George Romney with his youngest son, Mitt, in 1957. Mitt Romney's… (Romney family )
Reporting from Detroit — The task at the 33rd annual tulip festival in Holland, Mich., would have made any other teenager cringe. But his father was running for governor and there were votes to be won, so 15-year-old Mitt Romney suited up in Dutch trousers, a hat and wooden shoes.
Before thousands of people, Romney and his parents led a parade of "gaily attired street cleaners," the 1962 campaign news release said, "some splashing out soapy water from hickory barrels and others manning brooms like the candidate" to show Michigan "a preview of the sparkling fresh look" that George Romney would bring to the state.
Fifty years later, the Republican presidential candidate recalled the moment without a blush of embarrassment. "It's easy wearing clogs," he deadpanned in an interview. "Hats are a different matter." The outfit was a small price for the thrill of the experience: "Campaigning and going across the state, for a 15-year-old kid, is about as good as it gets."
As he seeks the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney is running as the anti-politician, a businessman who came to politics late in life and disdains all it entails. But Romney was steeped in politics from childhood, embracing it as his father ran three successful races for governor and his mother made one unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
The campaigns welded Romney's ties to his home state of Michigan, where he is now locked in a tight race with Rick Santorum ahead of Tuesday's primary. And they unfolded in the midst of the nation's turbulent debate over civil rights and the Vietnam War — two areas where George Romney, a leading moderate, fiercely challenged conservatives within the Republican Party.
Mitt Romney has trod a far more conservative path in his own bids for the presidency, shifting his views rightward on social issues during his years as governor and later adjusting on other issues to make it through the gantlet of Republican primaries.
Still, his experiences as a bit player in the early campaigns and his close bond with his father helped shape his entrance into politics.
Romney worked as a copy boy, a yard-sign runner, a valet shuttling cars down the family's driveway during campaign fundraisers, and as a chauffeur for both of his parents across Michigan's 83 counties. Though he was serving as a Mormon missionary in France during George Romney's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968, they stayed in close touch through long letters, and he campaigned with his mother, Lenore Romney, two years later when she ran for the Senate.
Romney's brother Scott said in an interview that their father was almost akin to "an evangelical preacher" in pressing his children to enter public service. Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, echoed those sentiments last fall. "If you really want to know why we're in this race, it's because of Mitt's dad," she told Michigan voters at a diner in St. Ignace. "It never would have occurred to us to even do politics."
The Romney family was in the public eye as early as the mid-1950s, when George Romney engineered the turnaround of American Motors Corp. In a 1958 issue of the Detroit Sunday Times, when Mitt was 11, Lenore Romney described an idyllic family life with nightly gatherings to "pop corn" and "exchange amusing anecdotes about the day's doings" and Saturdays spent churning a bucket of homemade ice cream.
The Romneys drew their children into discussions about the topics of the day — relations between United Automobile Workers and the auto companies, Michigan's financial woes and the nation's political turmoil — that continued as George Romney organized his first campaign for governor.
Mitt Romney said he often challenged his father during the dinnertime debates — a precociousness that was encouraged. George Romney's former aides recalled the younger Romney passing out sodas during campaign strategy sessions at the family's cedar-and-brick home, and then sitting at the edge of the room to listen in.
"Young Mitt is eating up the excitement of our new venture," George Romney wrote to relatives in a March 1962 letter, that, like the campaign news release about the tulip festival, is part of the collection of his papers at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library. His son, he said, "has had a chance to see some of the wheels go round and he loves it."
Mitt Romney spent hours working the campaign's switchboard, connecting calls at the headquarters in Detroit's old Industrial Building. He toured Michigan's county fairs in a Ford van with another young campaign staffer, setting up campaign booths and Mitt manning the microphone: "Hello, sir. How are you?" he bellowed to passers-by. "I hope you're going to vote for George Romney."
George Romney's former campaign manager, S. John Byington, said Mitt and his friends would rev up crowds at rallies with the "Romney Girls," pretty recruits from across the state who wore white gondolier hats with blue streamers.