Bentley Historical Library, All
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."

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."

I told Mitt as he geared up to run in 2008 that I had been trying to get a Romney in the White House for 40 years! Mitt is, in many ways, remarkably like his father. If you compare their pictures (with George at Mitt's age) you can hardly tell them apart, other than that George went gray a bit earlier. More important than their similar looks, both were blessed with the ability to see the big picture and to inspire and bring people together.

But there were (and are) some differences. George was smart, relying on a street sense that went beyond his limited formal schooling; Mitt is beyond smart, enhancing his intelligence with degrees from both Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools.

But Mitt, in a conscious effort to avoid some of the gaffes and shoot-from-the-hip answers that doomed his father's campaign, became overly cautious and "programmed" in the 2008 campaign, and his efforts to present himself as a gun-loving, flag-waving ultra-conservative came across as disingenuous and as pandering to the right (and felt at odds with his balanced, centrist record in Massachusetts).

But for 2012, Mitt is simply running as who he is, and with an attitude of "what you see is what you get — take it or leave it" that reminds me of George. Mitt knows that this is his last run, and seems to essentially be saying, "If I win, I will do so by being myself and not by trying to fit someone else's mode or model of what the Republican nominee should be." Even on the issue of his healthcare plan in Massachusetts, his approach and attitude matches with the title of his book, "No Apologies." The real Mitt, it turns out, is even more like George than people realized.

Perhaps the most extraordinary similarity of all between father and son is that Mitt, like George in his time, is one of the few people of his generation to reach the pinnacle of success in all three sectors of our society — business: president and CEO of Bain, among the largest consulting and venture capital companies in the world; politics: governor and leading presidential candidate; and volunteer and nonprofit: head of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

The real Mitt, and the one the public is seeing more of in this campaign, is approachable and direct, and has a unique kind of "confident humility" that allows him to listen as well as lead. He is charming and funny in a self-deprecating way. He is a great dad and grandpa and has a remarkable partnership with Ann, who is his equal in every way. One day in 2008, during a campaign and fundraising meeting I attended in his Park City home, Mitt disappeared during the socializing and no one could find him. I finally located him in one of the upstairs bedrooms comforting a crying grandchild and changing a messy diaper.

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I don't know that these kinds of experiences demonstrate any special qualification for president of the United States, and many other candidates have lived lives of great distinction, but believe me when I say that Mitt and Ann Romney, like George and Lenore Romney before them, have the right answers for the question-title of this column: "Why the Family."

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