Crashing the Party: The Ill-Fated 1968 Presidential Campaign of Governor George Romney

By Bachelder, Chris | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Crashing the Party: The Ill-Fated 1968 Presidential Campaign of Governor George Romney


Bachelder, Chris, Michigan Historical Review


Governor George Romney of Michigan is most commonly remembered for his 1967 comment that he had been subjected to "brainwashing" by American military and diplomatic officials when he participated in a 1965 fact-finding mission to Vietnam. This remark is generally considered to have destroyed his prospects of winning the 1968 Republican nomination to be president of the United States.

There is much more to Romney's story, however. Perhaps because he has not been the subject of much serious scholarly analysis, the "first draft" of history penned by journalists has gone largely unchallenged. This article will argue that Romney's chances of winning the Republican nomination had become fairly remote by the time of his famous gaffe. When he said that he had been brainwashed, his status as the front-runner in public-opinion polls, which he had enjoyed at the end of 1966, had already evaporated. Nor, despite the concern in 2007 about his son Mitt's Mormonism as a possible impediment to his own presidential hopes, does the elder Romney's religious faith appear to have played a direct role in his failure to become his party's nominee. Instead, this article contends that Romney's presidential quest was severely hampered by his refusal to endorse Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, his unwillingness to enthusiastically align himself with the Republican Party organization, and his ultra-independent personality and style.

In contrast to two prior academic articles on the demise of the Romney campaign, (1) this article contends that Romney's Mormonism had little electoral impact and that his difficulty positioning himself on Vietnam was merely a secondary cause of his defeat. Rather, Romney's fundamental hindrance was that he was temperamentally wedded to a strategy which had won him his record of political success in Michigan but which was unlikely to translate into victory in a national Republican nominating contest. Romney's upset triumph in Michigan's 1962 gubernatorial election and his two successful reelection campaigns set a pattern for his national efforts. This pattern involved working outside the established partisan structure while simultaneously attacking what he characterized as extremism within the Republican Party. (2) During his presidential campaign Romney struggled with his trademark approach, which had proven repeatedly to be a winning electoral formula in Michigan. Moreover, the method he employed seems to have been an outgrowth of his basic character, rather than a calculated strategy to win elections.

George Romney moved to Michigan in 1939, at the age of thirty-two, after working for a decade in Washington, D.C., as a Senate staffer and a lobbyist. Born in Mexico (3) and raised in the American West, Romney entered a Michigan business community that was heavily Republican, being largely composed of families that had immigrated to Michigan from New England and upstate New York generations earlier. This business establishment could look back fondly to times in the 1920s when the entire Michigan Legislature was comprised of Republicans. By the 1940s, however, Michigan had become a competitive two-party state, in part because of the Great Depression and in part as a result of the enormous influx of newcomers from the South and Appalachia who arrived after the First World War.

Romney did not quite fit on either side of this configuration of political forces. His social connections and his membership in the managerial ranks precluded alignment with either southern immigrants or the labor movement's political wing. On the Republican side there was a more subtle difference: his western background and Mormon worldview were sometimes the source of underlying tensions with the Calvinistic and puritanical cultural traditions of Michigan's managerial class.

By 1954 Romney had risen through a series of management positions to become the president of American Motors. …

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