But Mitt Romney has navigated this minefield with spectacular ease. It's as if he's been preparing for it his entire life. And that, in fact, is where the real truth lies. Mitt has a family skeleton on this point.
In Part I of this post (click here), I mentioned that Mitt's father, three-term Michigan governor George W. Romney, also ran for the White House back in 1968, when Mitt was just 21 years old. But George Romney in late 1967, just as his campaign was getting started, saw it collapse over a classic verbal gaffe -- telling a reporter he had been "brainwashed" by Pentagon officials into supporting the Vietnam war. (See the full actual 1967 clip, above.)
For his father George, this ultimate "flip-flip" exploded as a national embarrassment. For young Mitt, it taught a painful lesson.
|Son and father, Mitt and George Romney, with mother Lenore, early 1960s.|
But George Romney still had to address the key burning issue facing the country that year: the Vietnam War.
Since August 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson had pressed the US Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military intervention in South Vietnam, Johnson had escalated American involvement from 16,500 to almost 500,000 troops in 1967, including large numbers of draftees and accompanied by massive bombing of the North. Casualties mounted; over 30,000 US soldiers would die under LBJ's watch with no clear strategy and no end in sight.
Still, at this early stage, few American politicians dared to publicly criticize the War for fear of being labelled disloyal, unpatriotic, or weak -- despite the fact that an increasingly militant antiwar movement was taking hold across the country.
George Romney had visited Vietnam in 1965, been briefed by military leaders, and been an early strong supporter of the War. But like many Americans, he grew skeptical over time. On August 31, 1967, in a routine interview with Detroit station WKBD-TV, reporter Lou Gordon confronted Romney on the issue. He quoted Romney's early support of the War, then quoted his recent criticism, and asked about the contradiction. The result was disaster.
Listen to Romney's answer (click on the image above). At the time, most people simply heard the word "brainwashing" and ignored the rest. And why not? It was a terrible choice. Barely a decade since the Korean War in which North Koreans used psychological torture against American POWs -- actual "brainwashing" -- it sounded whiney and evasive, like Romney was charging the American generals with bad faith, while also acknowledging his own ignorance and suggesting some psychological disorder. All this, plus he was criticizing a wartime president with soldiers under fire.
The reaction was immediate. Vermont Governor Philip H. Hoff, a friendly Republican who had accompanied Romney on his 1965 trip to Vietnam and attended the same briefings with the generals, called Romney's remark "outrageous, kind of stinking ... Either he's a most naïve man or he lacks judgment." Senator Eugene McCarthy (D.-Minnesota), running against LBJ for the Democratic nomination, turned it into a joke, saying that in Romney's case, "a light rinse would have been sufficient." Within days, Romney's support cratered, plummeting from 24% down to 14% in the Gallup Poll, giving Richard Nixon a large lead.
After that, critics would label Romney as indecisive and inept. Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary in March 1968, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller would announce his own availability for the Republican nomination and George Romney would pull out of the race.
But listen to the rest of Romney's actual answer to the 1967 question -- not just the word "brainwashing." What he said, in sum, was that on his original 1965 visit to Vietnam, the generals gave him an unrealistic, over-optimistic report based on bad information, and that, since then, he had done his own independent homework, studied the facts, and changed his mind. The bottom line? George Romney was right about Vietnam. LBJ and his generals had misled the country into a war that ultimately cost some 58,000 American lives.
Impact on young Mitt
Young Mitt Romney was not at his father's side during this crisis. Instead, Mitt was off in France in 1967 and 1968 on a Morman missionary adventure. Still, he followed his father's campaign closely. At the end, he received a letter from his father telling him simply "Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved."
Mitt as a 21 year-old, certainly understood his father's 1967 views on Vietnam, and was even quoted himself as criticizing the War in a 1970 interview with the Boston Globe. "If it wasn't a political blunder to move into Vietnam," he told the reporter, "I don't know what is."
Recently, Mitt Romney talked about the episode to the Washington Post, how it made him more cautious and circumspect. "My own experience has taught me you have to exercise care," he explained. For instance: "After 9/11, I got a question about whether the [Olympic] Games [which he was then managing in Salt Lake City] would be cancelled if another terrorist incident occurred ... I could see the headline. 'Romney May Consider Canceling the Games' ... So I knew I couldn't answer the question directly. I said that it would be 'unthinkable' to cancel the Games."
As for the "brainwashing" episode itself, Mitt said this: "My father later did not look back.... It was not a big issue in our house."
Let's hope that Mitt Romney learned the right lesson from his father's 1967 disaster. Right or wrong, in politics, how you say something can be just as important as what you say. Mitt has had several years to prepare to explain his flip flops on Obama's health care bill, his Massachusetts pro-choice statements, and the rest. You won't hear Mitt Romney complain about being "brainwashed" by anyone. But hopefully, this will not stop him in the future from actually keeping his mind open and changing it when it's the right thing to do.