Publisher's Note — November 16, 2011, 3:16 pm

The Progressive, Sensitive, Rational Governor Romney

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2011.

I’ve been reading up on former Governor Romney, and I like what I’m learning, about both his passion and his powers of observation.

Here’s an emblematic excerpt of a speech he delivered to editorial writers following a cross-country tour: “The America I saw was not America the Beautiful…. Instead, I saw the other face of America — the America of ugly streets and rotted buildings; the America of congestion, illiteracy, and want; the America of shattered expectations and rising fury.”

The language gets more powerful as his view of things gets worse: “This is the America where children grow up like weeds in a jungle, untended and undisciplined… this is the America where children enter school without being able to say a single word — and where they leave school after eight, ten, or twelve years with only a third-grade education…. [T]his is the America where a young man or woman cannot even hope to go to college, where a family cannot even hope to own a home, where a would-be small businessman cannot get capital. This is an ugly America and an angry America.”

But Romney does not live by eloquent rhetoric alone; he also analyzes the underlying evils afflicting the United States. In another speech to journalists, Romney echoes President Eisenhower’s celebrated decrying of the “military-industrial complex” by himself decrying the creation of “a new and dangerous power concentration,” such that “our war machine has become permanent.”

According to Romney, “much of our economy has grown dependent upon war and preparation for war.” America, he declares, “must reverse the tendency to rely too heavily on military might in the struggle for men’s hearts and minds around the world.” In the end, he says, “military power is not the export which will make the world safe for freedom.”

However, Romney has deeper philosophical concerns about what is happening in the country. “The growth of excessive power is a fundamental and imminent danger in our society,” he writes. “Unfortunately, we have lost our understanding and fear of power. This constitutes an added hazard. For when anyone questions the magnitude of private power in industry, in unions, or in government, he immediately is confronted with specious arguments that people blindly accept as valid.”

One reason for this current blind acceptance of dogma is political extremism, which in times of crisis can seduce voters into closing their eyes and their minds. Romney is unequivocal in his denunciation of extremism within his own Republican Party, which he compares to the anti-immigrant Know Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s: “When extremists infiltrate our party and attach themselves like parasites to our leaders and even become leaders themselves, our party is discredited in the eyes of those whose support we must win. It is more essential that we repudiate and eliminate these few from our ranks than to see our cause fail.”

Romney is nothing if not open-minded, for this very successful businessman acknowledges that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the devil himself to many of Romney’s wealthy allies, “correctly recognized that by the late 1920s industrial, financial, and agricultural power had become excessive.” Roosevelt, he writes, “found it necessary to lead a peaceful revolution by creating a countervailing economic power” in the form of stronger labor laws and empowerment of unions, which corrected “indefensible abuses in American industry.”

To my mind, Romney sounds like someone a liberal like me could wholeheartedly support. But there’s a catch. The progressive, sensitive, and highly rational Romney I’m quoting is George Romney, not his son, Mitt, and George, as well as his brand of enlightened Republicanism, has been dead for quite some time.

Nevertheless, his ideas and his spirit live on in out-of-print books such as the former Michigan governor’s own collected speeches and articles, The Concerns of a Citizen, Brock Brower’s Other Loyalties, and the late Clark Mollenhoff’s George Romney: Mormon in Politics.

I picked up these volumes recently because they bear reading: They tell us of an alternative and principled conservatism still very much alive in 1968, when George Romney ran for president, and they might be useful to voters who want to know more about Mitt Romney’s background and potential as a national leader. If the old adage holds that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then Mitt shouldn’t look so threatening to liberals.

Granted, Mitt has been pandering, sometimes shamelessly, to the right-wing extremists in the Tea Party. But there’s a certain pathos — even something admirable — in watching someone try to reason in the face of massive irrationality. A visiting American friend, long resident in Paris and out of touch with U.S. politics, watched the Tampa Tea Party debate in September and said he “felt sorry” for Mitt as he labored to appear sane among mad people. Indeed, Romney’s defense of Social Security against Rick Perry’s mindless “Ponzi scheme” prattle should have reassured liberals.

Mitt’s father was unusually prescient (his popularizing of the “compact” car when he ran American Motors was remarkable), but he wasn’t always right. Well into 1967, George Romney, at the time the front-running Republican presidential candidate, was recycling the same old establishment nonsense that it was “unthinkable that the United States withdraw from Vietnam.”

Significantly, however, it was his shift against Vietnam, in August of that year — his admission that he’d undergone “the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get” from the Johnson administration and the Pentagon — that eventually drove him out of the race in favor of Richard Nixon.

Brock Brower wrote in 1968 that Romney “stood for all the upright things that no voter wants in a downright Presidential aspirant,” but maybe 2012 will be different. I want to cheer when I read, “Poverty — not race — is the common denominator of the people of the slums,” and again when George Romney tells the National Conference of Editorial Writers that “it is more important to provide decent homes than to subsidize candidates seeking national office.”

The question is: What did Mitt learn from his father? That serious, principled people can’t get elected to national office? That running from your greatest political achievement (the legislation providing universal health care in Massachusetts, passed when Mitt was governor) is a winning electoral strategy? That appeasement of radical ideologues is beneficial to party and country?

I don’t know, but I’d feel better if the Romney running for president was named George.

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