Mitt Romney’s father, George, former governor of Michigan and Republican presidential candidate, represents a kind of politician that we would do well to foster today. An astute businessman, he could nevertheless see beyond his own class and profession. He recognized, for example, that the world favors power and privilege as well as merit. Thus, he eschewed the easy association of wealth with virtue and recognized that not everyone pursues the former. He combined a mind for business with a passion for social justice.

While governor, he instituted Michigan’s first personal and corporate income taxes as well as minimum wage, invested in education, extended generous benefits to the poor and unemployed and expanded both the size of government as well as its budget. Though he inherited a deficit, he produced a surplus.

An early proponent of the civil rights movement, George Romney supported Martin Luther King’s march in Detroit, strode down the center of town alongside the NAACP to protest housing discrimination and again in solidarity with those who suffered during Bloody Sunday.

At the 1964 Republican Convention, he supported the addition of a robust civil rights plank to the party’s platform and walked out in protest when it failed to pass. He saw his party’s changed attitude towards race as a betrayal of its greatest past achievements. And whereas his rival, Barry Goldwater, received 2 percent of the black vote, Romney was re-elected governor with 15 percent in 1964 and 30 percent in 1966.

Later, as President Richard Nixon’s secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Romney pushed to integrate the suburbs. When white communities protested and Nixon squashed the effort, Romney resigned.

This was back when the party could represent broad swaths of the American public and could claim to work for the common good. Romney had come from a family forced to flee Mexico and subsist for a time on government relief. A brief period of prosperity for the family came to an end with the Great Depression, and the young Romney knew all kinds of manual labor firsthand.

Perhaps that’s why he seemed to understand that the duty of the talented is not just to take whatever they can get but also to give, and that money and ownership are forms of power that must be exercised responsibly. He understood our economic interdependence and valued the contribution of the very manual laborers that he had once been, as well as non-corporate professionals (seeking higher pay for teachers, for example).

As a Republican, Romney decried not only “union domination” of the Democratic Party but also “excessive business influence” in his own.

He released 12 years of tax returns and Look magazine claimed that he “refused to let the … [American Motors Corporation] … raise his pay to the going scale for the blue-chip chiefs;” that “any time his total salary and bonus ran to unseemly heights … he turned cash back to the till.” It estimated the money returned at $268,000.

This was a time when CEOs were paid handsomely, but didn’t try to grab it all, and Romney seems to have understood that just because you can grab more doesn’t mean you should. He was one of the few business leaders to support Michigan’s Fair Employment Practices Act. At HUD, he championed affordable housing for the poor, and from 1955-1965, he gave an estimated 19 percent of his income to the Mormon Church and another 4 percent to charity.

87 comments on this story

In "Habits of the Heart," Robert Bellah et al. speak of losing our civic traditions — the biblical and the classical Republican. These had couched American individualism within social contexts that included common projects and responsibilities. Their absence has caused the elite to experience a “loss of civic consciousness, of a sense of obligation to the rest of society, which leads to a secession from society into guarded, gated residential enclaves. … Its sense of a social covenant, of the idea that we are all members of the same body … [being] singularly weak.”

They go on to note its “predatory attitude” toward the rest of society. Drawing on Lester Thurow’s distinction between an establishment (Japan) and an oligarchy (Latin America), they note that “an establishment seeks its own good by working for the good of the whole society (noblesse oblige), whereas an oligarchy looks out for its own interests by exploiting the rest of society.” Citing taxation as an example, they note that “an oligarchy taxes itself least; an establishment taxes itself most.”

George Romney, it appears, belonged to a dying establishment who were schooled in our civic traditions and thus had good “habits of the heart.” We would do well to return to them.

Mary Barker teaches political science in Madrid, Spain, and is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.