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.
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.”
- Meet Mitt Romney’s Hero: His Surprisingly Liberal Dad (businessinsider.com)
- George Romney: Braver than Mitt (salon.com)
- The Daily Show: Lies, Damned Lies, and Republican Talking Points (polentical.com)
- Did America meet the real Romney? – NBCNews.com (video.msnbc.msn.com)