Mitt Romney has become famous for flip flopping on everything other than his hair style, but his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, flipped on something big — Vietnam. But as Rolling Stone explains, there is a big difference in how he handled it versus how Mitt handles things. He explained exactly why he changed positions, saying that the military and diplomatic officers had lied to him about the situation in Vietnam and coming out strongly against the war. And unlike his son, that was not a politically convenient position to take. In fact, it killed his chances of becoming president.
His calling card was his shocking authenticity; his courage in sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary. In January of 1964, for example, the second-year governor received a letter (downloadable here) from a member of the top Mormon governing body reminding him of the “teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith” that “the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro.” Drop your support for the 1964 civil rights bill, the elder warned, arguing that God might literally strike Romney dead for his apostasy: “I just don’t think we can get around the Lord’s position in relation to the Negro without punishment for our acts,” the letter said. Romney only redoubled his commitment – leading a march the next year down the center of Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King’s martyrs for voting rights’ in Selma, Alabama. In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged them, unsuccessfully, not to. “This fellow really means it,” an amazed Southern Republican said when Romney toured Dixie pushing civil rights in his presidential campaign; after America’s worst riot broke out in Detroit under his watch, the governor said that America could respond with a crackdown on law and order – “but our system would become little better than a police state.”
Then, most famously, there was the Vietnam War. He supported it after returning from a trip there in 1965. Then, courageously, after a second trip in 1967, he began to criticize it. On September 4, 1967, a TV interviewer asked, “Isn’t your position a bit inconsistent with what it was, and what do you propose we do now?”
The line everyone remembers from his response: “When I came back from Vietnam in 1965, I just had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam.” But he continued with a devastating, prophetic, and one-thousand-percent-correct assessment: that staying in Vietnam would be a disaster. The public, and certainly the pundits, weren’t ready to hear it. All they heard was the word “brainwashing” – not in the colloquial sense in which Romney obviously intended it, but as something literal. Here was this weird dude accusing our generals and diplomats of Svengali-like mind control. The mockery was swift and furious. (“I would have thought a light rinse would do,” William F. Buckley said – hilarious! Only an idiot would criticize the Vietnam War!) Romney nose-dived sixteen points in the next Harris poll. As I wrote in my book Nixonland, on Vietnam a national brainwashing continued apace.
The Mormon bishop, however, did not quit. Instead he leapfrogged across New Hampshire telling unseasonable truths – that LBJ was “spinning a web of delusion,” and that “when you want to win the hearts and minds of people, you don’t kill them and destroy their property. You don’t use bombers and tanks and napalm to save them.”
George Romney is still an icon here in Michigan, revered by Republican and Democrat alike. Sadly, the only thing Mitt ever learned from him was, as the Rolling Stone article suggests, that telling the truth is the way to kill your political career.