As Michigan-born Mitt Romney looks to his native state to put his presidential campaign back on track in today's Republican primary, he is relying in part on the fond memories of the folks there for his father, former Gov. George Romney, thrice elected in the 1960s.
Known there as "The Rambler Man," the introducer and super-salesman of the small car of that name, the father cracked into the auto market otherwise dominated by Detroit gas-guzzlers. He was marching optimistically toward the 1968 GOP Republican nomination when he tripped over his own tongue and smack intoRichard M. Nixon.
The senior Romney, a most affable and ruggedly handsome man, was struggling then to find his footing on the issue of the Vietnam War. After visiting the war zone, he haplessly told a Detroit radio interviewer that he "just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job."
After reviewing the history of Vietnam going back before World War II, he went on, "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression." This confession, sharply in conflict with Republican policy at the time, was harmful enough. Romney's admission of having been brainwashed was worse, underscoring the growing criticism that he was indecisive on the prime foreign policy issue of the day.
Another Republican governor who had been on the same Vietnam trip, Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, was also chairman of the Nixon for President Committee, and he helpfully denied "any indication we were misled or brainwashed in any way." It fell to a Democrat, the perpetually caustic Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Wisconsin, soon to seek his party's presidential nomination, to observe about Romney's vulnerability: "I would have thought a light rinse would have done it."
The Michigan governor's rating in the Louis Harris Survey plunged 16 points. By a week or so before the New Hampshire primary, Romney had dropped behind Nixon, 75 percent to 10 percent, in an internal campaign poll and he suddenly withdrew. His son Mitt was 20 years old at the time and well remembered the hurtful experience.
The senior Romney, finished as a presidential contender, went on to become a moderately effective Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and civil-rights champion in Nixon's first presidential term. But it was his fate long thereafter to be remembered most often for the "brainwashing" comment.
Whether related or not to that episode, the son as a political campaigner has generally been more cautious than his father was. Yet, while equally affable and handsome, he has somehow failed to date to close the sale on himself within Republican ranks.
One obvious reason is that the party itself has so radically changed. The father, as a moderate leaning to liberal, was a comfortable fit in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller of the time. The son, as a onetime moderate straining to reshape himself as a conservative in the party's sharp pivot to the right, has had an authenticity problem.
In insisting now that he always has been a conservative, Mitt Romney has encountered his own problems with articulation. He has demonstrated a tin ear in some of his comments, appearing to many blue-collar voters as a man of inherited wealth unfamiliar with, or insensitive to, the economic pains they're feeling these days.
Thoughtlessly saying he was "not concerned about the very poor," because they have a governmental safety net under them, was one example. Offering to wager $10,000 in a debate was another. His father, by contrast, had a common touch, often regaling crowds about the joys of turning over outhouses as a country kid in his youth.
In Michigan particularly, the son is vulnerable to the impression that he has forgotten his roots in a state dominated by the auto industry. He opposed the federal bailouts that helped home-based General Motors and Chrysler emerge from near-collapse and return to profitability, and if he loses the primary there Tuesday, that opposition might well be the reason.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.