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The George Romney We Missed Out On

Dear Mitt:

When I heard of your father's passing, I thought I would somehow like to convey to the Romney family my high regard for that outstanding public servant. So that's what this is all about.

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As a member of the press, I traveled with George Romney for thousands of miles as he brought his imaginative thinking and dynamic leadership first to Michigan and then to the national scene. In my long years of covering the United States political scene, going back to Eisenhower, I have never known a more decent public figure than your dad.

As you know, he could be impatient with those who couldn't quite grasp how he intended to improve the lives of his fellow Americans. Indeed, I've had him jab me again and again with his glasses as he sought to make himself understood. But I don't have to tell you about your dad's integrity. I never knew a reporter (and I'm now referring to even those many journalists who were his critics) who ever questioned George Romney's honesty. And I don't remember him ever speaking ill of an opponent.

In my opinion, the country and the world would have been a lot better off if he had won the presidency in 1968 and had stayed in for two terms. His misgivings about the Vietnam War would doubtless have brought about an earlier end to that tragic national involvement. Also, a Romney administration would have been straightforward and aboveboard. He would have insisted on that. A Watergate just couldn't have happened.

I interviewed your father only a few days after the political firestorm that erupted when he told a reporter that on a recent trip to Vietnam, he had been ''brainwashed'' by government officials into believing that President Johnson's war policy was working. In the wake of that admission, the press and political opponents ridiculed him for having been duped by these officials.

Your dad was incredulous. He said to me, again and again, that all he was doing in using the word ''brainwash'' was underscoring the unprincipled way his briefers in Vietnam had dealt with the truth.

But while I wrote your father's explanation, and my paper gave it good play, the story line that carried the day in most of the news media was that any candidate who admitted to being ''brainwashed'' on such an important subject was someone who wasn't up to being president. George's explanation never caught up with what I have always regarded as an unfriendly spin on what actually happened.

Well, that so-called ''brainwashing'' gaffe on the part of your dad was enough to create a public perception that he was something of a fool, enough so as to drop him from being a voter favorite for the nomination to a low point where he decided to drop out. Whenever I think about it, I get a bit angry over how such a good man was driven out of public life by what I regard as the widespread dissemination of an unfair interpretation of what he had said.

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When your dad came to a Monitor breakfast during your campaign for US senator, we had a little chat about the Vietnam incident that derailed him. He said he felt vindicated by the Pentagon papers and other post-Vietnam War books and studies that have clearly shown there was a systematic government effort to ''brainwash'' not just himself but everybody in our country about what really was going on. More recently we've learned this same bitter fact in the McNamara memoirs.

How energetic your dad was! He campaigned on the run with his right arm outstretched to give any potential voter a friendly handshake. My lasting memory is of following your father as he opened a door and darted into a tiny, dark room in an office building in Detroit. It turned out to be a broom closet, and I swear that in the dim light George Romney almost shook hands with a broom.

A good man was driven out of public life by the widespread dissemination of an unfair interpretation of what he had said.

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