The clip was short, but surreal: Mitt Romney—his face wrapped in a white mask, his sleeves rolled at the wrists—marches toward the White House alongside protesters chanting about police brutality. A reporter asks him what he’s doing there, and the Republican senator from Utah responds: “We need to stand up and say that black lives matter.”
When the video appeared on Twitter late yesterday afternoon, it drew a torrent of predictable reactions. Trumpites sneered and called him a loser. Leftists sneered and called him a poser. A small but vocal cheering section praised him for marching. And several people speculated—as they always do—that the 73-year-old senator was laying the groundwork for another presidential bid.
In reality, Romney’s path to yesterday’s Black Lives Matter protest began half a century earlier with his father—a man whose legacy has long shaped, and sometimes haunted, his son.
George Romney was the Republican governor of Michigan during the 1967 Detroit riots, which left 43 people dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed. In the aftermath of the violence, he addressed his constituents in a statewide broadcast.
“Some already are saying the answer is brute force such as would be used on mad dogs,” the governor said. “Others are questioning present social and economic programs because they claim Negroes don’t appreciate what has already been done … As citizens of Michigan, as Americans, we must unhesitatingly reject all these divisive courses.”
As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has detailed, George went on to enact a fair-housing law in his state, and called for an end to discriminatory zoning practices. When white voters sent him angry letters, he would write back, “Force alone will not eliminate riots. We must eliminate the problems from which they stem.”
The elder Romney was well known for such acts of defiance. Whether he was denouncing Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention or crusading against segregationist policies from inside the Nixon administration, he prided himself on putting principle over party—especially when it came to civil rights.
For Mitt, these heroic stories are never far away. He invokes them frequently in speeches and interviews—including several of my own conversations with him—and he seems to measure his own success by that of his father. In the 2014 Netflix documentary Mitt, Romney rhapsodizes to his family about the obstacles his late dad had to overcome.
“He was the real deal,” Romney says. “The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became a governor … I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.”
“I’m standing on his shoulders,” he concludes.
For all his paternal admiration, Romney has seemed at times to define his political career in opposition to his father’s. When he ran for president in 2012, he instructed aides to study George’s short-lived presidential candidacy, which was torpedoed by an impulsive Vietnam War gaffe. As a candidate, Mitt Romney was cautious and calculating, and less than eager to confront the toxic forces that were taking over his party.
But the Trump era has had a liberating effect on Romney. After Charlottesville, he said the president’s response “caused racists to rejoice.” After the impeachment trial—when he became the only Senate Republican to vote for Trump’s conviction—he told me he’d been guided by a favorite scripture of his father’s. And last week, as protests spread across the country, he tweeted a photo of his father marching for civil rights.
Like any self-aware politician, Romney is quick to deflect talk of how history will view him. (“Frankly, I don’t think I will be viewed by history,” he told me in an interview last year.) But press him on the question hard enough, and some truth peeks out from beneath the self-deprecation.
“I think of my dad,” he told me once. “My dad was an extraordinary man, but I don’t think history’s going to record George Romney’s impact on America … I don’t look at myself as being a historical figure.”
Maybe he’s right. But just because he’s not thinking about future historians doesn’t mean he’s unconcerned with his legacy. His father set a high bar—and as Romney nears the end of his career, he wants to be seen reaching for it.