Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 29, 2012

You have to wonder what George and Lenore Romney would have made of their son the candidate.

The last week has brought two insightful profiles of Mitt Romney’s parents, offering an implicit, and disappointing, contrast with their more successful son.

New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes the force of nature that was Michigan Gov. George Romney, headstrong in his convictions and at odds with an increasingly conservative Republican Party.

In Time magazine, Barton Gellman focuses on Lenore Romney and her relationship with her youngest son, who clinched Tuesday night the Republican presidential nomination that eluded her husband.

Both authors posit that the parents’ losing campaigns — George Romney’s disastrous 1968 presidential race and Lenore’s reluctant, husband-propelled bid for the Senate two years later — shaped young Mitt and his approach to politics.

“No presidential nominee until now has grown up with two parents who ran for high office or so much early exposure to the craft,” Gellman writes. “Their public ruin seared him and schooled him. The lessons he drew have shaped his ambitions, his calculations of risk and his strategy for achieving what his mother and father could not. Bluntly put, Mitt learned from each of his parents how to lose an election. . . . [I]t became his prime concern to avoid their mistakes.”

The tale of two generations of Romneys in politics is, of course, a parallel story of the changing ideology of the Republican Party and its relentless shift rightward. In fact, as Wallace-Wells describes, George Romney’s Republican Party, the embodiment of the moderate establishment, was collapsing even as he ran, supplanted by the party of Goldwater and Reagan. Like his father, Wallace-Wells writes, Mitt Romney is “caught in a similarly uneasy negotiation with conservatives.”

Here is the telling difference, and the sad, perhaps inevitable, trajectory of any political dynasty, from idealism to expediency. George Romney railed — indeed, he battled — against what he saw happening. Mitt Romney has adapted to it.

Wallace-Wells tells the story of George Romney’s efforts at the 1964 convention to promote a plank in the party platform denouncing extremism of all types. Romney lost — and, with 17-year-old Mitt in tow, walked out of his party’s convention. “With such extremists rising to official positions of leadership in the Republican Party,” George Romney said, “we cannot recapture the respect of the nation.”

If the scars of this political battle led Mitt Romney to the conclusion that it is better to join the machine than rage against it, he would not be the first political son to do so. For George W. Bush, the enduring lesson of his father’s losing reelection bid was to shrink from any repeat of George H.W. Bush’s finest moment — the elder Bush’s willingness to renounce his “read my lips” no-tax pledge in the interest of fiscal prudence.

What is striking about the comparison of Romney father and son is the difference not only in outlook but also in personality. George Romney’s virtue, and perhaps his downfall, was his bullheaded willfulness. “Messianic” was one aide’s description.

As governor, he fought to institute a state income tax and to broaden civil rights protection. At the launch of the 1968 campaign, Romney insisted on a tour of American inner cities that featured a meeting with community organizer Saul Alinsky.

When he resigned as Nixon’s housing secretary, Romney assailed timid politicians who “avoid specific positions . . . for fear of offending uninformed voters.” Sound familiar?

This is where Gellman’s intriguing account of Lenore Romney’s campaign comes in. Where George confronted, Lenore conciliated.

“It was Lenore who gave Mitt a model for engaging in public life,” Gellman writes. “Whereas her husband relished a good fight, she sidestepped and looked for common ground with her critics. Mitt displayed much the same temperament as he grew up — cautious and increasingly self-controlled. In politics, he adopted his mother’s tactic of melting away from battle whenever possible.”

Except that Lenore Romney took positions that were not necessarily politically convenient in a primary campaign against a more conservative opponent. She wanted out of Vietnam. She advocated prisoner rehabilitation, environmental protection, abortion rights and a national health plan.

“So many of our senators sometimes become so caught up in the political situation that their answer is made politically before the issue is even brought up,” Mitt Romney lamented during her Senate campaign.

Young Mitt saw that as a critique of politics. For Adult Mitt, it has been a template for success.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com