Presidential Papas: Romney Tries to Live and Leave His Father's Legacy

Mitt Romney’s relationship with his father was the polar opposite of the non-relationship President Barack Obama experienced with his dad (which I discussed in the first installment of “Presidential Papas” here at PJM). Unlike Obama’s broken paternal bond, everyone could always see the deep love and affection George Romney and his son Mitt shared. They were side by side and when George took a step, Mitt tried to take it too. And that deep connection led to a son who seems laser-focused on finishing what his dad started.  But Mitt would later learn that to complete his dad’s work he would have to leave his father’s moderate form of Republicanism and awkwardly move to the political Right. The only way he could fulfill his father’s legacy would be to run away from part of it when the right time came.


Presidential historian Doug Wead has written extensively on presidents’ relationships to their fathers. And he likes to point out that sons either reject what their dads did or they attempt to complete what they couldn’t finish. He writes, “Presidents’ kids had a way of seeking the approval of the parent by ‘completion’ that is, doing the thing that the father hadn’t done…it happened over and over among all sons of presidents.”

George W. Bush was a good example of a completer. His presidential papa didn’t finish off Saddam Hussein and made the error of raising taxes against his pledge. Bush 41 came in and spent much of his presidency making sure Saddam was finished off and that historic tax cuts were enacted. And of course, he won a second term while his father did not.

When Rick Perry decided to run for president, many compared him to George W. Bush. But the Republican candidate who actually most resembles Bush is Mitt Romney. Mitt’s relationship with his own father, and subsequent desire to complete what his dad could not, is quite similar to the Bush father-son combo. It comes as no surprise that the elder Bush has already endorsed Romney; he probably reminds him of his son. And I’m sure George H.W. Bush reminds Mitt a little of George W. Romney. In fact, Bush told the press he was close to George Romney.


If you read the story of George Romney then you will be amazed at how much Mitt Romney’s life has matched it. While they had very different childhoods — the elder Romney grew up poor — once adulthood was reached you will find an almost eerie resemblance in careers. But where George Romney eventually failed to reach the presidency, Mitt Romney is trying to turn that family failure into a success. As Mitt himself said of his father, “He has been my greatest influence.”

George W. Romney grew up a poor missionary kid but discovered the American dream early in adulthood. He entered the auto industry at a young age and eventually became head of the American Motors Corporation, completely revitalizing the company and returning  it to profitability. He then shifted to politics and became a very popular three-term, moderate Republican governor of Michigan. He more than doubled the government’s spending but kept a balanced budget. He was known for getting things done.

The younger Romney, of course, did not grow up as a poor missionary kid. He lived surrounded by the wealth his father created. But his passion for the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) mirrored his father’s passion. It is not required for young LDS men to do a two year mission trip, but it is greatly encouraged for those serious about their faith. Both father and son did their own two year mission trip when they were young, and Mitt followed his dad’s example by going to Western Europe as his father had decades earlier. Both men sincerely wanted to see conversions to the LDS on their separate trips and shared similar frustrations in the lack of results they saw while on mission.  (Read the loving fatherly letters from George to Mitt expressing this similarity here.)


Mitt would come home, get married, and get to copying his father’s life in more ways. Mitt went into business just like dad (even though George wanted his son to be a lawyer). The younger Romney went to work for Bain & Company, eventually helping to form Bain Capital, which focused on buying losing companies and turning them into profitable successes they could sell. As his dad turned around one company, Mitt made his own fortune seeking to turn around many more.

Eventually, just like dad, Mitt entered politics. He aimed high from the start and took on Ted Kennedy for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994. Romney ran as a moderate Republican (like his dad) and did well but lost. Video clips of that election cycle show a man with social views far more liberal than he claims now. Romney would run and win the governorship as a moderate/progressive Republican in 2002, appearing to once again mirror his own father’s life. And just like his dad did for Michigan, Romney turned a huge state deficit into a surplus while also heavily expanding the role of the state government (see Romneycare).

George Romney’s success as governor led him to run for president in 1968. Political analysts considered him a likely winner early in the process. People felt like he looked presidential with his handsome look and square jaw. He had the support of Republican governors, and early polls in the fall of 1966 had him beating Richard Nixon in the primary and President Johnson in the general. But once Romney began to campaign in February of 1967, his polling began to slowly drop.


Presidential candidate George Romney actually looked less like his son running and a lot more like Herman Cain. He was known as a straight-talking businessman who wasn’t always careful with his words. He was considered very weak on foreign policy and gaffe-prone.  He became famous for talking freely, saying something wrong, and correcting himself later while arguing that he wasn’t really correcting, only clarifying. One reporter commented that if he could add a key that typed out a phrase it would be “Romney later explained….”

In August of 1967, Romney did an interview late after a long day on the campaign trail. He announced his switch from supporting the war in Vietnam to being against it. And in that interview he said that on a previous trip to Vietnam in 1965 American commanders on the ground “brainwash(ed)” him into supporting the war. (It was not unlike Cain’s videotaped interview blunder on Libya.) After Romney’s comments were published, his poll numbers tanked and never recovered. He became the butt of jokes and mockery, actually receiving much of the same treatment as both Cain and Perry in 2012’s presidential campaign. Realizing failure was coming, George withdrew from the race in February of ’68 and wrote to his son Mitt who was on mission: “Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved. … I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied.”


George may have been satisfied with running and losing the presidency, but his son would not be. Mitt followed his dad’s path of going from successful governor to top-tier presidential candidate. Romney ran in 2008 following much of his dad’s legacy. He, like his father, had shown success in turning around both businesses and a state government. He also was identified as “looking presidential” just like his father had 40 years earlier. But there were two big differences about how Mitt would run differently from his dad. Both differences would be useful in winning where his father had failed.

While George was known for being loose-lipped and speaking without always thinking of the ramifications, Mitt would take the opposite approach. Mitt Romney became known for being so careful with his words that he often appeared even unnatural or fake. He was the opposite of his gaffe-prone father, maybe to a fault. One of George Romney’s aides has said as much: “Mitt is gun-shy from what they did to his father. … He will always take the perceived safe answer or course.”

Mitt did not want to repeat his dad’s mistakes. In fact, George Romney’s national student coordinator wrote a thesis on what went wrong with the ’68 campaign, and the main points of that thesis were handed to Mitt’s campaign advisers in 2008. Mitt was determined to fix the errors of his father’s failure.


Mitt’s other big difference was to run as hard as he could away from both his and his dad’s moderate Republican legacy. The elder Romney ran for president at a very different time than Mitt. The influence of Reagan meant that Republicans needed to appeal to the right to win nominations. Mitt Romney was now courting the pro-life and pro-family conservative vote. Of course, Romney attaches his change in views to a real conversion in thought, while others see it as political expediency. Either way, he had to run from his dad’s politics.

As we know, Mitt Romney was more like his dad than he wanted to be in 2008 and lost his bid for the presidency. But in 2012, he is once again looking to complete the work his dad couldn’t finish. Mitt has chosen to walk that hard line of trying to both live and leave his father’s legacy. As he recently told the press: “I am more conservative (than my dad).  But he’s the person I have admired most in political life. He’s the real deal.” Now the voters have to decide one major question: Is today’s Romney the real deal?


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