Mitt Romney has inherited much from his late father, most notably a mind for business and a flare for politics. Now in the race for the GOP Presidential nomination, he is by most accounts the front-runner. But that was also his dad’s position at just about this point in the run up to the historic election of 1968. George Romney, however, fell far short because he had, among other liabilities, a political glass jaw.
The former Governor of Massachusetts seemed to jump ship too early for many of his supporters back in 2008 and some have clearly not yet forgiven him. For him to win, Mitt must convince skeptics that he will stick with it even when the going gets tough—or, perish the thought—he falls behind in the polls.
Growing up in the 1960s in the suburban Detroit area, I remember Mitt Romney’s father as a popular, even charismatic governor of Michigan. His face could regularly be seen on T.V. channel’s 2, 4, and 7—the big stations connected to the networks. Then there was Channel 50, a UHF station, requiring a special, oddly shaped antenna to receive. It was a cool station for cartoons, old reruns of sitcoms, and vintage movie shows hosted by minor local celebrities. Never would you see a politician there.
Except on the weekends.
Saturday and Sunday evenings on Channel 50 featured a guy named Lou Gordon. In retrospect, he was probably the first television host to play the kind of “gotcha” and in-your-face hardball interviewing that is very much the norm these days. He was a pit bull and in 1967 was ready to be syndicated across the country. The inaugural show would feature an eclectic line up, including a couple from an organization called “The Swingers,” advocates of wife swapping, as well as an in-depth interview with Governor George Romney. Likely the Mormon moralist governor was unaware of the other guests when he dropped in to tape his segment with Lou. Romney was a fan of the show and had even once filled in as a guest host when Gordon was on vacation.
This singular interview was to become one of the most famous in the annals 20th century American political history. It demonstrated, for all to eventually see, George Romney’s weakness. He couldn’t take a punch, at least not while he was busy punching himself in the face.
In fairness to the late former Governor of Michigan, it is important to tell a part of the story that few these days have heard, one about a tired and overstretched candidate who over-trusted his ability to think on his feet, even while being knocked off of them.
Thursday, August 31, 1967 was a typically frenetic day for Romney and included a visit with his grandchildren to the Michigan State Fair. The plan was to only stay a bit and have the photo op, giving him plenty of time to drive over to the Channel 50 studios. Then, one of his grandkids inexplicably wandered off, creating understandable panic. For a time, State Troopers searching the fair grounds wondered if a kidnapping might be in play. But they found the child riding the Ferris wheel, oblivious to what was happening. Governor Romney—now rattled and very late—made his way to the studios. His shoes were covered in dirt and whatever else from the fair grounds. He really should have rescheduled.
Plunging headlong into the interview with his friend Lou Gordon, he was asked at one point a question about Vietnam. It was a predictable query for any candidate back then, but especially for Romney. He had been making fuzzy and even conflicted statements about the war in Southeast Asia for the prior few months. Romney had been to Vietnam in November of 1965, a trip that included thorough briefings from General William Westmoreland and U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Lately, however, Romney seemed to be changing his view of the war from that of “hawk,” toward “dove.”
What he had to say to his friendly interviewer that day would, in fact, become his political epitaph:
“Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam…I have changed my mind…I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”
A few days later, even before the show aired, Lou Gordon read over the transcript of the interview and was struck by the word “brainwashing,” sensing that it might make good publicity for the show. He contacted a friend at the New York Times and furnished a transcript. On September 5th, a day after the show aired, the Times had a brief story about it all on page 28: “Romney Asserts He Underwent ‘Brainwashing on Vietnam Trip.” And over the next few days, subject to the primitive power of media at the time, the story went viral.
George Romney never recovered. He went on to serve as a cabinet officer under President Nixon and was by all accounts a man of decency and generosity, but the single word “brainwashing” is how most remember him these days.
Lou Gordon died in 1977, but his legacy lives on throughout broadcasting every time a candidate or public figure withers under rapid fire media questioning. Mitt Romney will no doubt face many in the media who play hardball. And it is unlikely that he will be knocked out by one pundit punch. He might, however, do what some of Lou Gordon’s other guests did when the pressure became too much (as was the case with Philadelphia Mayor, Frank Rizzo)—just walk off the stage.
Mitt already did that once—in 2008.