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Recalling the year that ‘brainwashed’ became part of our political debate

In the ’68 election, George Romney was a good presidential candidate who spoke the truth, got into trouble for it and self-destructed long before Election Day.

George Romney at the 1968 Republican National Convention.
George Romney at the 1968 Republican National Convention.
Wikimedia Commons/Florida Division of Tourism

Even as Americans are experiencing something different in this election year, there remains strong support among voters for confident, knowledgeable presidents who exude clearheaded leadership as our nation’s president.

It reminded me of a story involving a good presidential candidate who spoke the truth, got into trouble for it and self-destructed long before the election.

I was a student at Hamline University in the late ’60s, serving as chair of the popular Hamline Republican Club (we outnumbered the College Democrats manyfold). One of things we did was help candidates, including the surprise election of South St. Paul attorney Harold LeVander as governor in 1966 and a young Arne Carlson’s 1967 campaign for Minneapolis mayor.

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We began to contemplate engagement in some manner in the 1968 presidential campaign.

Convening Hamline students liked Rockefeller

Of course, students did not automatically act as a block and we shared differing opinions; an all-campus, nonpartisan political convention of more than 1,000 Hamline students in 1968 did choose New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as its favorite over Minnesota’s own Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Monitoring campaigns was mostly through newspapers and nighty network news programs in those days. It was long before students had access to the more extensive news and social media outlets of recent years.

Chuck Slocum
Chuck Slocum
I began following the exploratory presidential campaign of George Wilcken Romney, whose son, Mitt, was to become the 2012 Republican presidential candidate himself and is now a U.S. senator from Utah. (To continue the family political legacy, Ronna Romney McDaniel of Michigan, George’s granddaughter, is the current chair of the Republican National Committee.)

President Lyndon Johnson, who took office in 1963 upon the death of John Kennedy, had ramped up the war in Vietnam as his major foreign policy accomplishment. Concerning Vietnam, by 1967 things were uneasy on campuses throughout the country, including Hamline. Minnesota’s other U.S. senator, Gene McCarthy, decided to bring the issue of ending the Vietnam conflict — it was never an official war — into the 1968 campaign.

I liked the fact that the elder Romney was governor of Michigan (1963-69) and had substantial public support throughout the country; we invited him to speak on campus, but were not successful. A devout Mormon and former CEO of American Motors, Romney had popularized the Rambler and described the “big three” automakers as producing “gas-guzzling dinosaurs.”

Romney’s change of opinion on Vietnam

Romney decided to go directly to Vietnam himself and examine the situation. Upon his return, he had originally said he was confident that the military was doing the right things and that U.S. success was a foregone conclusion. Not long thereafter and after careful study, Romney began to share his doubts about Vietnam, calling it “a tragic mistake.”

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CBS’ Roger Mudd quizzed Romney on the about-face in 1967. Romney said he had been “brainwashed” by government officials into thinking earlier that Johnson’s policies might work. Almost immediately, Romney’s character, loyalty, and intelligence were called into question by his opponents and the news media. Republican governors, long considered political allies, were quoted as saying Romney was “naïve.” It was not so much that people doubted that Romney had been lobbied vigorously when in Vietnam but that he had been unable to resist the effects of having his brain washed.

The Detroit News editorially argued that the state’s governor “was either incapable of maintaining a stand on so vital an issue” or, less charitably, “that he trims his Vietnam positions to accommodate prevailing political winds.”

Field left wide open for Nixon

Romney dropped out of the race on the eve of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Primary, leaving the Republican field wide open for Vice President Richard Nixon, the eventual winner.

Costly political gaffes have plagued candidates since the beginning of America’s unique two-party system.

During my more active days of partisan politics, there were several examples following Romney’s “brainwashed” 1968 situation: Edmund Muskie (“for crying out loud”) and George McGovern (“1,000% behind Eagleton”) in 1972, Gerald Ford (no Soviet domination of Easter Europe) in 1976, Jimmy Carter (Playboy “lust in my heart” quote) in 1976, Ronald Reagan (“the evil empire”) in 1984, Gary Hart (“catch me if you can”) in 1984.

But few have seen a more unusual presidential campaign than our current Donald Trump/Joe Biden contest, to be sure. It is not just the language but the issues — BLM, COVID-19 — that are driving the 2020 rhetoric.

Chuck Slocum, founder and president of The Williston Group, can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com He recommends a book, “Observing Our Politicians Stumble,” written by Richfield native Stephen Frantzich, a political scientist who has spent his career at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

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