“We had to figure out what to do,” Moore remembers. “Some friends and aides tried to get George to take the statement back, but he wouldn’t.”
Digging in his heels, Romney took solace in the same fundamental principle that he had long preached to his two sons: Being financially independent and morally committed, he could remain true to his beliefs.
But his campaign never recovered, with Richard Nixon going on to win the nomination and the White House.
The vanquished candidate wrote a letter about the campaign’s last days to Mitt, who read and re-read it. Even now, the normally guarded Romney is open about the anger he still feels toward those who mocked his father.
* * *
George Romney’s former aides, resentful to this day of their boss’s derailment, wonder aloud how much it affected the political style of his youngest son. Walter DeVries, a prominent adviser, views the younger Romney as something of a casualty from 1968: “Mitt is gun-shy from what they did to his father. ”
DeVries added in an e-mail: “There was [a] significant difference between Mitt and his father — Mitt’s inability or unwillingness to take chances. . . . Mitt did, of course, take a huge, unpredictable risk in his [Massachusetts] health-care program. . . . But, today, Mitt is totally predictable. He will always take the perceived safe answer or course.”
It is a perspective shared among several of his father’s former advisers. “George got into real trouble with his candor, contributing to the failure of his campaign,” Moore says. “Mitt has gotten into trouble because he has been inconsistent at points and failed to demonstrate that he has core principles.”
Resistant to psychoanalyzing, Romney says that his own travails, not his father’s, have shaped his political style. But he acknowledges that events have bred caution in him. “My experience has taught me you have to exercise care,” he says, recalling a seminal moment during his leadership of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics. “After 9/11, I got a question about whether the Games would be canceled if another terrorist incident occurred. . . . I could see the headline: ‘Romney May Consider Canceling the Games.’ . . . So I knew I couldn’t answer the question directly. I said that it would be ‘unthinkable’ to cancel the Games.”
Yet he dismisses the effect of his father’s “brainwashing” episode. “My father later did not look back,” he says. “It was not a big issue in our house.”
Some old friends and associates of both men express appreciation for the difference between the two Romneys. “I think Mitt is cautious in the way a politician needs to be,” Eyre said.
By the early 1970s, Mitt, a student in Harvard’s law and business schools, was carrying his father’s old briefcase in what friends regarded as a silent tribute. The reverence ran both ways.
Two decades later, after Mitt had co-founded Bain Capital and amassed a fortune, his father urged him to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat occupied by the seemingly invincible Edward M. Kennedy. In a reminder of his father’s approach, the fledgling candidate encouraged aides and friends at barbecues to help themselves to a beer.
Romney lost, but about the same time Scott Romney witnessed a private moment that he believed spoke to his brother’s arrival in a new place. His father referred to his brother’s leadership at Bain and the Olympics before observing, “Mitt, you’ve had many more critical decisions to make in business than I ever did.” Scott believed his father was saying something more: “In many ways, Mitt is far more prepared to lead than my dad was. . . . My dad felt the same way.”
Such praise, of course, does nothing to allay the doubts of conservatives long leery of any Romney. Four years ago, when he cast his Massachusetts health-care plan as an exercise in common sense and personal responsibility, Romney proudly told his listeners that his father would have backed it. But his references to Massachusetts health care, and to the famously moderate Romney, are fewer this time. He still says, with no small emotion, that he learned critical decision-making skills from his father. He still says, “He’s the real deal.” Except nowadays, he is careful to add: “But we were different on some things.” He thinks his father would understand.