Call me sadomasochistic, but I watched Mitt Romney’s loser speech in Colorado last night. Romney’s speeches lack the amusing chicken-little quality of a Santorum or Gingrich barn-burner. Our very civilization is not at stake. I was just about to the TV off when Mitt began speaking about his father, something he does not often do.
We all know that elite politicians, who mostly come from middle class comfort at the least, and more typically the upper echelons of society, like to parade around their more hard-scrabble relatives to humanize themselves, from Gephardt’s milk truck driving father to Santorum’s coal-mining grandfather. Even President Obama, who has a pretty compelling story on his own, referred to his PHD father as a “goat herder” in his 2004 convention speech.
Last night, in an effort to push back against the faux-populism that drove Santorum to victory in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Mitt Romney invoked his father George Romney. His father, Mitt explained, had it tough. He was a lath and plaster carpenter, working with his hands as a young adult, even doing odd jobs during his honeymoon to pay for his trip. That hard-luck carpenter went on to become a CEO and governor. Like Jesus, but Mormon and business-savvy. America!
Unfortunately, Mitt’s story leaves out a few delightful chapters. George Romney’s family did go through bouts of poverty, first brought on by having to flee their Mormon enclave during the Mexican revolution. As a teenager George did learn lath and plaster, but it was never his job as an adult. I spent a summer as a teenager washing dishes in a hot kitchen, but it would be inaccurate to describe my origins as that of a hard-scrabble dishwasher.
In fact, George went to college, where he was elected Student Body President. He spent several years overseas as a missionary, living mostly in Scotland. His first job upon returning to the U.S was working as an aide to Massachusetts Democratic Senator David Walsh. The Massachusetts moderatism is in their blood, I suppose.
George Romney next worked as an aluminum lobbyist for Alcoa, which allowed him to rub shoulders with Washington big-wigs like the Hoovers and the Roosevelts. During the 1940s and 1950s, George held a variety of impressive titles, eventually becoming CEO of the American Motors Corporation. Along the way he laudably spoke up for affordable housing and desegregation. By the time he ran for governor in 1962 as a moderate Republican, he was to the left of most Democrats on civil rights issues.
As governor, George Romney supported civil rights legislation, greatly expanded government services in education and unemployment benefits, and in 1967 turned against the Vietnam War. After Nixon won the 1968 election, Romney became HUD director, and lobbied aggressively to expand and desegregate government housing through affirmative action.
In short, George Romney does have a compelling story. It’s just not one that Willard Mitt would be particularly interested in telling Republican voters on the campaign trail.