So it was that when George took his son to the San Francisco convention, Mitt became an eyewitness to the unfolding war over the direction of the Republican Party, with Goldwater and most of the delegates on the conservative side and Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and a smaller number of delegates fighting for moderation. With Mitt watching earnestly from his seat — in a moment captured by an Associated Press photographer — his father implored the delegates to adopt a plank supporting civil rights for black people. The Goldwater delegates refused. George also failed in a bid to pass a plank calling on the party to reject “extremists.” It was mostly an effort to get the party to push out the far-right John Birch Society, which Romney and other moderates feared had increasing influence on the party. (A similar effort by Rockefeller on the convention floor famously led to his being booed by delegates.) Goldwater himself later declared in his acceptance speech: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
George Romney was aghast at the party’s direction, predicting that nominating Goldwater would lead to “the suicidal destruction of the Republican Party.” The convention ignored Romney. As Mitt watched from his seat in the Cow Palace, his father received 41 votes to be the party’s nominee. Goldwater won with 883. Weeks later, a television commercial from President Johnson’s campaign ran an advertisement that showed a Romney placard tossed into a convention trash pile as a narrator quoted Romney’s harsh words about Goldwater.
After Goldwater lost the general election in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, he wrote an angry letter demanding that Romney explain why he never endorsed him. George responded in a 12-page letter that included a warning that perhaps is even more relevant today than when it was written:
“Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress,” George wrote.
A defensive strategy
Mitt was deeply influenced by his father’s words and actions, at least in the early part of his career. He had watched his father win election in a Democratic state, Michigan, by vowing to work in a bipartisan fashion, and he would try to follow that model when running in Massachusetts. But while George Romney was an unequivocal success at the state level, winning the governorship three times, he was a failure at the national level, failing to win the Republican nomination in 1968. The lesson imparted to Mitt may have been clear: His father had tried to run for president as he had run for governor — as a blunt, outspoken moderate who counted on ticket-splitting voters for victory. It didn’t work.
And his father’s gravest setback, he knew, was also a byproduct of that blunt, frank style.
George was already disliked by many of the party’s conservatives when he famously changed his mind about his support for the Vietnam War by declaring he had been given “the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get.” It was a gaffe that undid him forever, politically. Mitt, in France at the time as a Mormon missionary, could only look on from a distance in dismay. But he defended his father’s change of heart then, and later even echoed his father’s phrasing when he spoke of the war: “I think we were brainwashed. If it wasn’t a blunder to move into Vietnam, I don’t know what is.”
But he also learned from his father’s debacle. Years later, Mitt Romney said that “a slip of the tongue or a misstatement can lead to a significant reversal,” and his sister Jane once told the Globe their father’s comment made Mitt “more cautious, more scripted.”
The result is a candidate today who is, in many ways, the opposite of his blunt-spoken father. His world outlook and personal style were honed during his years as a corporate consultant and leveraged buyout specialist, workheavy on analysis and closed-door discussion. His work at Bain Capital reinforced his instinct to embrace the “creative destruction” model of the business world—that businesses come and go by the nature of things, and must be left to do so, with minimal government regulation.
The political influence of George on Mitt continued to be crucial. In 1992, George created a nonpartisan group called “Americans for America” and placed ads urging voters to cast ballots based on “citizenship, not partisanship or economic interest.” One month after George unveiled that effort, Mitt, who had given money to Democrats over the years, voted in the Democratic presidential primary for former Senator Paul Tsongas, who focused on the importance of making deficit reduction a nonpartisan patriotic goal. Explaining his vote to The Washington Post, Mitt boasted that he had pulled a Democratic lever, saying, “I’m not a partisan politician. My hope is that after this election, it will be the moderates of both parties who will control the Senate, not the Jesse Helmses.”Continued...