Furious George: The Rhetorical Might That Mitt Is Missing

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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."

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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."

Not George.

"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."

In this speech, Romney claimed that the nation was in only the "early stages" of the American Revolution: "We have been too proud of our partially established political freedom. Political freedom for all was not established except as a concept and a goal when our country was founded. Indeed, the idea that the country should be governed by those who owned it was the basis of voter qualification in early elections. It took decades to broaden the right of political consent to include males without property. It took until 1920 to establish voting rights for women. Millions of American citizens are still denied their God-given political rights because of race."

He declared the biggest problem in the United States was too much concentration of power -- in government, in unions and in corporations alike.

"By the labor people I'm considered anti-union; by the big corporations I'm considered anti-big business. That's because any time you raise the question of power in this country, the immediate answer they give to knock you down is that 'you're against bigness and we've got to have bigness because only through bigness can you get efficiency and get all these goods.' That's the stock answer and that seems to satisfy everybody," he said.

"The hard facts are that any power, if it is excessive, is dangerous because somebody is going to abuse that power, sooner or later...."

Romney called for the abolition of cross-industry coalitions of unions and he called for the breakups of some big companies, to reach some minimum number of companies required for each industry to be truly competitive.

"It is all very well to speak smugly of the virtues of competition and assume that all you have to do is applaud it and be in favor of it," he told the business executives at the Economic Club of Chicago. "If we believe in competition, we must give it more than lip-service, and actively seek to keep it vigorous and fight the forces that restrain it."

Romney harped in 1959 -- and for the rest of his life -- on the need to expand what he called "voluntary cooperation," or independent citizens gathering to solve problems. "I believe that participation in politics by unions and corporations as organizations is morally, politically and economically wrong," Romney said. "We need to create a means by which people can express their concerns about these problems as citizens and consumers ...."

Romney concluded his last speech of 1959 by predicting that the "sixties will be a decade of basic decision" and challenging his listeners to be better human beings: "In the world, we need to decide just how deeply we believe in human brotherhood, and just how much of our comfort and time we are willing to give up in its behalf to help others help themselves, and how much energy and courage we want to put into that effort. I believe America is assigned the great world mission in brotherhood and that its pursuit can gain for us as a people inexpressibly more happiness than the materialism that is threatening to possess our hearts."

Again: It's hard to imagine Mitt making such an appeal.

Of course the father and son, no matter how close and how mutually admiring, had divergent upbringings. The comparatively hardscrabble, farm-raised, self-made father and the prep-schooled auto-industry scion were bound to be two different men. And maybe George was destined to be the more vivid.

But what is a safety-minded son to do?

"Every time I go to a debate, I write my dad's name at the top of the piece of paper on the stand," he said recently, "just reminding myself of his great character, his integrity, the vision he had for America."

Maybe he should take more than George Romney's name to the stage. Maybe he should take a whole speech.

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David Murray is the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. He also writes regularly at Writing Boots and Contentology.

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