Linda & Richard Eyre: The Romneys: Like father, like son

Published: Sunday, June 12 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Mitt and George Romney on the golf course. The Romneys always put family first, and George Romney said many times that "The family is the basic unit of society."

Bentley Historical Library, All

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How much do fathers influence their sons? How much do sons follow the patterns of their fathers?

Mitt Romney and his father, George, offer an interesting example — one that I (Richard) happen to know a little about. The column this week isn't meant to be a political endorsement, but rather a personal recollection of my own experiences with the Romneys that have greatly influenced my life, particularly my feelings about family.

In 1967 I was a young student at Utah State, just back from an LDS mission in New York City and majoring in political science. I ran for student body president and lost miserably. In an effort to salvage my own ego, I decided I needed to go into real politics instead, and I managed to get myself hired as the national student coordinator of the George Romney for President Campaign.

George was the acclaimed three-term governor of Michigan, and at the time was one of three frontrunners for the GOP nomination, along with Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. I lucked out with a great assignment — to go from campus to campus organizing Romney for President clubs.

But as the campaign got more intense, all Romney staffers were pulled into New Hampshire, the site of the first primary, and I spent the cold and snowy winter of 1967-68 in Portsmouth, organizing "home headquarters" for Romney. In the meantime, George's second son, Mitt, was on his mission in Paris.

When George started to decline in the polls, largely the result of his sometimes-too-blunt candor and saying things like "I was brainwashed about Vietnam," the situation became desperate. We all knew that if we didn't win in New Hampshire, the Romney campaign was doomed.

As George slipped in the polls, he chose to withdraw, Nixon was nominated and the rest is history. The country wasn't ready for the directness and candor of George Romney. When Mitt came home from France, his father's campaign was over. I wrote my thesis for my BYU masters program on "George Romney in 1968, From Front-Runner to Drop Out: An Analysis of Cause."

I had lost my own father when I was 15, and over the years George became a mentor and something of a father figure to me. I served on his board when he headed the National Volunteer Center, and I admired, almost idolized everything about the man. He was one of the few people of his era to rise to the very top of all three sectors of national society: 1. business: chairman and CEO of American Motors; 2. political: governor, presidential candidate and Cabinet member; and 3. nonprofit: chairman of the National Volunteer Center.

George was unique in his ability to work with and respect everyone. Though he was a Republican, the unions in Detroit loved him for strengthening their industry. Though he was a Mormon stake president, when he entertained political guests in his home, he could mix them whatever drink they wanted.

And George was refreshingly blunt. When you asked him a question he gave you a candid, honest answer that represented what he really thought, even if he knew it was not politically popular or not exactly tuned or tailored to the views of the group or person that was asking. He was a genuine moderate, appreciating both sides of most political arguments and gifted at bringing the far right and the far left together in pragmatic compromise.

The thing I admired most about George and his superstar wife, Lenore (who gave up a Hollywood career to marry George and who ran for the U.S. Senate after she had raised her children), is that they put their family first. Their answer to "why the family" was simple, and I heard George state it many times: "The family is the basic unit of society."

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