Obituary: George Romney

George Romney is a largely forgotten figure now. But in the 1960s, as Governor of Michigan and leading contender for the Republican Party presidential nomination, he was one of the best-known figures in American public life.

A Mormon raised in Utah, Romney neither smoked nor drank, would not do business nor even talk politics on Sundays, and sincerely believed that the American Constitution was divinely inspired. In short, he personified that small-town morality which seemed under threat during the turbulent 1960s.

Yet at the same time he was a classic example of the "can-do" businessman in politics. A veteran of the Michigan car economy since the 1940s, Romney had seen the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) rise to transform the United States into what commentators called ''a labouristic society'' - one in which no important policy decisions could be taken without the co-operation of organised labour.

During this period, Romney had described Walter Reuther, the UAW leader, as "the most dangerous man in Detroit, because no one is more skilful in bringing about revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society". Within this framework of consensus capitalism, the "military- industrial complex" which ran America during the Cold War flourished - nowhere more than in Detroit, the car capital. By the 1960s General Motors was the largest corporation in the world, Ford third and Chrysler, the poor relations in Detroit, fifth.

This was the environment in which Romney, who as a young man preached the Mormon gospel on the streets of England and Scotland, flourished. He took the moribund American Motors automobile company and turned it around, making millions for his stockholders, and persuading his workforce to accept the novel idea of profit-sharing rather than the pay deals brokered by the UAW.

Having made his fortune, he turned to politics and in 1959 became the driving force behind a Michigan constitutional convention which rewrote the state constitution to make it one of the finest charters of liberty in the Union. In 1962 he ended 14 years of rule by the Democratic governor G. Mennen ("Soapy") Williams, the shaving-cream millionaire. He was re- elected with a five-fold increase in his majority in 1964, the year when Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy brought disaster to most other Republicans, and finally secured a majority of more than half a million when re-elected governor in 1966.

Clean, moral, effective, hard-driving, tolerant, Romney ruled one of America's great industrial states and looked a strong candidate to run for president in 1968 when frustration with the Vietnam war and riots on campus and in black ghettos across the nation were undoing Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society.

Even the Detroit riot in 1967 seemed to help rather than hinder Romney. It covered 35 square miles, caused millions of dollars' damage and killed 53 people, but Romney's row with the president about the use of regular army troops raised his poll ratings. Goldwater, who had been annihilated in 1964, was clearly out as Republican contender. Nelson Rockefeller who had run against Goldwater, was the man who had split the party. Ronald Reagan was unelectably right-wing. William Scranton had no taste for power. Richard Nixon had not yet raised himself from the political tomb into which two defeats had cast him. By contrast, Romney was the choice of 54 per cent of voters, as compared to only 46 per cent for President Johnson.

Not surprisingly, at this stage his enemies emerged. First they pointed out that Romney, born in Mexico, was ineligible to be president - a problem which might have been tricky had the campaign got further. Then opponents charged that the Mormon Church consigns blacks forever to outer darkness in the Hall of God. Romney retorted that he understood much better than Goldwater or Reagan what blacks wanted, as his support by 30 per cent of them in Michigan (unprecedented for a Republican) showed.

Then came the notorious "brainwashing" statement. Essentially a provincial figure, Romney was not comfortable with foreign affairs. Still less was he able to bring that "peace with honour" in Vietnam that American voters craved. Rushing to a television studio from the State Fair, he told an interviewer, "When I came back from Vietnam, I just got the greatest brainwashing that anybody can."

In the classic manner of such cases (Rooesevelt's "New Deal", Nye Bevan's "vermin" speech) nobody in the media picked up on this throwaway line for days. But when the Democrats got hold of it they turned Romney into a candidate who was "too dumb to be president". The following year the New Hampshire primary seemed to confirm this verdict, and by early 1968 Romney was out of the race. Nixon was now stirring, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been killed, and after the Chicago "police riot" and the shambles at the Democratic convention, George Wallace ran so strongly as breakaway Democrat that Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey with only 43 per cent of the vote.

The rest is history. Yet when I bumped into George Romney at Detroit airport recently, and realised I was the only person who recognised him, I could not help thinking that, with a little luck, things might have turned out very differently.

Patrick Renshaw

George Romney, politician: born Chihuahua, Mexico 8 July 1907; chairman, American Motors Corp 1954-62; Governor of Michigan 1962-69; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development 1969-72; married; died Lansing, Michigan 26 July 1995.

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