March 2nd, 2020


Past Campaigns: George Romney's 1968 Campaign for President

Unlike his son Willard (better known by his middle name of Mitt), George Romney was never selected as his party's candidate for president. However he was once the front runner in the race to become the Republican Party's candidate for President in 1968. An unfortunate remark about "brainwashing" made George Romney the first of two members of his family to miss out on becoming President.

George Wilcken Romney was the son of Gaskell Romney and Anna Amelia Pratt, two American citizens from Utah who were married in Mexico. Their son George was born in Colonia Dublán in Galeana in the state of Chihuahua, one of the Mormon colonies in Mexico), on July 8, 1907. The Romneys did not practice polygamy. After the Mexican Revolution broke out, the Romney family returned to the United States in July 1912, leaving their property behind. Romney grew up in humble circumstances, living on government relief in El Paso, Texas. They moved to Los Angeles, California, where Gaskell Romney worked as a carpenter. In 1913, the family moved to Oakley, Idaho, where they grew potatoes. The farm failed when potato prices fell and the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1916, returning to Idaho, the following year.

In high school, Romney met his future wife Lenore LaFount. He attended Latter-day Saints University to be close to her, where he was elected student body president. He worked as a Mormon missionary and in October 1926, he sailed to Great Britain where he worked in a Glasgow, Scotland, slum. In February 1927, he went to work in Edinburgh and in February 1928 to London. He returned home in 1928 and studied at the University of Utah and LDS Business College. He followed his fiancee to Washington, D.C., in fall 1929, after her father, Harold A. Lafount, had accepted an appointment by President Calvin Coolidge to serve on the Federal Radio Commission. Romney worked for Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Senator David I. Walsh during 1929 and 1930, first as a stenographer, then as a staff aide.

When Lenore LaFount began accepting small roles in Hollywood movies as an actress, Romney moved to Los Angeles office to work for Alcoa as a salesman. He attended night classes at the University of Southern California. The couple returned to Washington where Romney worked for Alcoa as a lobbyist. The Romneys were married on July 2, 1931, at Salt Lake City Temple. They had four children together, and Mitt Romney was their youngest child.

After nine years with Alcoa, Romney changed careers, taking a job with the Automobile Manufacturers Association as manager for its Detroit office. Romney moved his family there in 1939. In 1942, he was promoted to general manager of the association, a position he held until 1948. On May 1, 1954, the Nash-Kelvinator automobile company merged with Hudson Motor Car to become the American Motors Corporation (AMC). It was the largest merger in the history of the industry, and Romney was hired to be the executive vice president of the new firm. In October 1954, when the company's president died suddenly, Romney was named AMC's president and chairman of the board.

Romney proved to be a successful executive. By the end of 1957 Romney had phased out the Nash and Hudson brands, whose sales had been lagging. AMC pursued an innovative strategy of manufacturing only compact cars. The company struggled badly at first, and Romney instituted company-wide savings and efficiency measures included reducing his and other executive salaries. He fended off a corporate takeover just as sales of the Rambler finally took off, leading to unexpected financial success for AMC in 1958. Sales remained strong during 1960 and 1961; the Rambler was America's third most popular car both years. AMC's resurgence made Romney famous and the Associated Press named Romney its Man of the Year in Industry for four consecutive years, 1958 through 1961. The company's stock rose from $7 per share to $90 per share, making Romney very wealthy due to stock options. He had a good relationship with United Automobile Workers leader Walter Reuther and AMC workers benefited from a new profit-sharing plan.

Romney was exemplary in following the beliefs of his religion. He did not drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages, and did not smoke, or swear. He and his wife tithed, and from 1955 to 1965, gave 19 percent of their income to the church and another 4 percent to charity. He was active in a number of charities and was on the board of directors of the Children's Hospital of Michigan and the United Foundation of Detroit. In 1959, he received the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's Americanism award.

Romney became directly involved in politics in 1959. He declared himself a member of the Republican Party and in 1962 he resigned as President of AMC in February to run for Governor of Michigan. He ran against incumbent Democratic Governor John B. Swainson in the general election and won by over 80,000 votes, ending a fourteen-year stretch of Democratic rule in the state.As governor he proposed a comprehensive tax revision package that included a flat-rate state income tax, but general economic prosperity prompted the Michigan Legislature to reject the measure.

Romney supported the American Civil Rights Movement as governor. During his first State of the State address in January 1963, he said "Michigan's most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination—in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment." Romney created the state's first civil rights commission. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Detroit in June 1963 and led the 120,000 person Great March on Detroit, Romney designated the occasion Freedom March Day in Michigan. His support for civil rights brought him criticism from some in his own church.

In the 1964 U.S. presidential election, Senator Barry Goldwater quickly became the likely Republican Party nominee. Goldwater represented a segment of the party that Romney was not a part of. He disagreed strongly with Goldwater's views on civil rights. During the June 1964 National Governors' Conference, 13 of 16 Republican governors present were opposed to Goldwater. Despite this, Romney kept his pledge to stay out of the nomination contest. At the Republican convention, Romney fought for a strengthened civil rights plank in the party platform, but it was defeated on a voice vote. In the 1964 election, Romney refused to campaign with the national ticket. He was re-elected as Governor in 1964 by a margin of over 380,000 votes.

In 1965, Romney visited South Vietnam for 31 days and said that he was continuing his strong support for U.S. military involvement there. During 1966, while son Mitt was away in France on missionary work, George Romney guided Mitt's fiancée Ann Davies in her conversion to Mormonism. He continued his support of civil rights and after violence broke out during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, he marched at the front of a Detroit parade in solidarity with the marchers. In 1966, he won re-election again by 527,000 votes and his share of the black vote rose to over 30 percent, virtually unprecedented for a Republican.

On July 23, 1967, the 12th Street riot in Detroit began in a predominantly black neighborhood. Romney called in the Michigan State Police and the Michigan National Guard to address the riot and on July 24, Romney and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh requested that federal troops be sent. On July 24, President Lyndon Johnson authorized thousands of paratroopers to enter Detroit. In the disturbance 43 people died, over a thousand were injured, 2,500 stores were looted, hundreds of homes were burned, and there was $50 million in property damage. Romney believed the White House had intentionally slowed its response because Johnson saw Romney as a potential election rival in 1968. He charged Johnson with having "played politics" in his actions.

A Gallup Poll after the 1964 election showed Romney as the leading Republican candidate for president in 1968. A Harris Poll showed Romney besting President Johnson among all voters by 54 percent to 46 percent. Romney announced an exploratory phase for a possible campaign in February 1967. Romney's greatest weakness was a lack of foreign policy expertise. But as the campaign progressed, Romney's national poll ratings began to erode. Questions were asked about Romney's eligibility to run for President owing to his birth in Mexico, given the uncertainty in the United States Constitution over the phrase "natural-born citizen".

His biggest campaign gaffe occurred on August 31, 1967, in a taped interview with talk show host Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit. Romney told his host: "When I came back from Vietnam in November 1965, I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." While he had once supported the war effort, he now opposed it. He aid "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia." He called for "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time." The "brainwashing" comment attracted significant criticism. Eight other governors who had been on the same trip as Romney took offense to the remark. The connotations of brainwashing made Romney's comment politically devastating, and it became television talk show fodder. Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Johnson for the Democratic nomination, said that in Romney's case, "a light rinse would have been sufficient." After the remark was aired, Romney's poll ratings nosedived, going from 11 percent behind Nixon to 26 percent behind.

Romney persevered, going on a three-week, 17-city tour of the nation's ghettos and disadvantaged areas. This failed to rehabilitate his campaign. His release of his federal tax returns was a first and established a precedent that many future presidential candidates would follow. He spent the following months campaigning tirelessly, focusing on the New Hampshire primary. He returned to Vietnam in December 1967 and made speeches and proposals on the subject. Two weeks before the March 12 primary, an internal poll showed Romney losing to Nixon by a six-to-one margin in New Hampshire. This led Romney to announce his withdrawal as a presidential candidate on February 28, 1968. Nixon went on to gain the nomination.

At the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Romney refused to release his delegates to Nixon. Romney finished a weak fifth, with only 50 votes on the roll call. Romney's name was placed into nomination for vice president by New York Mayor John Lindsay. Romney lost to Spiro Agnew by a vote of 1,119–186. Romney, however, worked for Nixon's campaign in the fall.

After the election, Nixon named Romney to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Romney was confirmed by the Senate without opposition on January 20, 1969, the day of Nixon's inauguration and was sworn into office on January 22, with Nixon at his side. Romney resigned as Governor of Michigan that same day.

Romney was largely outside the president's inner circle and had minimal influence within the Nixon administration. By early 1970, Nixon had decided he wanted Romney removed from his post and he tried to get Romney to run in the 1970 U.S. Senate race in Michigan. Instead, George came up with the idea of his wife Lenore running. She lost badly in the general election to incumbent Democrat Philip A. Hart.

In spring 1972, a major scandal struck the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which had been responsible for helping the poor buy homes in inner-city areas through government-backed mortgages. A number of FHA employees were indicted for a scheme in which the value of cheap inner city homes was inflated and sold using those government-backed mortgages to buyers who could not really afford them. The government was stuck for the bad loans when owners defaulted. The FHA scandal gave Nixon the ability to shut down HUD's remaining desegregation efforts.

Romney finally did resign from the Nixon Cabinet on November 9, 1972, following Nixon's re-election. His departure was announced on November 27, 1972. After he left the cabinet, Romney became chair and CEO of the National Center for Voluntary Action. In April of 1991 Romney was honored by President George H. W. Bush's Points of Light program when he received the Points of Light Foundation's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from President Bush in April 1991. Bush wanted Romney to chair the new foundation, but he declined the offer, and suggested Bush's organization merge with his. They did so in September 1991, and Romney became one of the founding directors of the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network.

Romney campaigned for his son, Mitt Romney, during his son's bid to unseat Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the 1994 U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts. That same year, Ronna Romney, Romney's ex-daughter-in-law (formerly married to G. Scott Romney), decided to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Michigan. Mitt and G. Scott endorsed Ronna Romney, but George Romney had endorsed her opponent. A family spokesperson said that George Romney had endorsed Abraham before knowing Ronna Romney would run and could not go back on his word.

On July 26, 1995, Romney died of a heart attack at the age of 88 while he was doing his morning exercising on a treadmill at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was buried at the Fairview Cemetery in Brighton, Michigan. In addition to his wife and children, Romney was survived by 23 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.