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Nixon, Romney relationship came to frosty end

It was 1970 when President Richard M. Nixon decided he had put up with his one-time rival George W. Romney long enough.

Nixon's staff had urged the firing of Romney from his job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development because they objected to Romney's effort to integrate suburban housing -- and now Nixon was prepared to do the deed in person.

But after meeting with Romney, Nixon boasted to his aide, H.R. Haldeman, that Romney had agreed to go along with whatever Nixon wanted.

"P concluded that Romney is the type who always folds under pressure, after talking a big game," Haldeman wrote in his diary about the president's view.

In fact, Romney had believed he had Nixon's support on matters such as favoring suburban integration, only to learn that Nixon was backing away at the urging of his aides for political reasons. Romney was torn between speaking out about his disagreements and being a Nixon team player.

The collaborations and clashes between Nixon and Romney played out with Shakespearean drama during the four years of Nixon's first presidential term -- many of them spelled out in detail in secret tape recordings, diaries, memos and even a private letter from Romney's wife to a top Nixon aide. The tapes and documents, some of them previously unpublished, provide a window into the state of mind of Romney and his wife at a time when their son, Mitt, was in his early 20s and coming of age politically.

    It was a shock to many that Nixon picked his one-time rival for the Republican Party presidential nomination to head a Cabinet agency. Romney, who had flamed out as a Republican presidential candidate after saying he was "brainwashed" about Vietnam, had even refused to release his delegates to Nixon at the GOP convention.
Romney's snub "was an incident that Nixon could never forget," Nixon aide John Ehrlichman wrote later. Ehrlichman analyzed the move as classic Nixon: the president "needed a few moderate Republicans to balance the Cabinet. What better revenge than to put Romney into a meaningless department, never to be noticed again?"

But Romney did not toil quietly. Romney pushed for federally supported suburban housing integration and other policies that were considered among the most liberal put forward by any leading member of the Republican Party. With names such as Operation Breakthrough and Open Communities, the programs were an attempt to remake America.

"We've got to put an end to the idea of moving to suburban areas and living only among people of the same economic and social class," Romney said in 1969, believing that he had Nixon's backing.

Construction of the initial projects prompted major protests. Nixon aides feared the programs would undercut Nixon's suburban base of support. They decided that Romney should be replaced by a man more to their liking: Donald Rumsfeld.

But Romney balked in late 1970 at a suggestion from Nixon's aides that he be eased into another post in the administration, according to entries in Haldeman's diary. That prompted Nixon's aides to conclude that the president himself would have to fire Romney.

"George won't leave quickly, will have to be fired," Haldeman wrote in his diary on Nov. 13, 1970, about the administration's view of Romney. "So we have to set him up on the integrated housing issue and fire him on that basis to be sure we get the credit."

But when Nixon met with Romney on Dec. 2, 1970, the president couldn't bring himself to fire his old adversary, concerned about losing Michigan as well as urban voters across the country in 1972. Instead, the president, or "P," tried to bully Romney into capitulating on a variety of issues.

"P had his long talk with Romney, and it went a little differently than expected," Haldeman wrote in his diary. "Turned out that in the crunch, George would back down on his super-principles, and follow Administration policy about suburb integration, if that would avoid his being tossed out."

Romney considered himself a straight-shooter and held in disdain many of Nixon's aides, who connived against him and seemed to swear ceaselessly. Romney was, as Ehrlichman wrote, "a frustrated and unhappy man."

Romney became increasingly infuriated at his lack of power to formulate policy and oversee policies foisted upon him. Then, in early August 1972, after a hurricane had devastated Wilkes Barre, Pa., Nixon announced that he was sending Romney to assess the situation -- but didn't bother to inform Romney, who learned about it from the media.

As Romney angrily stewed about the slight, his wife, Lenore, decided to secretly contact the White House. Unaware that Ehrlichman had been assigned to keep Romney in line, Lenore Romney wrote Ehrlichman on Aug. 8, 1972, saying: "It was a stunning blow to have the president send a communication through the press that he was 'ordering' George to Wilkes-Barre and demanding a report... It is demoralizing to know...that your President has such low regard for your own dignity and service."

Arriving in Wilkes Barre, Romney was confronted by flood victims who believed the Nixon administration had abandoned them. Romney responded by brusquely dismissing a suggestion from the state's Democratic governor that the federal government pay off mortgages of hurricane victims, calling the idea "unrealistic and demagogic."

That prompted a 63-year-old grandmother, Min Matheson, to confront Romney during a press conference.

"You don't give a damn whether we live or die," she angrily told Romney.

The confrontation received wide media coverage and was perhaps the second most bruising moment of his political career, aside from his comment that he had received a brainwashing about Vietnam.

Nixon feared the fallout from Romney's trip could hurt his re-election chances in such a large, crucial state. Two days after Romney's visit to Pennsylvania, Romney arrived for a rare personal meeting with Nixon in the Oval Office.

In the course of an emotional hour, Romney let loose with his many frustrations about serving under Nixon and repeatedly tried to quit, according to a conversation captured on Nixon's secret tape-recording system.

Lashing out at White House aides who constantly undercut him, Romney told Nixon: "I'm not dealing with subordinates in the White House staff. There is a network here that I have to deal with and I've had it clear up to here."

His voice rising, Romney continued: "I have no effective voice in the policy areas or the operational areas relating to my own department!"

Romney wanted to quit, effectively immediately. "I really have reached the conclusion that I ought to resign, I ought to get out. And I ought to do it now," Romney told Nixon.

Nixon was mortified. While he would have been happy to get rid of Romney, he didn't want Romney leaving in the midst of a re-election campaign. In a soothing voice, Nixon told Romney that leaving immediately would hurt both of them. The press would report that Romney was leaving because of disagreements over how to respond to the hurricane in Wilkes Barre.

"If it is interpreted that way, I think it would be harmful to me, and I don't think it would be helpful to you, either, in those terms," Nixon said.

Romney relented, agreeing to put off his resignation, but the damage to his reputation was done. He stayed silent about his disagreements with Nixon -- but only until Nixon was reelected. Then, in a tart resignation letter on Nov. 9, 1972, Romney complained to Nixon that politicians did not focus enough "on real issues."

Politics, Romney wrote, was too much about winning elections and not enough about dealing with problems. Presidential candidates, he lamented to Nixon, "tend to avoid specific positions concerning, and discussion of, `life and death' issues in their formative and controversial stage for fear of offending uninformed voters and thus losing votes."

Romney said he wanted to devote time to a private organization composed of "truth seekers" who would focus on solving major problems rather than the "superficial concerns of the moment."

Romney did organize up what he called a "coalition of concerned citizens." But he never ran for national office again, leaving it to his son, Mitt, to demonstrate whether he can live up to the lofty ideals that his father failed to impose on Nixon.

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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