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Republican choice: Romney

If You Ask Me

With voter enthusiasm for Barack Obama a fading memory, an anxious nation had better hope Republicans get behind their most acceptable — or least objectionable — choice, which brings us to Mitt Romney.

It brings us to Romney because Jon Huntsman, the other respectable candidate, didn’t have a chance in this year of hysteria on the right. This leaves Romney as the only choice in a Republican lineup that is the equivalent of the Democrats producing a field composed of Obama and six copies of Dennis Kucinich.

Romney is a far better candidate than the flip-flopper who ran in 2008 and a stronger candidate, if not a better potential president, than the first Romney who ran and lost 43 years ago.

Like his son, George Romney was a successful businessman turned politician and the Republican governor of a Democratic state (in his case, Michigan) before he ran for president. Unlike Mitt, he wasn’t at all slick and would have made Rick Perry look eloquent in a debate. The great humorist Calvin Trillin summed up Mitt’s slickness poetically in 2008:

“Yes, Mitt’s so slick of speech and slick of garb, he

Reminds us all of Ken, of Ken and Barbie.”

George Romney was a moderate-to-liberal Republican, a fervent civil rights advocate and an outspoken foe of the party’s conservative wing and its champion, Barry Goldwater.

But unlike Mitt, George remained a moderate to liberal Republican and never changed his position to accommodate the electorate. He frequently took strong, outspoken positions that he later had to clarify and one reporter wrote that it would be helpful to have a typewriter key that printed, “Romney later explained.”

On the one occasion he did change his views on a major issue, it was a principled move, not a convenience. The issue was the war in Vietnam. When it started, George called the war to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia “morally right and necessary.”

But later, he changed his mind and told an interviewer, “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia.” This wasn’t a flip-flop for political advantage. He became anti-war before it was fashionable, especially in his party.

If that was all he’d said, Romney would have become the Republican equivalent of the anti-war Democrat Robert Kennedy, who was then seeking to deny Lyndon Johnson another term, largely because of Johnson’s support for the war.

But unfortunately, “Romney later explained” why he had supported the war in Vietnam before he opposed it. He had, he said, been brainwashed.

“When I came back from Vietnam” (in 1965, very early in the war), “I’d just gotten the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get,” Romney told a Michigan reporter.

Never before or since has a politician’s use of a single word had such an impact. Opponents and many in the media interpreted Romney’s remark as an admission of weakness. In Korea, 21 American prisoners of war succumbed to brainwashing, a form of thought control administered by their captors, and defected to North Korea. They were weaklings. Strong men didn’t get brainwashed.

A Republican congressman spoke for many when he said, “If you’re running for the presidency, you’re supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed.”

Romney had used the word as an indictment of the brainwashers, the generals and civilian leaders who conned him and for a time, most Americans, into believing the war was “moral and necessary.” And they were an accomplished bunch, people like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who waited decades before concluding that he was so wrong about Vietnam.

But the brainwashed candidate couldn’t recover. Comedians mocked him and opponents said it was further evidence of Romney’s intellectual shortcomings. “A light rinse would have been sufficient” (to wash his brain) “in Romney’s case,” Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war Democrat, cracked.

Richard Nixon overtook Romney in the polls and just before the New Hampshire primary with Nixon enjoying a huge lead, Romney withdrew and Nixon couldn’t be stopped. We remember the rest.

In his two campaigns for president, Mitt Romney has yet to stick his neck out for a principle, as his father did. In a way, you can’t blame him for being reluctant to repeat his father’s mistakes. But if he gets the nomination, he’d probably benefit from trying to emulate the principled qualities of a candidate the historian and journalist Theodore White called “an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be president.”

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.