WASHINGTON -- It is the unfortunate fate of George Romney, the former Michigan governor and Cabinet secretary who died Wednesday at 88, that he may be best remembered for a casual television remark that brought his 1968 bid for the Republican presidential nomination crashing down, clearing the path for the eventual election of President Richard Nixon.
That was Romney's offhand observation in a television interview that during a visit to Vietnam he had been "brainwashed" by American generals and diplomats, temporarily convincing him of the necessity of the U.S. war effort there, but that he had since changed his mind.
The remark in itself might not have been so politically damaging except that it crystallized in voters' minds an impression created by Romney's previous fuzziness on what American policy should be -- that he was an impossibly muddled thinker not up to the mental rigors of the presidency.
The judgment was valid in some ways, but the fact was that Romney eventually proposed a policy by which to extricate the United States from Vietnam that Nixon later adopted under a different name. Romney called for an end to the "Americanization" of the war by turning over more responsibility to the South Vietnamese -- which Nixon later did under the name "Vietnamization."
Still, the "brainwashing" quote haunted Romney, driving him from the presidential race about a week before the New Hampshire primary when private polls indicated he would be swamped by Nixon. A man with a quick temper but an equally quick smile and a warm heart, Romney rebounded personally, served as Nixon's secretary of housing and urban development and remained a Republican Party stalwart in Michigan to the end.
His sudden exit from the 1968 contest was a contradiction to a determination and doggedness that marked his public and private life. In that New Hampshire primary, he demonstrated both one day at a bowling alley when he tried his hand at duckpins. Having failed to knock down all 10 with the allotted three balls, he kept trying . . . and trying and trying. Finally, he knocked over the last one -- with his 34th ball.
A ruggedly built man with a silver mane and granite jaw, Romney showed that same intensity on the golf course, where he competed doggedly if not particularly well. To save time, he played 18 holes by hitting three balls for six holes, running across the fairway from one shot to the next.
Romney was a strong advocate of civil rights who carried the banner of liberal Republicans in his bid for the 1968 nomination, conspicuously supported by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, who eventually took up the challenge to Nixon, unsuccessfully. In 1964, Romney refused to endorse the
conservative candidacy of GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, and as the party became more conservative, he remained essentially a Rockefeller Republican.
At the 1968 GOP convention, he permitted some other Rockefeller Republicans to place his name in nomination for vice president -- but received only 186 votes to 1,120 for Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew.
Romney was one of the first presidential campaigners to embark on an early, very visible quest for his party's nomination. He started taking soundings immediately after the 1966 midterm elections in which he was re-elected as governor, and in February 1967 embarked on a highly publicized presidential "exploratory" trip to Alaska and the Rocky Mountain states punctuated by a series of verbal gaffes.
Aboard his chartered plane carrying a host of national political reporters, Romney aide Walter DeVries forlornly observed: "We wanted this to be off-Broadway. . . . Well, it's off-Broadway, but they've flown the critics in with us." The critical coverage of Romney on this and subsequent "exploratory" trips set the stage for his slide after his "brainwashing" remark.
Through it all, however, Romney remained a frank, open and refreshing politician who, while often quick to anger, was just as quick to forgive. His best qualities could be put to good use by any of the contentious, snappish Republican would-be presidents of today.