Romney's Way: A Man and an Idea

[Romney's Way: A Man and an Idea]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Romney's Way: A Man and an Idea
by T. George Harris

From the Preface:

Get mad enough, and you do things you ought not to try. This book belongs to that order of error. I got disgusted with the know-it-alls of my trade, reporting. "If there's anything to learn from George Romney," quipped a New York writer, "you've got an exclusive as far as I'm concerned." As far as I could tell, nobody had tried to find out. The result was that instead of probing the serious problems raised by his political position, the press fluttered around the verbal fringes. This habit came to its absurd climax in the monumental flap over his I've-been-brainwashed gaff.

My purpose is not to promote Romney for the White House. That's his problem, and he may feel that the book makes it more difficult. My purpose is to look at him and the Mormon world he came from, to explore his criticism of today's way of doing public business and his alternative to the stock assumptions of orthodox liberals and conservatives. What he is may be more important than what happens to him.

At the risk of sounding cheerful, I find that he is well ahead of the standard-brand thinkers, not behind, and far enough out so that the locked-in language of present politics fails to work for him. "There aren't any words to say it with, unless you go back to John Stuart Mill," says Romney ghost Al Applegate in anguish. "Then people think they know all that stuff, and you're old-fashioned." The language problem reflects the real problem. In his basic critique of foreign policy, for example, Romney finds such a gap between what we do now and what he thinks we ought to do that he has serious trouble talking about it. In his 17-city tour of the domestic war-front, Negro militants dug his ideas better than the attendant press. From Rochester on September 16, the Washington Post's William Chapman wrote wonderingly about the "peculiar rapport" between the black leaders of FIGHT and this blunt-spoken Republican.

A language that might help him is growing up in the New Right and the campus New Left, with their hatred of manipulative central power and their search for community in urban life. To both, "liberal" is a cussword. Romney avidly watches the student rebels, convinced that their demand for a piece of the action is a valid reassertion of American tradition. When I sent him a long, provocative letter from a Berkeley student leader, the Governor had it Xeroxed for each staffer. But he objects to radical method, and in his thought structure the student protest is only one symptom of the deeper difficulty. He does not tear down; he builds alternatives. For instance, he would not take welfare away from people; he wants to take people up from welfare.

A partisanship of ideas is implicit in my role as biographer. Had I not suspected that Romney was on to something useful, I would not have spent five months to find out what it was. You must also assume another kind of prejudice: I came to like him and enjoy our talks. When you jog around golf courses together in the chill of many dawns—the Governor pulling a cart and the reporter scratching at a notebook—it is artificial to keep up the bearbaiting game of the press conference. And, finally, there is the bias caused by deadline: I interviewed Romney's chief critics at length, left and right, until their comments became repetitive, but still invested less time in them than in the subject himself. You will have to decide whether this method was limiting.

The work was more rewarding—and therefore more difficult—than I had expected. I had seen Romney once or twice in his Rambler days when he unsettled Chicago bankers. After he had won the 1962 governors race in Michigan, I still assumed that he was just another liberal Republican with a salesman's spiel. Saul Alinsky, that cantankerous "professional radical," told me off. He said that he knew Romney well, and found in him a unique political insight. From Saul, the slum organizer, this was liberal praise indeed. In the ten years since I had first run into Alinsky's unusual work, I had never heard him call a businessman or a politician, let alone a Republican, anything but a fink. It was an article of faith for him, and Romney was the rare exception.

Some while later, after the Goldwater wreck of ‘64, I did a Look article somewhat grandly tided "A New Conservative Manifesto." Instead of performing a post-mortem on the Republican body, then considered ready for burial in two graves, the article reported on a new proposal for a distinctive party program that undercut the liberal-conservative split. The proposal came from Richard C. Cornuelle, a former right-wing undergrounder and Goldwater friend who had never been comfortable with let-em-eat-cake conservatism. Cornuelle argued that instead of trying to burn down big government, Republicans could actually compete with it in public service. Strange to tell, they could invent nongovernmental solutions to problems like unemployment and pollution—largely through the "independent sector," that forgotten zone of institutions between the public sector (government) and the private sector (profit-making business). Churches, unions, foundations and a few hundred thousand other organizations fit this category. Among them were the two great political parties. Before the rise of big business and big government, some such set of community forces had provided much of the education, culture, welfare and other public services, as well as subtle context for day-to-day government at each level. Cornuelle wanted to revive this independent way in the computer age. For an experiment, he had chartered a non-profit corporation, United Student Aid Funds, to reinsure bank loans for needy college students. These U.S.A. Funds served students in 49 states so well that it eventually forced the Federal program to retrench. Then he began on experimental cures for hard-core unemployment.

Romney read the Look article, telephoned Cornuelle and me. Could we fly out? Sure; we were out on a limb and eager for any company. We spent the first workday of his second gubernatorial term talking, just three of us in the morning and with seven of the Romney staff around his spear-shaped table in the afternoon. Cornuelle wrote about the meeting in Reclaiming the American Dream, a book that has been quietly adopted as a manual by a new breed of candidate, usually Republican but sometimes Kennedy Democratic. Romney wanted to pump us for practical schemes, but he knew more about the subject than we did and had done more. His experiments with the independent approach went back many years. He talked knowledgeably, but in the archaic-sounding language of voluntarism, with its too-quick implication that citizens are eager to serve their communities without social pressure or compensation. As governor, he had founded a new branch of state government, the Human Resources Council, to encourage nongovernmental attacks on public problems. The Council was not going well, but over the next couple of years he kept testing until he found a formula that showed promise.

As an on-the-road reporter, I soon found that most of the country was already doing, mainly by blind impulse, the same kind of thing that Romney was involved in. As the New Deal gave birth to alphabet agencies in government, the independent sector was spawning dozens of acronymic outfits—e.g., ACT, ACTION, OIC, SCORE, FIGHT, MIND—to take on the rising urban crisis. Though earnest, few workers in these organizations, whose politics ranged from Black Power to business conservatism, felt that they could do much without Federal funds.

It was black people, as many citizens are now proud to call themselves, who demonstrated the immediate danger of allgovernment programs. The civil rights movement had over the years proved the capacity of voluntary citizen groups to bring on change. But the movement was running into an ideological dead end. It had pushed Federal legislation to the limit, only to find black people trapped by the segregated blessings of the welfare state. Their cheated feeling made violence inevitable. I had covered many riots since 1949, and in the quiet winter of 1966 I went back to the major ghettoes, from Watts to Harlem, to ask what next. This time, I found a surge of ambition that meant one thing: the slums would be renewed from within, or burned down. Responsible militants, and burners, too, were in rage against the Federal practice of shooting programs at black captives. The militants also resented the patronizing rationale of their latest overseers, the city welfare politicians. For instance, instead of helping people buy their apartments and houses the way whites do, well-intended Washington and helpful city hall kept bulldozing with urban renewal, public housing and model cities projects. The ghettoes were being turned into Federal prisons. Unless the residents could build independent community bodies, grasp control and ownership of their neighborhoods, they would, one said, "always be on somebody's plantation." The thought was intolerable.

Going back by Lansing, I sounded off at Romney. He picked up where I quit, and sharpened the focus on the danger ahead. A mutual friend had suggested that I write a book about him, but neither of us had been overly eager to spend the time on it. Now, we both thought a book might be worth the workout. He agreed to cut twenty or thirty talking hours out of his tight schedule—it actually took much more —and I put my family on short rations. We were to operate under strict rules. If I had a reasonable doubt about a fact, I would double-check it, as I would with any source on any story. No censorship, no control.

I suppose, then, that I am an authorized biographer, but this is not an authorized book. Nobody even vaguely associated with Romney or his campaign will read so much as a paragraph of the manuscript before it goes to the printer. The publisher agreed after discussion to an ironbound hands-off clause. With a tight deadline, and no insider to foolproof each sentence, I may have let minor errors slip by me, but the reader will be spared the major error of a campaign puff job. Except where Romney is quoted or cited, you can blame me for the content.

The arrangements for the writing of this book tell something about the subject. Not every candidate for the Presidency would open his personal files and income-tax data to a reporter without tying on some kind of string. Not many men have so lived that they would dare invite an outside audit. The members of the family, in Utah and in Michigan, responded to my questions with engaging candor. They talked like people who, having nothing to hide, delighted in the fullness of their lives. Mrs. Romney went into hours of interviews with such vivacity that some of the tapes honk with my laughter. Sample: When a future daughter-in-law sympathized with her over her loss of a son to marriage, Mrs. Romney said, "Oh, he was never mine in that way." The family took me to church, absorbed me into their Sunday and, when they went away, left me to roam around the house and browse in the library.

No subject, so far as I could find, was off-limits. After running back from the golf course one morning, Romney and I were taking off our wet shoes in the garage. He was as usual in baggy pants left over from a suit, with a heavy knit shirt and nylon windbreaker to make him sweat hard. His golf shoes, just cleated overshoes pulled over worn-out slippers, did not match. The right was red, the left black. As he pulled up his trouser leg to take off the right shoe, I noticed the bottom shank of a suit of long underwear. That settled the question I had been hesitating to ask: He did wear Mormon temple garments. I must have stopped in mid-sentence and stared. Catching on, he simply pulled the trouser leg a notch higher and resumed the conversation. We talked about those temple garments on the way to Lansing. He did not ask me to leave out anything ….

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