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

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 4:39 a.m. MDT

Mitt and George Romney on the golf course.  (Bentley Historical Library) Mitt and George Romney on the golf course. (Bentley Historical Library)

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.’”

In his assessment of the 1968 campaign, the great Theodore White wrote, "Most important ... was the gulf between the man and the national media, who could not understand each other — Romney’s billboards in New Hampshire read THE WAY TO STOP CRIME IS TO STOP MORAL DECAY; he could not understand why newsmen found the slogan funny; and they could not understand what he meant by moral decay."

The media, in short, gave short shrift to the campaign of George Romney.

I have long suspected that his son's reticence to talk about religion and certain aspects of his life and politics stems from studying his father's presidential campaign. Mitt seems to have learned that saying too much can cost you. So it's no small irony that despite his relative discipline, the press seems to portray Mitt Romney lately as it did his father, as bumbling, square and out-of-touch.

Be that as it may, however, all that isn't the primary lesson of the coverage of the presidential campaign of George Romney. What is the lesson is the one Teddy White found — the power the news media wields in shaping our perceptions of presidential candidates is extraordinary.

It wasn't always like that.

Before the 1960s, political parties wielded the greatest power in selecting political candidates, but with the rise of a new type of political reporting — one driven by narrative — and with the growth of primaries as the most important means of selecting candidates, the power of party functionaries declined, to be replaced by the press.

In what may be the most insightful book ever written on the topic, "Out of Order," Harvard scholar Thomas Patterson wrote that the press has, almost by default, inherited the job of vetting candidates and organizing the election process — mainly because the parties are no longer able to do it.

The press, however, is too diffuse for this role, and the results of the chaos have harmed our electoral system.

As one reviewer notes, with the press focus on the ebbs and flows of polls and on the strategies of candidates rather than on substantive issues, what the voters want increasingly differs from what the press delivers. Furthermore, with the focus on conflict among campaigns, media coverage actually increases overall cynicism in the electoral process among voters.

Some writers, such as Tim Crouse, have argued that 1968 marked the beginning of this new press-driven system, and the system's first victim, if you will, was George Romney.

Today, it is easy to find people complimenting the remarkable career of George Romney, a true public servant, even as some do it to dimish his son.

In that there's the rub: It's hard not to conclude that the press' relentless framing of a bumbling George Romney weeded out the wrong guy in 1968, because the man who beat Romney in the primary was Richard Nixon.

To be sure, Nixon had remarkable strengths and many people appreciate much of his legacy, but it is hard to imagine that George Romney would have needed to resign in disgrace for covering up a second-rate burglary. It makes one wonder how our nation would have been different had a cynic like Nixon not won in 1968.

Now, I am not saying either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is another Nixon, but in this strange, frustrating election system we have now, we just don't know much about our candidates' true characters despite the relentless coverage, and it's more than possible that a few decades from now we'll look back and say we elected the wrong guy.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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