Forty years ago this past September, George Romney sat down with Detroit television host Lou Gordon. Responding to a question about an earlier visit to Vietnam, the Michigan governor said that he “had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when they go over to Viet Nam.”
The use of that one word changed Romney’s life – and the course of American history.
In mid-1967, George Romney was running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. At the time, all presidential aspirants faced questions about the war in Vietnam. Two years earlier, after touring Vietnam, Romney had declared that American involvement in the Asian war “was morally right and necessary.” But as domestic opposition to the war grew, Romney began questioning U.S. policy in Vietnam.
According to presidential historian Theodore H. White, at the beginning of 1967 the press focused on Romney “as the only visible candidate” to challenge LBJ. Owing to Romney’s frontrunner status, and the dominance of the war as the issue in the race, the media outlets sought interviews aimed at clarifying his position on Vietnam. Romney exercised a great deal of caution regarding those requests, but accepted Gordon’s offer to appear on his show.
According to historian White, the “brainwashing” comment “was just a toss-away line, nobody thought it significant at the time.” Romney, in fact, was so comfortable with the interview he did not even want to hear a playback and immediately left for Lansing. Gordon later added, “I didn’t even think much about the statement or consider it very important until the next day when I read the script and saw the word â€˜brainwash’ in print. Then it hit me.”
Criticism of Romney was quick and devastating–a presidential candidate was not supposed to be susceptible to brainwashing. The 1965 tour of Vietnam had included other governors, including Vermont’s Phillip Hoff, who called Romney’s statement “outrageous, kind of stinking.” The Democratic governor added, “Either he’s the most naÃ¯ve man or he lacks judgment.” Democratic party chairman John Bailey said that Romney had “insulted the integrity” of General William Westmoreland and former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge-the men responsible for Romney’s briefings. Lodge added, “I never brainwashed anybody in my life.”
In the months after appearing on the Lou Gordon Show, Romney’s poll numbers stagnated and dropped. After a dismal showing in the February 1968 New Hampshire primary, he withdrew from the presidential race, which Richard Nixon later won. In January 1969, Romney resigned as Michigan governor and entered President Nixon’s cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Romney’s comment dogged him even in death. When he died in July 1995, the headline from the Associated Press (AP) read, “George Romney, Who Said Military Brainwashed Him on Vietnam, Dead at 88.” The first paragraph of an AP dispatch from Michigan, designed to be favorable, read, “Former Gov. George W. Romney, whose remark that he was brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War derailed his presidential bid, was remembered as a man who shaped Michigan’s political landscape and automotive history.”
In one of the more intriguing “what ifs,” If Romney had not made the brainwashed statement and had won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, how might American history have been different?
To find other great stories on Michigan’s past, read Michigan History and Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.
There’s a lot more about Michigan’s 43rd Governor on the George W. Romney entry at Wikipedia, including this link to a really great audio slideshow about Gov. George Romney from the Boston Globe that contains an excerpt of the interview and some of the reactions of current presidential candidate Mitt Romney to his father’s most well known situation. Very much work checking out!