Mormon Media Observer: George Romney showed problems with how press covers campaigns

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 10:00 a.m. MDT

Mitt and George Romney on the golf course.

Bentley Historical Library

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It's hard to imagine a presidential candidate who had more bad luck with the press than George Romney.

The father of the current Republican nominee, George Romney was governor of Michigan when he ran for president in 1968.

He remains a unique American politician. In addition to the romantic gesture of leaving a flower by his wife's bedside every morning for their entire married life, which Mitt Romney spoke of at the Republican convention, the stories of George Romney tell me of a politican who genuinely tried to make life better for the state of Michigan.

I remember one. During the riots of 1968, after his campaign had wound down, rather than sit in his office, he went out into the streets, risking his personal safety, to talk with protestors, to see if there was something he could do. (It's worth looking up sometime the contrast of his style to his contemporary Spiro Agnew, during the period and what Agnew did in response to the race riots of that terrible summer. Agnew seemed darkly defensive.)

Furthermore, a year earlier, in the late summer of 1967, George Romney campaigned in the inner cities, walking among the people to understand their problems. There were no staged photo ops, no over-the-top fundraisers — just an earnest politician trying to shake hands and listen to the people.

Romney even went to break bread with the "summer of love" youth who had settled in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and he hosted a question-and-answer there. One hippie mockingly asked Romney if he smoked marijuana, and ever earnest, Romney said, being Mormon, he didn't even smoke tobacco.

Here's what Newsweek wrote about him that summer:

"(His trip to the cities was a) departure from any campaign trip ever taken by a major political candidate. There were no major crowds and Romney went to dangerous neighborhoods."

It was typical of Romney's style to seek out genuine accommodation and to listen. It seemed an honest style indicative of what politics should be about.

But the press didn't portray Romney as a sensitive politician. I have read scores of news articles about his snake-bit campaign in 1968, and his openness with the press ultimately cost him. Romney seemed ready to answer most questions thoughtfully, including about religion, such that he sometimes stepped in his errors. Most famously, in 1967, he told one interviewer that he had been brainwashed into believing Vietnam was a good idea.

In the end, Romney was portrayed as a bumbling, square and comically out-of-touch man. There was one anecdote in a magazine article that fixated on a campaign stop at a bowling alley where Romney tried the unfamiliar candle-pin style and took more than 30 tries to knock down all of the pins.

Another anecdote from Newsweek told this story of Romney:

"Even his squareness was an asset. On a Detroit street, he delivered a homily about the value of education to the perfect caricature of a teenage delinquent. The boy responded with evident, overblown sarcasm, ‘Guv, you gotta git me off the streets and into them classrooms, cause, man, I needs my education.’ Everyone in hearing distance laughed, but Romney took him seriously and praised his attitude."

Here's what Newsweek concluded, "Seeing as how the trip followed his brainwashing gaffe, the storyline was that ‘The funeral arrangements were made, the dirges were sung … That was the message everyone seemed to be getting last week — everyone, that is, except the corpse.’”

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