Romney’s empathy deficit: What he never learned from his “brainwashed” father

Caption (from the University of Michigan): Pre...

George Romney

There was once an honorable man who ran for president. He made a casual remark in an interview, which his opponents twisted out of context. They pounded him relentlessly with the remark and chuckled as he struggled to deal with their distortions.

It was a shameful moment in American politics because the candidate was a good man who spoke the truth.

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama, whose words about business owners not building roads and bridges – “you didn’t build that” – have been distorted beyond recognition by Mitt Romney into a collectivist attack on free enterprise.

The candidate in question was Romney’s own father, George Romney, the Republican governor of Michigan, who uttered an unfortunate remark about the Vietnam War in a 1967 interview.

In the interview, George Romney explained his once-strong support for the war, speaking passionately about a 1965 visit to Vietnam. U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, he said, had fed him misinformation and propaganda.

“When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” Romney said of his 1965 trip. A bit later in the interview, Romney acknowledged that his views on the Vietnam War had evolved. “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.”

That, of course, was heresy to most leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties. Aided by the media, Romney’s detractors characterized him as weak and unstable. He left the race, defeated and ridiculed, in February 1968.

A month later, on March 31, the conflict would prove so unpopular that President Lyndon Johnson, the man who poured a half-million American troops into the country, would opt not to seek re-election, knowing that the war had inflicted mortal political wounds.

The whole nasty experience made a lasting impression on 21-year-old Mitt Romney, who was then serving in France as a Mormon missionary. A story in Politico last January explained:

Romney was profoundly affected by how his more gregarious father’s political career was upended in an instant. George Romney, the governor of Michigan, said his early support of the Vietnam War was the result of “brainwashing” by generals. He was obviously speaking in the vernacular, not saying he had lost control of his faculties, but one clumsy comment helped derail his presidential ambitions in 1968.

The father’s setback wounded the son. Mitt Romney has called his father the “the definition of a successful human.”

“Mitt was very passionate; he couldn’t believe people were not portraying his dad the way they should be,” Byron Hansen, a fellow missionary, told Romney’s biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman for their book, The Real Romney. In fact, the experience was so searing, Kranish and Helman reported, that the younger Romney, in solidarity with his father, dropped his once-strong support of the war.

Forty-five years after the incident that ended his father’s presidential ambitions, one would think that Romney might be a bit more cautious and circumspect about distorting and twisting the words of others. A person with true empathy, it seems, might be more understanding of the damage inflicted by such rhetorical contortions.

Romney, alas, seems to have learned little from the episode, except perhaps that a good way to destroy an opponent is distort his words and brazenly build an entire national convention narrative around them.

That, of course, is what he did with President Obama’s remarks about the role government plays in building the roads and bridges that enable commerce in our country. As anyone with third-grade reading skills can see, Obama’s “you didn’t build that” riff was about roads and bridges. (Read the president’s words here.)

Perhaps more egregious, however, is the way Romney began his campaign against Obama last year, falsely attributing the sentiment of words spoken by Sen. John McCain to Obama. In 2008, while campaigning for president, Obama quoted John McCain, who had said, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In the spot, aired last November in New Hampshire, Romney attributed the words to Obama himself.

When questioned about his deceit, did Romney reflect on the hurt he experienced 45 earlier when opponents distorted his father’s words? No, it doesn’t appear that he did. Instead, his spokesperson issued the following statement, “Three years ago, candidate Barack Obama mocked his opponent’s campaign for saying ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ Now, President Obama’s campaign is desperate not to talk about the economy.”

Well, that’s actually a fair critique of Obama and the economy. The only problem is that, in the TV spot, that’s not what Romney said. Instead, he grossly distorted and twisted Obama’s remarks.

Of course, Romney’s shameless deception is nothing new in politics. Politicians of all stripes have twisted and lied about each other’s words for centuries.

But, given the Romney family history, don’t these episodes reveal something interesting about the man? How would someone — supposedly profoundly affected by the reprehensible way his father’s words were once mischaracterized — be expected to act when presented with the opportunity to twist his opponents words?

What it says to me is that instead of internalizing the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – Romney instead has internalized another, less-golden rule: “An eye for an eye.”

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8 Responses to Romney’s empathy deficit: What he never learned from his “brainwashed” father

  1. hoboduke says:

    Huh? Who cares? Looking foward to DNC speeches of Biden and Obama. Don’t care about ancient history since current history puts USA tipping over cliff with Obama at the wheel. Supreme irony will be Obama taking credit for massive economic recovery under Romeny as his handiwork. He blames Bush for his failures, and will take credit for Romney’s success. We should give Obama Solyndra stock as his government pension.


  2. Peter says:

    If the economy doesn’t rebound guess and Romney is potus, guess who’ll be blamed for it? I think republicans suffer from amnesia or a severe case of it. I believe both parties have good intentions for this country but it’s how to solve the problems that’s different. All this slander will come back to haunt romney. He is a good man but he is being illadvised.


  3. Ken Burk says:

    Some of us do notice and do care about blatant hypocrisy. It is unfortunate, Bob, that in order to be involved in politics now, a person has to be a professional hypocrite. This is a perfect example, but you can find examples of it from nearly every politician from both parties.


  4. Retired ole goat with a lot of kick left says:

    I do not know if you have read any of this individual’s writings, but I think you might find them interesting. By the way, I found your site from a citation given by this lablouisianaboy in another commentary. My compliments to you as well Professor on some thought provoking pieces.


  5. Glen Duncan says:

    Hi Bob,

    Pretty easy to see the confusion.

    Grammatically speaking – a pronoun in a sentence refers back to the nearest noun.

    So looking at the sentence from the exact quotation you linked to…

    “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that,” he continued. “Somebody else made that happen. ”

    …the only correct reading is “that” refers back to “business.” So if we are all misunderstanding it is because some of us heard it as he said it, including his body language and manner.

    I watched carefully as his remarks were repeatedly aired and never concluded he was referring to infrastructure. His remarks about government infrastructure, to me, were merely his explanation as to why no business person could take full credit for building his or her business. I believe he meant what he said.

    The bigger issue though is this…. WE did build it. Whatever “it” is. Roads, bridges, a school system, whatever. The biggest separation in philosophy between the left and right – or between President Obama and his opponents – is the notion that government is above and separate from “we.” It is as though “we” the people are enabled by, receive from, and ought to be thankful to our government – as though it is a separate entity.

    For this or any president to look at any American audience and say “you didn’t build that,” is extremely telling. It is a philosophy – ideology if you will – that government is a living, breathing, independent organism for which the people ought to be grateful.

    I actually heard one of his supporters explain the remark just this way, “government has enabled” business owners to prosper. And that does indeed sound like the sentiment President Obama was trying to capture. Really? Our government enables us?

    That is exactly the ideology I cannot accept. I simply believe in the formative statements of our nation: “We the people” built this country – every bit of it. The government doesn’t enable us…we enable the government. Clearly, many don’t see it that way. No wonder we have such a great divide.

    Am I wrong?


    • Robert Mann says:

      I find it hard to believe that anyone could truly believe that Obama was saying that government is solely responsible for creating business. Explaining this by diagraming a sentence, instead of looking at the many other times he has praised and supporte dindividual business initiative, is a stretch.


    • hoboduke says:

      Actions speak volumes more than mere words. Why don’t we see a growth of small business over the last couple of years? It’s simple. The costs to meet filing government documents with CPA, lawyer, and soothe sayer plus visits from EPA, OSHA, is not a fable. The interference to protect the USA from themselves is overwhelming at the present. Nobody can build “that” with the help of the government. The number of unemployed attempting to create their own business is a sign of the resilience of the American Spirit. The numbers surviving the minefield of regulations plus competition in business is a steep mountain.


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