Romney's father dubbed business leaders "political eunuchs" and railed against giant cars and corporations in a spate of bold speeches in the '50s and '60s.
DETROIT -- "I never saw myself being like my Dad," Mitt Romney told The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn in 2007. "Now that I'm older, I see a tape of myself giving a speech, I say, 'Holy cow, I'm turning in to my Dad.' I look like him a lot. I talk like him a lot. The things I value are very much the things he valued."
It's a nice sentiment for a son to have.
Described by a reporter for Detroit magazine in 1968 as "a man who says in private what he says in public -- and in much the same way," George Romney's pronouncements were as memorable as his son's are forgettable, a fact dramatized by a sampling of some of the old man's early speeches, housed in the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
In the 1950s and 1960s, at the very height of American automobile dominance, and at a moment when when his American Motors Corporation teetered on the edge of insolvency, Romney was calling out the Big Three automakers for a lack of engineering innovation -- "most present-day automobiles are the lineal descendents of the ox-cart," he said -- and for pandering to consumers' egos.
"Cars 19 feet long, weighing two tons, are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drug store for a two-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick," Romney told the Motor City Traffic Club of Detroit in a 1955 speech titled, "The Dinosaur In the Driveway."
He showed cartoon illustrations of huge cars bulging through garages comically redesigned, with elastic walls and "bustle style" doors, to contain them.
Then he challenged the audience directly.
"Do you have an inferiority complex that makes you buy much more car and bulk than you need just to make you look successful? Pierre Martineau, research expert of the Chicago Tribune, says the desire to look successful is a top car buying motive. Of course it's true. But why not have others think you're smart as well as successful? And certainly smart car buyers buy today what others are going to think is smart tomorrow. ... Satisfying inferiority complexes through buying oversize, over-weight cars is becoming obvious and therefore pointless."
Now try to imagine Mitt Romney delivering a message like that to a hostile crowd.
By 1959 the elder Romney, in the midst of pulling off a great turnaround at AMC, was being celebrated with a cover article in Time and many other articles and awards. He was being drafted to work on important committees in Detroit and statewide. And there were lots of high-profile speaking opportunities, where Romney switched from salesman to provocative statesman. In a speaking style described by his 1960 biographer as having "a certain awkward quality of innocent, unsophisticated sincerity that strikes a friendly chord with listeners," Romney championed candor as a virtue of democracy.
"As far as I am concerned, one of the greatest deficiencies we have in this country is the unwillingness of people to say what they think," he said in his first speech of that busy year, to the Executives Club of Chicago. "Too many people limit their expressions to those things that they think their groups think they ought to say. I believe this is one of the real problems in America. We are too concerned about what it will do to our business, what it will do to us socially or politically, and we are mouthing things we don't really believe, or not saying them at all."
"We have corporate executives and white-collar employees," he told a crowd of that very makeup in Chicago, "who have become political eunuchs and who have substituted corporate citizenship and hope of economic advancement for their priceless heritage of independent political action."