Dreams from My Mother: Mitt Romney and the Politics of Reluctance

Editor's Note: Don't miss Faithful Citizenship, Greg Garrett's new ebook on politics and Christianity, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $4.99.

In pastoral circles, we often talk about something called "Family of Origin" issues—that is, the idea that our growing up has shaped and sometimes mis-shaped all of us, whether we realize it or not. When I was doing my hospital chaplaincy, we learned that understanding Family of Origin was one of the most important parts of a spiritual diagnosis, and in my own history of counseling (as counselee and counselor) I've learned that however much we may grow and learn, there's a part of us shaped by where we came from.

It's why in the Deep South, the question people often ask is "Who are your people?" The answer to that question is often an answer to who we are. We do something unaccountable, and someone with some training looks at us and nods knowingly: "Family of Origin stuff."

This past week, TIME ran a cover story on the unsuccessful 1970 senatorial candidacy of Mitt Romney's mother Lenore. While many knew that Mr. Romney's father George was Governor of Michigan and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1968, many of us did not know about this episode in the life of the Romneys. Barton Gellman suggests in his article that

No presidential nominee until now has grown up with two parents who ran for high office or so much early exposure to the craft. Their public ruin seared him and schooled him. The lessons he drew have shaped his ambitions, his calculations of risk and his strategy for achieving what his mother and father could not. Bluntly put, Mitt learned from each of his parents how to lose an election. He found much to emulate as well, but longtime associates and family members say it became his prime concern to avoid their mistakes. As he constructed a political persona, they say, his father's career loomed large—but his choices owed more to Lenore than to George.

In other words, this election in the past shapes candidate Mitt in the present.

It is Family of Origin stuff.

So the question becomes, what has Mr. Romney learned, good and bad? And what can we learn from it?

First, I think Mr. Romney's fundamental decency as a campaigner grows out of his witness to his mother's experience (and of course, his deep Mormon faith; as I've said, often, I have never met a mean Mormon). Mrs. Romney was a smart, eloquent woman with a surprising breadth of opinion. She thought abortion should be legal (because the consequences of making it illegal were worse than those of allowing it to be legal and rare), and held a number of relatively progressive opinions. As TIME notes,

Lenore did not hesitate to take sides in the signal controversies of the 1960s. Race relations, civil rights and urban blight consume hundreds of pages in her private papers, archived at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, and many of her views were to the left of her party. She called publicly for desegregated housing, expansion of welfare and new investment in inner-city schools. She emphasized rehabilitation alongside punishment for criminals. Privately, though not yet in public, she expressed doubts about the Vietnam War.

Lenore Romney, like her husband George, expressed strong opinions. She was willing to be disagreed with, but became appalled at the level of personal attack and betrayal she discovered as a senatorial candidate. In the end, she was not only defeated, but demoralized. "It's the most humiliating thing I know of to run for office," she said.

Mr. Romney's insistence that his campaign not attempt to defame the President by using the Jeremiah Wright issue from 2008 may be a part of his reaction to that 1970 race. Why should people who offer themselves for public service be attacked and vilified? Candidates can differ on their approaches to the issues, and Mr. Romney expresses that approach in an interview with TIME, also this week:

Has the President made things better for the American people? Are they better off than they were four years ago? . . . Did he hold unemployment below 8%? It's been, what, 39 months now. That hasn't happened . . . Gasoline prices—are people happy with those? Home prices—are they happy with the home prices, the level of foreclosures? Do they think someone can do better?

Note that his disagreements are expressed respectfully, and President Obama is granted the title he has earned. Elsewhere in the interview, Mr. Romney describes the President as "a nice guy" who simply doesn't have the right skills to make the economy hum. Although his advisors may later prevail on him to do otherwise, I believe Mr. Romney, of his own volition, would want to run a campaign on the issues, without engaging personalities.