Within the next year, his father had unofficially launched his presidential bid. The early polls made Romney the leader over longtime Republican warhorse Richard Nixon.
One issue mattered more than any other in the campaign: the Vietnam War. Romney, who had visited Vietnam in 1965 and left as a supporter of the war, signaled in 1967 that he now opposed the conflict. But he was slow to issue specifics — or a policy. Reporters began skewering his struggles to explain himself. “He was in a very difficult situation, in a battle for the presidential nomination, and trying to get his Vietnam policy right,” remembers Jonathan Moore, a former State Department official who helped verse Romney in foreign affairs.
George Romney’s national student coordinator, then-23-year-old Richard Eyre, a friend of Mitt and a devoted admirer of his father, thought that the campaign and the candidate were underprepared for the rigors of a White House campaign. Despair and racial tensions had sparked inner-city riots in Detroit and other American cities, and George had been immersing himself in understanding the causes. “The Detroit riot occurred at a time when he was supposed to get [foreign policy] briefings,” said Eyre. “George never had enough opportunity for that.”
Eventually, back at BYU, Eyre would write a master’s thesis about the campaign’s shortcomings. As he readied himself for a 2008 White House run, Mitt Romney would turn over Eyre’s main points to his own campaign team, determined not to fall prey to thesame mistakes.
“The letters that my dad wrote to me [in 1967 and 1968] about his campaign, and what I read in Rick Eyre’s thesis, made me believe that my father felt he was thrust into the limelight before he had really made a decision to run and before he was ready,” Romney says. “He became an instant front-runner. . . . Everything he did and said was scrutinized.” Romney pauses. “And bringing down the front-runner is sport.”
Political disaster hit in the late summer of 1967, even before the formal announcement of his candidacy. Two years earlier, George had traveled with other governors to South Vietnam, where he received a briefing on American military efforts there from Gen. William Westmoreland and diplomats. Now, he tried to explain on a Detroit television show why he initially supported the war. Alluding to his first trip to Southeast Asia, he remarked: “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”