, a little less than three weeks after his 88th birthday.

George Romney
Landon Lecture
Dec. 6, 1967