In an effort to drum up interest in his presidential bid for the 1968 elections, Michigan’s governor, George Romney — Mitt Romney’s father — went into the belly of the beast. During the summer of 1967, the elder Romney gave a stump speech in San Francisco’s Golden Gate panhandle, a couple of blocks from Haight and Ashbury, the epicenter of hippiedom.
I was there the day that several buses pulled up at the panhandle and disgorged George Romney, his entourage and reporters. No vote-getting reason could possibly justify Romney’s being there, in front of this group of people, most of whom had probably never voted. (The voting age was then 21.) What must the former CEO of American Motors have been thinking?
This surely qualifies as one of the strangest moments in the history of presidential campaigns. As he surveyed us, what George Romney saw was a large crowd of young people in wild array, a group that resembled a kind of free-form, nonstop Mardi Gras, a thousand times stranger than the Occupy Wall Street crowd. One woman, pacing quickly back and forth, carried a placard that read: “SPEED FREAKS FOR ROMNEY.”
Romney didn’t seem fazed by us, as if it was all perfectly natural. Many were smoking marijuana and couldn’t have cared less about Romney’s political ambitions, though if the crowd had listened, they might have liked what he said. He was against the war in Vietnam. He was for community service. He believed strongly in civil rights.
George Romney managed to get through his stump speech even though some of my friends were banging drums during it, giving it more rhythm than the speech warranted. Afterward, Romney loosened his tie and tried to endear himself, coming off like a man who could interact with anyone, even in this crowd.
“Look,” Romney said, “I want to know what you people want. Your generation, you’re the children of my generation. I have kids your age, so I really want to know what you want. What you really want.” He pointed at one young man. “You. What do you want?’
The young man, hair halfway down his back, seemed very stoned. He said, “My friend’s in jail, I wanna get him out.” Romney signaled to one of his aides to take down the information. “I’ll look into it,” he said. Then he pointed to a young woman.
“You,” said Romney. “What is it that you want?”
The woman shouted, “Life without death and acid without speed!” Like someone in an insane asylum who’s finally being taken seriously by authority figures, she yelled it again and again, louder and louder: “Life without death! Acid without speed!”
The Secret Service men tensed, but Romney merely said, “OK, OK,” nodded seriously and again signaled to one of his aides to write this down.
Lately, while watching Mitt Romney on television, I’ve recalled that day from the Summer of Love. Mitt Romney certainly looks presidential, as his father did. And he’s capable of changing his mind, as his father famously did.
But there’s a vast difference between father and son.
George Romney changed his pro-war stance on Vietnam, claiming that military brass had “brainwashed” him into believing rosy predictions about the war. He became convinced it was going badly and should be abandoned. This was a courageous stance in 1967 — and, as it turned out, political suicide. These comments sank George Romney’s campaign and made it easier for Richard Nixon to win the nomination and, eventually, the White House.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, seems to have rejected a slew of his earlier positions — on abortion rights, stem cell research, gay rights, gun rights, universal health care — for a very different reason. Unlike his father, Mitt Romney has changed his views because it would have been political suicide not to do so. Whereas his father showed courage, Mitt Romney has shown expediency, telling voters what he thinks they want to hear.
What would Mitt Romney have said to a woman who told him she wanted life without death and acid without speed? Like his father, would he have nodded and told an aide to note it down? Maybe, but I don’t think Mitt Romney’s aides would ever let him do what his father did: bravely wade into a crowd of outlandish young people where you had no idea what kind of off-the-wall questions they would ask.
• Loiederman is co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny,” a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times.