New Republic: Mitt Romney's Parent Trap Is there more to Mitt Romney's political pedigree than meets the eye? The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn follows how Romney un-became his father.
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New Republic: Mitt Romney's Parent Trap

Republican presidential candidate former Governor Mitt Romney, R-MA, speaks at the Fairfax County Republican Committee headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, Oct. 26, 2011.

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate former Governor Mitt Romney, R-MA, speaks at the Fairfax County Republican Committee headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, Oct. 26, 2011.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.

On July 8, 1964, 17-year-old Mitt Romney slipped into a front-row seat at a San Francisco hotel ballroom. The start of the Republican National Convention was just days away, and tensions in the room were high—not over the choice of nominee (Barry Goldwater had already locked up enough delegates) but over the ideological future of the party. Inside the ballroom, the committee in charge of writing the party platform was under attack from a small band of dissenters determined to make one final stand against the radical conservatism of Goldwater and his supporters. And one of the most prominent dissenters was Mitt's father, George Romney.

By 1964, the first-term Michigan governor had distinguished himself as a straight-talker who disdained partisanship. He had made such an impression on his fellow moderates that days later, at the convention, Gerald Ford would make the symbolic gesture of nominating Romney from the floor, saying of his fellow Michigander that "he has never let the temporary glitter of expediency obscure the path which his integrity dictated he must follow." When Romney's turn to speak before the platform committee came, he seized it—challenging the group, which was packed with Goldwater delegates, to accept language endorsing federal civil rights initiatives and the importance of labor unions, and, more generally, to distance the party from some of the right-wing extremists who had backed Goldwater. As Mitt looked on attentively,his father warned the group that "there is no place in either of our parties for the purveyors of hate."

The moment was one of great futility: The committee, which greeted the speech with polite but tepid applause, rejected the amendments, just as the full convention would later turn away efforts by Romney and his supporters to introduce those amendments from the floor. But, against this backdrop, Romney's speech conveyed the noble defense of a principled stand. That is how, over 40 years later, his son remembers it. "I watched that with great interest," Romney told me earlier this spring. "He believed that the Republican Party was aligning itself as an opponent of civil rights and was connecting with the extreme elements of the John Birch Society and felt that Goldwater was wrong in taking the party in that direction. He was passionate about that."

We were sitting in the green room of CNN's Los Angeles studios, just after Mitt's appearance on "Larry King Live" during a March fund-raising trip to California. He had just turned 60, making him roughly the same age his father was during the 1964 convention—and the similarities between the two are even more striking up-close than they had been the previous times I had seen him, either on television or before large crowds. Mitt has the same chiseled features as his father: the squared-off jaw and the deeply set eyes, plus the nose with impossibly perfect angles. And, although Mitt's words come out more slowly and more deliberately than the ones I heard on recordings of his father, the voice itself has an unmistakably familiar ring to it—crisp, deep, and forceful. "I never saw myself being like my Dad," Mitt joked during our conversation. "Now that I'm older, I see a tape of myself giving a speech, I say, 'Holy cow, I'm turning in to my Dad.' I look like him a lot. I talk like him a lot. The things I value are very much the things he valued."

The similarities between Mitt and his father go well beyond appearances. He shares his father's competitive streak, his strong sense of political ambition. Twelve years after George's death, Mitt still sees him as a role model, describing him as "the definition of a successful human." His admiration for his father's approach to politics surfaced several times during our interview. When I asked him to explain why he had abandoned business for politics, for example, he didn't talk about crusading to save the United States from the left. Instead, he told me, "It's a family gene. There's something in the Romney makeup that longs to be able to make a difference, to make a contribution. ... There's almost an obligation to step forward."

Until recently, Mitt Romney did indeed seem to be his father's son—with a life that evinced noblesse oblige and a political tendency toward principled moderation. But, in the course of his presidential campaign, Romney has called the sincerity of those poses into doubt, flamboyantly altering seemingly bedrock positions on abortion and stem-cell research and positioning himself as a right-wing crusader. During our interview, Romney methodically went through these positions, endeavoring to explain the switches as a natural and genuine evolution of thought—all proof, he said, that "I'm conservative."

Mitt Romney's makeover suggests a far more piercing critique than mere flip-flopping: the charge of filial betrayal, of running a campaign that would earn paternal disapproval were George still alive. At first glance, it's a charge that rings true. Like all father-son relationships, of course, it's also far more complicated than that. And these complications aren't psycho-biographical digressions but essential to answering the question: Despite all his twists and turns, could Mitt Romney make a good president?

George Romney's Mormon upbringing was a big influence in shaping the worldview that he passed down to Mitt. George's great-grandfather was an original Mormon apostle named Parley Pratt, who followed Brigham Young to Utah and was killed in 1857 by the disgruntled ex-husband of one of his wives. When the federal government began to crack down on polygamy, George's grandparents fled to Mexico. In 1907, George was born in Chihuahua, and, five years later, during the Mexican revolution, the Romney family fled back to the U.S., eventually settling in Salt Lake City.

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