WASHINGTON -– First, let’s get something straight.
Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, did not “release” 12 years of his income tax returns when he declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in November 1967.
Instead, the millionaire businessman and Michigan governor turned them over to a friendly journalist named T. George
Harris, who included a one-page “abstract” of yearly totals in a saccharine campaign biography published at the time of the campaign launch.
Harris gave few details of the elder Romney’s investments, other than to reassure readers that he and his wife had “never made much use of tax loopholes, such as depletion allowances, that are taken for granted by most people who reach their bracket.”
Still, Romney’s move was unusual –- unusually candid –- and was indeed path-breaking. According to wire service accounts at the time, no presidential candidate had ever done so much to disclose their finances.
But it didn’t win him any points, or any votes. He impressed the media, but no one else.
It was, however, consistent with the kind of guy George Romney was, and with how he wanted to be known. He was so candid and forthcoming, in fact, that his honesty on another matter cost him whatever shot he might have had at the GOP nomination that year.
A relative dove on Vietnam, Romney explained away his earlier support for the war by saying that he had been “brainwashed” by the Pentagon into believing rosy scenarios about the bloody conflict.
His un-programmed confession not only got him in trouble with hawks in both parties, it made him seem like a credulous fool.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a tart-tongued anti-war Democrat, essentially finished Romney with one remark. “Romney says he was brainwashed,” said McCarthy. “I think a light rinse would have been sufficient.” Romney’s son Mitt saw this humiliation. He’s been trying to make up for it ever since.
So for the second time in a dozen years, Republicans are offering the country a presidential candidate whose central operating principle is to do everything 180 degrees differently from his father.
For George W. Bush in 2000 and Romney now, that means campaigning at maximum distance from uncontrolled exposure to the press corps; a firm commitment to low-tax, anti-abortion, pro-Pentagon and other bedrock conservative views; totally scripted events; and a reluctance to disclose all but the most minimal details of business ventures that preceded politics.
The parallel political arc of the Bush and Romney families, who have known each other as friends for decades, trace the
evolution of the GOP itself –- from a party populated at the top by voluble, even eccentric country club moderates, to the hard-edged, message-disciplined Tea Party conservative crusaders of today.
Having watched their fathers embarrassed politically -– President George H.W. Bush by losing reelection in 1992 to an Arkansas hound dog named Bill Clinton; George Romney by being “brainwashed” out of the race in 1968 -– the sons focused on winning at all costs, even if that means speaking mostly to the converted.
Bush the Elder, son of a moderate Republican senator from Connecticut who was a golfing partner of Ike’s, fitfully supported federal civil rights measures and famously moved his lips to raise taxes in 1991. As a result, he became a pariah in his own post-Reagan party.
In office, George W. cut taxes radically and almost never challenged the Right. And he famously went to Baghdad a decade after his father refused to do so at the end of the first Gulf War.
Mitt is his father in reverse. George Romney had dreamed of attending Harvard Business School, but never finished college. Mitt has TWO Harvard professional degrees, in business and in law. George loved to wade into conversations and arguments on shop floors and campaign stops. Mitt almost runs from unscripted moments.
George was a close friend of labor leader Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers union, and won huge chunks of labor support in his runs for governor. Mitt has frosty at best relations with labor. George was deeply immersed in aspects of the civil rights movement, including fair housing laws and programs. Mitt Romney rarely met with civil rights leaders during his time as governor of Massachusetts.
George Romney proposed programs in Michigan and nationally that included “revenues.” His son is now a staunch foe of tax increases.
George Romney ended up deeply questioning the war in Vietnam. Mitt has had little to say about what the U.S. should do in, say, Afghanistan.
As for income tax returns, we know THAT story. George was a pioneer of transparency, noteworthy in his day. Mitt has clammed up.
We’ll see if it does the son any good.