This article was last modified on August 20, 2012.

Empire Strikes First: George Romney

American presidents have, from the very beginning, generally come from prominent bloodlines. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and Jackson all descended from England’s Edward III. President Obama has the blood of Edward I in his veins. Candidate Mitt Romney is no exception, being related to six former presidents: Coolidge, Hoover, both Bushes, FDR and Pierce. Even without such ties, the Romney clan could be called American royalty, tracing their roots to the founders of the Mormon religion. Mitt’s father, George, now forgotten by most, was once a former governor and presidential candidate himself. Who was George Romney?

George Romney was born in 1907 in the Mormon colonies of Mexico where some members fled to maintain a polygamous lifestyle, but soon returned with his family to the United States when the revolution broke out in 1910-1912. They settled in Salt Lake City, where George became a missionary in 1926 and preached the Mormon faith in England and Scotland without winning any converts (partially due to the Scottish love for whiskey). He attended college but never received a degree.

Working as an aide for Massachusetts Democratic Senator David Walsh in 1929, George focused on tariffs and researched the proposed Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, sitting in on committee meetings. The act was an economic failure, but had the side effect of energizing Romney’s political spirit.

He worked for nine years as a lobbyist for Alcoa, arguing that they did not have a monopoly on aluminum. Leaving Washington for the Midwest, George then found success as a spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association during the Second World War. He pushed the idea of automotive companies sharing ideas to promote overall technological improvements in the industry and for the general war effort, a concept he termed “competitive cooperative capitalism”.

From there, he easily transitioned into the role of CEO for the American Motors Corporation in 1954. He identified with the factory workers, many of whom were minorities, telling them, “I am no college man. I’ve laid floors, I’ve done lathing. I’ve thinned beets and shocked wheat.” The struggling company was saved by Romney’s focus on the Rambler (built in Kenosha!) as a smart alternative to the larger, gas-thirsty cars of the day. He phased out the company’s older cars, the Nash and the Hudson. On the political side, he appealed to Congress to stop “big labor” and “big business” by breaking up the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, GMC). Of course, this never happened, but did earn Romney the cover of Time magazine.

Living in Detroit, he became Michigan’s governor almost by accident. While taking part in a convention to modify Michigan’s constitution, Romney was “drafted” by the state Republican party and was elected governor in 1962 without prior political experience. He won the position in a landslide, becoming the first Republican governor in fourteen years. He had the support of independents, the affluent Detroit suburbs and even the pro-Democratic labor unions. His positions would today be seen as liberal and anathema to his party. He helped create Michigan’s income tax, promoted civil rights and noticeably expanded the state’s budget from $550 million to $1.1 billion (much of which funded higher education). While the Mormon church rejected Black members, Romney was more progressive, saying, “It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to be able to evaluate them and I began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites.” He also allied himself with Martin Luther King, Jr. and designated “Freedom March Day” in Michigan when King arrived.

He contemplated a run for the presidency in 1964, for the sole purpose of stopping Barry Goldwater. “I will do everything within my power to keep him from becoming the party’s presidential nominee.” He pushed for the party platform to pursue civil rights legislation, and was endorsed by former President Dwight Eisenhower. Ultimately, Romney decided against running, Goldwater secured the nomination and lost to LBJ.

Romney’s charisma and political acumen made him a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. He was the first presidential candidate to release his federal tax returns going back twelve years, which has been the standard ever since (his son notwithstanding). About releasing so many years he said, “One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show, and what mattered in personal finance was how a man conducted himself over the long haul.”

But the road to Washington was rocky. Questions were raised about him being a “natural-born citizen” and unlike opponent Richard Nixon, Romney took a firm stance against the Vietnam War and said his prior support was due to “brainwashing” from military officials. He clarified, “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.” But the b-word stuck.

This gaffe caused him to drop out of the race, earning delegates only in Michigan and Utah, but he was awarded a consolation prize: Nixon appointed Romney to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This seemingly low-key position would lead to perpetual struggles, with Romney proposing desegregation measures and the increase of low-income housing (called Operation Breakthrough), ideas that left a bitter taste in Nixon’s mouth.

Romney served as Nixon’s whipping boy, and was the scapegoat for scandals surrounding Hurricane Agnes and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). When Nixon was reelected in 1972, Romney resigned rather than spend four more years frustration having his housing plans dismissed. Despite the internal conflict of politics and external conflict of racism, Romney’s desegregation policies are generally seen today as a giant leap forward for civil rights. Perhaps reflecting on his years at HUD, he said, “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.”

Romney stayed out of politics and public scrutiny until 1994 when he served as an adviser for Mitt in his (failed) run against Senator Ted Kennedy. He had spent those twenty-two “missing” years volunteering and encouraging others to do the same. After a full life, complete with both success and shortcomings, Romney died of a heart attack while exercising on a treadmill at his Michigan home in July 1995.

While no longer mentioned today, perhaps George Romney should be remembered for his words praising the union of individualism and cooperation: “The most powerful force on earth is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people. Individualism makes cooperation worthwhile -– but cooperation makes freedom possible.”

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