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Politics by gaffe: recalling the ‘brainwashing’ of George Romney

Just a bit of American political history that happens to be slightly relevant because Mitt Romney is wobbling in his status as frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But the anecdote has a longer, larger relevance as an example of the silliness of what we might call politics by gaffe, or even Gong Show Politics.

Return with me if you will to the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Richard Nixon, of course, ended up winning the nomination and the election, but in the early stages, Nixon had to overcome the perception that he was a “loser” because he lost both the 1960 presidential election and a bid for governor of California in 1962. (After that second defeat, believing that his political career couldn’t survive a second loss, Nixon made an ill-considered decision to announce his retirement from politics and he showed his bitter, self-pitying side when he announced that the press “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”)

George Romney
George Romney

By 1968, Nixon was fully prepared for a comeback. But Michigan Gov. George Romney — father of Mitt Romney, of course former CEO of American Motors — was the media darling at the time with his slicked back grey hair and his no-nonsense style. I’m old enough to remember when Romney Sr. was the hot commodity in Republican politics. It is often asserted that Romney was the front-runner until he stumbled, but that isn’t true. Based on Gallup polling, Romney had a respectable rating but trailed Nixon throughout 1967, although that might be attributable to the greater name recognition of a former vice president and former presidential nominee.

Anyway, the other thing we usually hear about Romney’s political demise is that he was ruined politically because he had confessed to being “brainwashed” in Vietnam. Romney’s “brainwashed” statement ranks pretty high in the list of famous political gaffes, so much so that you might not know that Romney’s statement made perfect sense and that he was obviously using “brainwashed” as a perfectly reasonable metaphor.

Here’s the deal (forgive me for going into it but I just had my memory refreshed because I’m reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent “Nixonland”): Romney had said in 1965, after a visit to Vietnam, that the U.S. involvement there was “morally right and necessary and had probably reversed a shift in the balance of power greater than If Hitler had conquered Europe.” Pretty strong stuff and an example of the kind of idiocy that got us so deeply into that war.

Different position
In 1967, as he prepared to challenge President Lyndon Johnson, Romney took a completely different position that U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been a mistake from the beginning. In a TV interview with a Detroit station, he was confronted with the previous statement and basically accused of a flip-flop. (Plus ca change.)

Romney replied: “When I came back from Viet Nam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” He added that after the trip, he made a deeper study of the history of the conflict and concluded that it had been a “tragic” blunder to get U.S. troops into an Asian land war and that in fact it hadn’t been necessary to send U.S. soldiers to prevent a Chinese takeover of Southeast Asia.

Obviously, he wasn’t claiming to have been tortured in captivity like something out of “The Manchurian Candidate.” In fact, he said right at the time that he was referring to the highly one-sided view of the necessity of the war that had been sold to him by the generals and State Department officials who briefed him on his visit. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that the single word choice — “brainwashing” — so clearly meant metaphorically — could have ended Papa Romney’s promising presidential bid.

When I think about other famous “gaffes” and “blunders” that supposedly changed presidential races — Gerald Ford (1976) stating that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Edmund Muskie (1972) getting (possibly) teary in defending his wife from a personal attack, George H.W. Bush being caught on camera glancing at his watch during  a televised debate, Howard Dean’s “scream,” Nixon’s refusal to listen to the aides who told him to put on some makeup and wear a dark suit before the first televised debate in 1960 — and many of the other famous ones, it’s embarrassing to think that such nonsense was treated as major character insight.

According to Perlstein’s “Nixonland,” the next Harris poll showed Romney had suffered a 16 percentage point drop for his word choice. Here’s how Perlstein explained it:

“The term brainwashing had come into use after the Korean War to explain why some prisoners of war, supposedly insufficiently sturdy in their patriotism to resist, chose to stay behind in enemy territory and denounce the United States — what the ruthless did to the soft-minded. Neither side of the association appealed to the voters: the notion that the architects of the Vietnam War were ruthless, and the notion of a soft-minded president. “

Of course, learning history by anecdote is about as smart as picking presidents by a single word choice. Papa Romney made other mistakes. Even if he had chosen a different word, Romney’s position that the Vietnam War was a mistake from the beginning — which looks pretty good from here — was probably too far ahead of its time for the Republican primary electorate in 1968. Nixon played it smarter, criticizing everything Johnson (and later, Hubert Humphrey) said or did about Vietnam without coming out against the war or specifying what he would do different.  

George Romney’s son Mitt is trying to navigate similar waters. He has changed his position on a number of issues, although he seems to want to deny that he has done and won’t explain clearly why he has done so. I wrote a couple of days ago that he should directly address those switches and explain why he made them. But given his father’s experience with doing so, I guess I can muster a soupcon of sympathy for his reluctance to do so.

Oh, and thanks to the miracle of the worldwide web, here’s the actual original interview.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 12/02/2011 - 10:52 am.

    “Here’s how Perlstein explained it:”

    That explanation is vapid nonsense. The problem with the “brainwash” explanation for his change of position was that it implied that anyone who still supported the war was still suffering from being brainwashed. No one cared whether Romney had been brainwashed or not, but there were still plenty of supporters of the war who were certain that they weren’t just “brainwashed”. In fact, you will find there are still a lot of them alive today.

  2. Submitted by Richard Parker on 12/02/2011 - 11:19 am.

    I’m old enough to remember a fatherly George Romney doing commercials for Rambler automobiles on the “Disneyland” TV show in the latter 1950s. He was president of American Motors, which was formed in the merger of Nash and Hudson a few years earlier. I loved “Disneyland” and later, “Mickey Mouse Club” (read Annette Funicello) and liked Romney until, when I had reached draft age, he appeared to be among the supporters of intervention in Vietnam. Always wondered why he named his son Mitt; discovered on Wikipedia that that’s his middle name — first name’s Willard. By George!

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/02/2011 - 11:35 am.

    I don’t remeber who it was, but one of the editors at the New Republic made the observation that a real political gaffe always has some element of truth behind what was said.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/02/2011 - 11:50 am.

    As someone who was serving on active duty at that time, having enlisted to eradicate communism, I can tell you that it wasn’t Romney’s use of the word “brainwashed” that caused him to drop 16 points in the polls, it was his shift in position to that of an anti-war liberal.

    In 1967-68, the only people who were saying that Vietnam was a mistake were the hippies on campus and the liberal democrats who didn’t like the idea of us fighting a communist army.

    Then as is now, you don’t win republican primaries by being soft on communism or weak on national defense.

    Even though Nixon was a pacifist Quaker, he hid it well and won the over the primary voters by default.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/02/2011 - 02:33 pm.

    I’ve read that “Fighting Bob” LaFollete suffered a similar fate when he delivered a diatribe of a speech, apparently under the influence of alcohol, before a group of magazine editors at a New York club in 1912. He was attempting to galvanize the Progressive wing of the Republican Party behind him. Teddy Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose third party instead.

    He probably would have never won anyway because he was also opposed to war. Isn’t it interesting that for a supposedly peace-loving people, Americans sure do love them wars.

  6. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 12/02/2011 - 03:08 pm.

    I heard a speech by Russell Baker once and give him credit for this further tale:

    When another 1968 candidate, Minnesota’s Eugene McCarthy, was asked for his reaction to Romney’s brainwashing comment, Gene M said it was typical Pentagon overkill. “With Romney, a light rinse would have done the job.”

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/02/2011 - 07:17 pm.

    “…No one cared whether Romney had been brainwashed or not, but there were still plenty of supporters of the war who were certain that they weren’t just “brainwashed”. In fact, you will find there are still a lot of them alive today.”

    Indeed, and they’re just as “brainwashed” today as they were in 1968. Much as the public was similarly “brainwashed” to believe the Saddam Hussein posed an actual threat to the United States, and that Iraq had both the potential and the reality of “weapons of mass destruction.” The casualty lists are shorter this time, but there are still thousands of young American servicemen and women dead, and many thousands more wounded, for what I will charitably call “no good reason.”

    I’m sorry Mr. Tester’s enlistment didn’t succeed in its goal. If it had, perhaps his mood would be better. Actually, I was neither a hippie nor on campus in 1968, and I didn’t care what ideological label was being slapped on the Vietcong. It was the notion that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was spurious, and that we’d been dragged into a civil war – much like Iraq, where the justification for involvement was spurious, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims were both less-than-enthused about our presence – that had me questioning our involvement.

    Mr. Tester may be correct that a candidate can’t win Republican primaries by being “soft on communism” or “weak” on national defense, but those issues are increasingly irrelevant, so continuing to stress them simply places the Republican Party significantly out of touch with reality. Even the Russians have given up on Marxism as a solution to their problems, so making the fight against communism an important part of one’s campaign in 2011 is much like making European fascism an important part of one’s campaign. There was a time when it made sense, but that time was long ago. We spend more on military hardware and personnel than the next 9 or 10 nations combined – and with no credible threat to us from a nation-state. “National defense” isn’t very persuasive as a rationale for billion-dollar fighter planes and assorted other exotic and expensive hardware when there’s no credible threat that might provide a justification for them.

    Mr. Nixon’s actions and behavior in office have placed a stain on the Quaker sect that may never be eradicated. More’s the pity. I tend to think of him as an apostate. He certainly demonstrated repeatedly that he was no pacifist…

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/03/2011 - 09:55 am.

    I’m sorry that Mr. Tester served as cannon fodder for Standard Oil. The main reason that we were in Viet Nam was oil deposits in the South China Sea, which at that time looked very promising.
    As Ray points out, we were backing one side in a civil war between two dictatorships which gave lip service to the ideologies of their arms suppliers. Neither took it too seriously, although the Northerners did seem to fight as if they believed in a cause.

  9. Submitted by Bob Swanick on 12/04/2011 - 10:33 am.

    I was a teenager in Michigan during the time that George Romney was governor. According to a distant memory, George was also discredited in the national media as a presidential candidate for asserting a Mormon principle claiming that the white race was created by god however the black race evolved from the apes.
    Does anyone else remember that?

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/04/2011 - 05:29 pm.

    I vaguely remember that the issue of the LDS’s less than egalitarian attitude towards blacks was raised, but I don’t think that Romney himself made the statement, nor did the campaign itself ever gain enough momentum for it to become more than a potential issue.
    I did some Googling and couldn’t find any record of campaign statements on the issue.

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