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Opinion What Mitt Romney learned from his father

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Capitol Hill on Jan. 29. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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It has often seemed that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is guided by a weather vane, rather than a compass.

That made it all the more powerful on Wednesday, when the 2012 Republican presidential nominee made a principled declaration of independence from a party that President Trump has remade in his own image. Romney stood alone among Republicans and voted to convict the president of abusing the power of his office.

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“I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters," he said. "Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”

He knew he was on the losing side. Trump’s acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate was a foregone conclusion.

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But as I heard Romney give his speech, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I met him. It was early 2007. He was a potential candidate for the following year’s Republican presidential nomination, and I was a political correspondent for Time magazine. We were aboard a small private plane headed to Iowa.

What Romney talked to me about that day were not his hopes for success, but rather, the redemption to be found in falling short on an endeavor that is undertaken on principle.

Romney’s formative political experience was seeing the man he admired most in the world do exactly that.

His father, George Romney, had once been the governor of Michigan. Photos suggest the younger Romney was practically a perfect copy of the elder one — the jaw, the hair, the upright bearing. “I pattern myself like him — his character, his sense of vision, his sense of purpose,” Mitt Romney told me.

George Romney’s career had been one triumph after another. When Willard Mitt — then still known as “Billy” — was just a child, his father had rescued a failing car company, and then went on to become governor of a state that had not elected a Republican in 14 years. A 1959 cover story in Time magazine described George Romney as “a broad-shouldered, Bible-quoting broth of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal.”

George Romney was also known for going against GOP orthodoxy — most impressively, when he stood before the convention that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and decried the party’s turn toward extremism, including its shameful vote to defeat a platform plank that would have affirmed the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act. The Michigan governor cited Abraham Lincoln, and warned: “The Republican Party must promote the programs and provide the leadership that will capture the interest, respect, and support of a majority of Americans. I think the future of this nation depends on that.” Goldwater lost that fall, crushed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the biggest presidential landslides in U.S. history.

In 1968, George Romney ran for president himself and was an early front-runner. The conventional telling has it that he was the victim of a rash admission that his initial support for the Vietnam War was the result of a “brainwashing” by generals and diplomats. But other, deeper forces were at work, ones that have parallels with today. George Romney ran at a political hinge point, a hard-right turn by the Republicans that saw Richard M. Nixon elected that year.

His youngest child was a Mormon missionary in France when George Romney suffered the first big defeat of his life. Thirty-nine years later, aboard that flight to Iowa, Mitt Romney recited to me from memory a letter that his father had written him, assuring his son that he would be just fine: "Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved. We went into this not because we aspired to the office, but simply because we felt that under the circumstances we would not feel right if we did not offer our service. As I have said on many occasions, I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied.”

From the archives: Mitt Romney: The president shapes the public character of the nation. Trump’s character falls short.

That kind of consistency has not always been the hallmark of Mitt Romney’s own political career. As governor of Massachusetts and then as a presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, he too often leaned with the political winds, rather than the pull of his principles. He made opportunistic shifts on issues from abortion to health care to immigration.

But it was telling that before deciding to vote to convict Trump — a move he described to the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins as "the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my life” — Mitt Romney studied his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good.”

No doubt Romney is right. The abuse that he is about to reap from Trump and his fellow Republicans will be brutal. But the Utah senator said he is at peace with how he will ultimately be judged: “I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty, to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me.”

In leaving this for those who will carry the Romney name forward, he was just passing along the legacy his father left him.

Read more:

The Post’s View: History will remember Mitt Romney

Jennifer Rubin: Mitt Romney shows us all is not lost

Greg Sargent: Romney’s stunning vote to convict Trump will put the GOP to shame

Max Boot: Was impeachment worth it?

The Post’s View: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.