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Not in his father's footsteps

February 10, 2008|Rick Perlstein | Rick Perlstein is the author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America."

Mitt romney, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race last week, will go down as the most robotic big-ticket presidential candidate in history -- "the Platonic ideal of inauthenticity," as Harold Meyerson put it in a Washington Post column. I chalk it up to psychobiography. Growing up, he learned that authenticity kills.

It's perfectly normal for young boys to view their fathers as terrestrial gods. The young Romney's experience was unique in that the rest of the country thought his dad a terrestrial god too.

It all started with the Rambler. Already by the late 1950s, Detroit was breaking out in cold sweats at mounting competition from more fuel-efficient imports. The auto industry was only getting what it deserved, George Romney, then chairman of American Motors Corp., would thunder "wherever he could find a soapbox," as Time magazine put it in a 1959 cover profile. He would pull a toy dinosaur from his briefcase: "This fellow here is triceratops. He had the biggest radiator ornament in prehistoric history. It kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he could no longer hold up his head. He had a wheelbase of nearly 30 feet."

Dramatic pause.

"Who wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?"

His Rambler was small, but that didn't keep Romney from sleeping in it some nights during the 70,000 miles he traveled in 1958 to preach its wonders. It was a hit and a pop-culture sensation, the subject of a million-selling ditty about the "Little Nash Rambler" that bagged a Cadillac on the road without shifting out of second gear.

Pundits swooned; "George Wilcken Romney, at 51, is a broad-shoulder, Bible-quoting brother of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal," Time's profile began.

A political career soon followed. But an unconventional one. Michigan was holding a new convention to replace its inadequate Constitution and needed a reconciling figure to manage the task. Romney was chosen -- and before the convention had hardly begun, he was being talked up as a presidential contender. He was Michigan's James Madison.

By the time the new Constitution passed in 1963, he was the state's governor -- a Republican in a Democratic state where the United Auto Workers was almighty. That holy grail of the pundit class, bipartisanship, runneth over. "Romney Prestige Lifts on Narrow Vote Victory," said the New York Times headline. His prestige could hardly lift more. As talk turned in the White House to the 1964 election, John F. Kennedy uttered, "The one fellow I don't want to run against is Romney." The first full-dress biography of him had been already published three years earlier.

At the National Governors Conference in 1964, his Republican colleagues, stunned by Barry Goldwater's ascendancy, practically begged Romney to accept the presidential nomination by acclamation. In 1966, he won reelection overwhelmingly, and he would now be the savior not merely of Detroit or the Republican Party but of the nation, opinion leaders decided. By 1967, the Harris polling organization reported that he had a better chance of winning the White House than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His son, Mitt, was then 19. At the age when most kids are awe-struck by their dad's ability to change a tire, Mitt was seeing his dad on the cover of Time and in TV commercials. By the time he approached maturity, his father was seen as something near to a national messiah.

The reason for the George Romney cult was simple. The world called him a "maverick." In a Republican Party trending right, he called America's cult of rugged individualism "nothing but a cover for greed." His forthright honesty was his calling card. His contrast with the wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson and the used-car salesman Richard Nixon made him -- along with that strong, square chin and silvering hair -- look like his party's only hope.

Then it all started to unravel.

An exploratory campaign office sprung up a few blocks from the state Capitol. A reporter noticed a line of books on Vietnam on the unpainted bookshelves. Romney kicked off his six-state tour warning that he wouldn't say anything about Vietnam until he had a chance to study the situation more, perhaps after a second visit (his first had been in 1965, on a junket with other governors). But the longer he said nothing, the more the reporters pressured him to say something.

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