It is not much talked about in the current Republican Party primary frenzy, but Mitt Romney’s father, George, the one-time Governor of Michigan, was once a serious candidate for president of the United States. One short television interview – the senior Romney’s “brainwashing” moment – killed his campaign really before it even had a chance to get started. Son Mitt may have become a chip off the old block with his own brainwashed moment, his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 in last night’s GOP debate in Iowa.
The two comments by the Romneys, father and son, made 44 years apart, can prove to be the kind of defining moments in political campaigns from which there is no recovery. Mitt Romney’s comment apparently went off the charts on Twitter and was viral on YouTube. The chattering classes this morning on the Sunday shows – the Sabbath Gasbags in Calvin Trillin’s wonderful phrase – couldn’t get enough of pointing out how an offhand offer to bet $10,000 was further proof of how the multi-millionaire candidate is out of touch with most Americans. Romney rival Jon Huntsman launched a new website – $1oK Bet – featuring, among other things, much of the negative press about the debate bet and an old photo of Romney from his consulting days with dollar bills floating around him.
Most of us have said, “I’ll bet you $10,” or “what do you say we have a little wager on that,” but to propose a $10,000 bet just seemed what it was – tone deaf, outsized and memorable.
George Romney’s defining moment came during an interview with Detroit’s WKVD TV on August 31, 1967. Romney, re-elected easily as governor in 1966, was in the exploratory phase of his presidential campaign when he sat down with interviewer Lou Gordon. Romney, not unlike allegations of flip flopping aimed at his son, was asked about what appeared to be his change of position on United States involvement in Vietnam. The elder Romney’s inept answer that he had “been brainwashed” by American generals and diplomatic staff during a 1965 trip to Vietnam, but had shaken off that alleged indoctrination to come to his 1967 view that the war had been a mistake that the U.S. should have avoided, became a major story.
TIME magazine immediately called him the “brainwashed Republican.” Romney went on to launch his presidential campaign in November of 1967, but the brainwashing comment stuck. You know a few words have defined your life when they make it into your obituary, as “brainwashed” did in George Romney’s when he died in 1995. Romney never recovered from the remark, which seen today was clearly made in such an offhand manner as to be almost missed and, indeed, the interviewer never followed up. Romney’s candidacy came to an end after the New Hampshire primary in 1968 when he was crushed by Richard Nixon. We’ll see soon enough of son Mitt’s $10,000 bet gaffe sticks as powerfully.
For the senior Romney the brainwashing remark illustrated what many came to regard as a fact – the guy just wasn’t ready for prime time. The great journalist Theodore White remembered Romney as an honest and decent guy just “not cut out to be president of the United States.” A fellow Republican governor, Jim Rhodes of Ohio, was less kind. He said, “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck make love to a football.”
The worst kind of political gaffe usually isn’t mangling a fact or even changing a position. Rather what really hurts – and really sticks – are words that seem to reinforce an opinion that is already starting to settle. The conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney is that he’s cold, above it all, a serial position changer, prickly and rich. Spontaneously betting a rival $10,000 when challenged on changing a position is just the kind of inept and telling moment that sunk his old man’s presidential campaign.
The younger Romney is going to have a few tough days as he tries to fashion an effective comeback to his ackward debate comment; the kind of effective comeback that his father was never able to pull off.