How Mitt Romney is Like George H.W. Bush

Given their upbringing, attitudes about who should run for office, and penchant for flip-flopping, it's no wonder one endorsed the other.

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On Sunday's special GOP debate edition of Meet the Press, Mitt Romney didn't just repeat his talking points about the advantage folks with private-sector experience have over career politicians. He offered several answers that, taken together, constitute a particular vision of the citizen-politician: a man of independent means moved to seek office out of a disinterested sense of duty.

"I long for a day where, instead of having people to go to Washington for 20 and 30 years who get elected and then when they lose office they stay there and make money as lobbyists or connecting to businesses, I think it stinks," he said. "I think we oughta have people go to Washington and serve... and go home. I'd like to see term limits in Washington." At first blush this doesn't make a lot of sense. Term limits would arguably increase the number of politicians who, having exhausted their time as elected officials, would go through the revolving door to work for lobbying firms of industries that are particularly reliant on influencing federal lawmakers.

But it makes more sense in light of subsequent exchanges.

Newt Gingrich, who traded on his time as House speaker to earn millions from Freddie Mac, health-care firms, and other industry interests, attacked Romney for his critique of career politicians. "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?" Gingrich said. "...You didn't have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what to do. You were running for president while you were governor. You've been running consistently for years and years and years. So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind, just level with the American people."

When Romney replied, he said something I'd never heard from him before:

Mr. Speaker, citizenship has always been on my mind. I happened to see my dad run for governor when he was 54 years old. He had good advice for me. He said, "Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage. If you find yourself in a position when you can serve, why, you oughta have a responsibility to do so if you think you can make a difference." He said, "Also don't get involved in politics if your kids are still young 'cause it may turn their head." 

That's an old-school, northeastern Republican kind of attitude, and quite a contrast to the more typical position of those who advocate term limits: that we need more "regular Americans" seeking office. That isn't what Romney is saying. Among the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book, very few can pay their mortgage without the benefit of a stable full-time job. 

In fact, Romney's vision of the citizen-politician was so old-school northeast that when I heard it I thought immediately of an old Washington Post profile of George H.W. Bush. It contains a passage about his father, Prescott Bush:

The kids never knew it, Mrs. Bush says, but Prescott wanted to enter politics as a young man. He didn't enjoy business much and rarely talked about it -- he talked politics. He believed, however, that he first had to put his five children through their de rigueur private educations, elementary through college -- costing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars even then. So he was 57 before he became a U.S. senator; 67 when he retired in failing health.

With pride and sadness, Mrs. Bush hints at a failed ambition: "He would have been the president of the United States if he'd gone into politics earlier." Prescott Bush became the family's idealized image of achievement, propriety and duty. He talked constantly of the need to "give something back" to the society that had treated him so well. And if the Walker side of the family contributed its fun-loving spirit to the family, it was Prescott who contributed its stoic sense of noblesse oblige.

Nor do the similarities between H.W. Bush and Romney end there. The notion of H.W. Bush as an opportunistic flip-flopper has perhaps faded with time, or is at least unknown to younger Americans, but that is how he was regarded among conservatives in his day. Later in the same profile there is another passage that could, with a few tweaks, have been written about Romney:

They say George Bush doesn't know himself, that he has blown with the political winds: Goldwater conservative to Jerry Ford conservative to Ronald Reagan conservative. This is silly. George Bush knows exactly who he is: He is the son of Sen. Prescott Bush, the daughter of Dorothy Walker Bush. He is a Bush, a ragingly proud Bush. He was in a very real sense born to rule. And when you are born to rule, you rule what there is to rule. He didn't come to this ambition by ideology, but by osmosis. Bush wants to be president, always has. And he is a reasonable man. He'll change with the times -- and change back with them again. He opposed civil rights legislation, then favored it. He backed the Vietnam war, but later wanted American soldiers withdrawn. He opposed a constitutional amendment barring most legal abortions, but now favors such an amendment. He opposed Ronald Reaganism, but he now favors it.

Issues don't motivate Bush; people and ambition motivate him. His ardent backers spout not ideology, but faith in his goodness. Wasn't it reasonable to oppose civil rights legislation in '64, reasonable to favor it in '68? Remember, Bush's father was a Hoover man who helped draft Ike. Changing with the times, a guiltless pragmatism, is Bush's trademark.

He is a living barometer of the middle course.

Bush's personality -- his reasonableness, his decency, his empathy -- is the glue of his politics. Oddly enough, they also explain how so mythic a life can seem somehow trivial. George Bush has never been immutably tied to the great currents of his time. He's no trailblazer. His political motives aren't as much linked to a special vision of the body politic as they are to his family's dedication to proving itself again and again. The presidency, as Ernest Obermeyer said, is Bush's ultimate challenge, the final affirmation. This isn't a flaw in his character.

It is the heart of his character.

The simultaneous appeal and reaction against Mitt Romney isn't surprising, because it's an old story in American politics. Part of us wants a ruling class that is beyond being bribed and is confident in its judgments about what the nation needs... and part of us hates the idea of an arrogant S.O.B. so convinced of his own fitness to lead that he is willing to behave in ways that men with less egocentric convictions and strong characters wouldn't behave in order to achieve that goal.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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