Mitt Romney Keeps Saying the Wrong Thing ... Just Like His Dad

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Romney may not be as blunt as his father, but that doesn't mean he's not just as gaffe-prone, in his own way.

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To really understand Mitt Romney -- to the extent he can be understood at all -- just look to his father, George. Both Mitt and George Romney parlayed square-jawed good looks and a successful career in business into becoming the Republican presidential candidate who keeps saying the wrong thing.

Both Romneys were regularly accused of taking two sides of an issue; both men were prone to uttering bonehead statements that they would later try unsuccessfully to "clarify." Mitt Romney famously has emerged as something of a human gaffe machine, at various points in his campaign declaring that "I'm not concerned about the very poor," that "I like being able to fire people," labeling himself "severely conservative," and telling a group of unemployed workers, "I'm also unemployed." Even Romney had to acknowledge to reporters that his comments were damaging his campaign after recently declaring that his wife owned two Cadillacs and that he was friends with NASCAR team owners.

But so far, Mitt's verbal flubs still fall short of his father's. George Romney was forced to drop out of the presidential race in 1968 after uttering one of the most ruinous gaffes in modern politics, a 50-megaton slip of the tongue. The George Romney story is in many respects an eerie foreshadowing of Mitt's own career path. If Romney history continues to repeat itself, Mitt's most stupendous gaffe is still to come.

George Romney was born in 1907 and his early life was shaped by his Mormon faith. He spent time as a Mormon missionary in Scotland, but won few converts -- the church's prohibitions against drinking and smoking were not exactly attractive selling points to a people fond of whiskey and cigarettes. Forty years later, Mitt would follow in his father's footsteps as a Mormon missionary in France. Mitt wouldn't have any more success winning converts than his father, and for largely the same reasons. For a time, Mitt was charged with spreading the Mormon message of abstinence to the citizens of the wine region of Bordeaux.

George Romney returned to the U.S. and worked as a Senate staffer and then as a lobbyist for Alcoa. He later signed on with the manufacturing firm Nash-Kelvinator, which soon merged with struggling automaker Hudson Motor Car to become the American Motors Corporation (AMC). When AMC's chairman died suddenly, George Romney was named president and chairman.

By its fifth year of operation, AMC went from losing millions of dollars to turning a profit of $60 million, and George Romney was hailed as a business wizard. Bucking the prevailing trend in American cars, Romney pushed a line of compact autos, led by AMC's flagship model, the Rambler. The Rambler became an unexpected hit, as did Romney himself, who began starring in TV commercials for AMC cars, and even made the cover of Time Magazine in April 1959.

George Romney quit AMC in 1962 at the height of his popularity to run for governor of Michigan as a Republican. Romney had the craggy good looks of someone who belonged in the governor's chair, and his success in the auto industry resonated with Michigan voters. He was seen a moderate Republican and a political outsider, labels which would later be affixed to his son Mitt. George Romney won the election by 80,000 votes, and was re-elected governor by increasingly large margins in 1964 and 1966.

After Romney won his third term as governor, he quickly emerged as the Republican front-runner for president. A November 1966 Gallup poll found 39 percent of Republican voters preferring Romney for the presidential nomination, a solid 8 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, former vice president Richard Nixon. Romney's support of civil rights made him seem like a moderate compared to the party's fire-breathing Barry Goldwater faction, much as his son Mitt would later appear moderate when stacked against rock-ribbed conservatives like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

But just as Mitt would discover decades later, the more exposure voters had to George Romney, the less they seemed to like him.

But just as Mitt would discover decades later, the more exposure voters had to George Romney, the less they seemed to like him. George Romney's lead over Nixon disappeared by early 1967, and by August of that year, he trailed Nixon by 11 percentage points in the Gallup Poll.

George Romney's biggest weakness as a candidate was that voters couldn't figure out what he stood for, the same complaint that would later dog Mitt. George took seemingly contradictory stands on many issues, including the war in Vietnam, which he seemed to want to both escalate and wind down. An anti-Romney pamphlet titled "The Romney Riddle," published in 1967 by conservative critic Gerald Plas, complained that Romney "simply speaks on all sides of the subject--right, left, and center."

Former President Dwight Eisenhower saw George Romney's habitual flip-flopping as a critical character flaw that made him unfit for the presidency. "He has been on so many sides of so many questions that one begins to wonder just where he does stand," Eisenhower said of Romney in 1967. "He sounds like a man in a panic. And a man who panics is not the best candidate for president."

A lengthy Life magazine profile in May 1967 titled "Puzzling Front Runner," observed that "people are asking what -- or whether -- George Romney thinks about major issues." The author of the article observed, "When it comes time to ask Romney just how he's for real, the difficulties start. The right words elude him, and in their place come platitudes, pieties and talk about fundamental basic relationships that simply frustrate inquiry."

Decades later, Mitt Romney would face the same criticisms, and flip-flopping on issues would become a hallmark of Mitt's candidacy. Mitt supported Roe versus Wade before coming out against it; he said President Obama was "copying" his Massachusetts health reform plan before opposing the President's healthcare overhaul, which he now says in no way resembles his Massachusetts plan; he once supported granting a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants but now says he wants all undocumented immigrants to "return home and get in the back of the line."

Taking both sides of an issue makes it easy to say the wrong thing, and George Romney's run for president came to a screeching halt with a monumental gaffe. On September 4, 1967, WKBD-TV in Detroit aired an interview with George Romney conducted by newsman Lou Gordon. During the interview, Gordon took Romney to task for what seemed like another one of Romney's flip-flops. In 1965, Romney had returned from a fact-finding tour of Vietnam saying that the war was "morally right and necessary," but on the campaign trail two years later, he maintained that the U.S. shouldn't have become involved in Vietnam at all.

Romney conceded that he had changed his views on the war, but claimed that when he had toured Vietnam in 1965, he'd been misled by overly-optimistic reports from American military and diplomatic officials. Then George Romney uttered the line that would haunt him for the rest of his life: "Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

In one sense, Romney's new stance on Vietnam was hardly controversial. A growing number of public figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., had turned against the war, and many were raising doubts about whether the American people were being told the truth about the war. Romney hadn't gone nearly as far as some critics who were calling for a negotiated settlement with the North Vietnamese. Instead, Romney seemed to be saying that even if the war was a mistake, we're stuck with it, so we might as well win it.

But what turned out to be devastating to Romney was a single word he uttered in the interview: brainwashing. It's hard to imagine now, but brainwashing was an emotionally loaded topic for many Americans in 1967. During the Korean War, captured American servicemen had reportedly been subjected to brainwashing by the Chinese, leading some G.I.s to publicly denounce the U.S. while in captivity.

In 1959, best-selling author Richard Condon published The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller about a Korean War vet who is brainwashed into becoming a sleeper agent for international communism. In 1962, the book was adapted into a feature film directed by John Frankenheimer that quickly became a Cold War classic.

Romney had used the word brainwashing in an offhand way, but raising the specter of mind control in the context of another Asian land war brought back ugly memories. Within days, Romney's comment touched off a media feeding frenzy. Time magazine dubbed him "the brainwashed candidate," and politicians lined up to denounce him. Republican Congressman Robert Stafford of Vermont declared, "If you're running for the presidency, you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed." Senator Eugene McCarthy joked that as far as Romney being brainwashed was concerned, " a light rinse would have been sufficient."

The gaffe caused Romney's standing in the polls to drop like a stone. After the remark aired, Romney went from being 11 points behind Richard Nixon in the Gallup poll to trailing by 26 points. Romney's candidacy never recovered, and he dropped out of the presidential race in February 1968, shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Although Romney would later go on to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, the brainwashing gaffe followed him to the grave. When George Romney died in July 1995, the headline from the Associated Press read, "George Romney, Who Said Military Brainwashed Him on Vietnam, Dead at 88."

George Romney's story is a cautionary tale, one that may have convinced Mitt Romney to be even more cautious as a presidential candidate to avoid saying the wrong thing. But Mitt may have drawn the wrong lesson from his father's unsuccessful bid for president. By trying to be all things to all voters, Mitt Romney, like his father before him, seems to be satisfying none of them.

And who knows what he'll say next.

Image credit: REUTERS/John Gress

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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