Getting History Right

George Romney's Real Civil Rights Record

Was George Romney a two-faced opportunist, who fudged the record to make himself look a bigger civil-rights hero than he truly was? So accused John Bohrer on a controversy-stirring piece on the Buzzfeed site earlier this week. I put the question to Geoffrey Kabaservice, the nation's leading authority on the Republican party in the postwar period. Geoffrey counters that Bohrer has polemically overstated the case and missed the reality of Romney's strong, principled, and continuing support of civil rights within the Goldwater-era GOP. Here is Geoffrey's answer in full. It's a study of history worth your attention:

It isn’t exactly an October Surprise, but it’s at least surprising that one of the most widely noticed articles on politics this October has been John R. Bohrer’s “Making Mitt: The Myth of George Romney,” posted Monday on the BuzzFeed website. Bohrer’s nearly 11,000-word article attempts to demolish the “myth” that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s well known ideological amorphousness stands in stark contrast to the principled consistency of his father, the Michigan governor who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. This comparison is faulty, in Bohrer’s view, because George Romney was no paragon of moral resolve but instead was an opportunistic, truth-challenged, poll-driven politician. His hollowness is demonstrated by the fact that, contrary to the claims of Romney biographers and Mitt himself, George Romney did not walk out of the 1964 Republican convention in protest against presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s retrograde stance on civil rights. Rather, he stayed put when others walked out and even considered endorsing Goldwater before polls showed that he would do better to repudiate the Republican nominee and evade the Republican label. His son, by implication, is a better man and a better politician than his father because he at least has the decency not to claim higher morality as justification for his own political shape-shifting.

Bohrer is a talented young writer who has plunged into the Romney archives and secondary sources to emerge with what appears to be a scoop as well as an iconoclastic account of the Republican leader who was seen by many moderates as their last and best hope to hold off the conservative takeover. The problem is that most historians, as opposed to journalists, already knew that George Romney didn’t walk out of the 1964 GOP convention and haven’t been moved to reevaluate his career and character on that account. And Bohrer’s depiction of the Republican politics of the early 1960s is misleading in ways that color his characterization of Romney’s actions during those years.

Historians tend to criticize the public’s understanding of history by hammering on the need for greater nuance and complexity, but in the case of the events surrounding the 1964 Republican convention, the public understanding may be better served by a little simplistic allegory. Picture a fine old merchant ship (the Republican Party) that had been successfully sailing the seas (of politics) for over a century when it was shaken by a mutiny. The leader of the mutineers (Barry Goldwater) was a junior officer who had been given responsibility for overseeing new recruitment (as head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee) and brought in the bulk of new crewmen (grassroots activists and convention delegates) from his homeland (the Sunbelt). This officer and his followers resolved that the ship’s mission would no longer be trade (moderation and support of civil rights) but piracy (conservatism and opposition to civil rights). On a night of long knives (the 1964 GOP convention), the pirates hauled down the Stars and Stripes (the GOP platforms of 1952, 1956, and 1960), raised the Jolly Roger (the GOP platform of 1964), and named their leader as captain (presidential nominee). The ship’s officers (the Republican establishment) were of mixed opinions on how to deal with the mutiny. Some (like Richard Nixon) argued that all of the crew members were fellow shipmates and therefore the pirates deserved a turn at the tiller, while others (like George Romney) in various ways resisted. Then the navy (the American electorate) sank the merchant-turned-pirate ship with almost all hands on board (with the GOP suffering its most severe electoral defeat since the 1930s), delivering total control of the seas to longtime trade rivals (the Democrats). The surviving pirates damned their shipboard opponents as traitors, and vowed that when the ship was rebuilt they would make them walk the plank.

That’s a caricature, of course, but it helps to explain how moderate Republicans viewed the conservative takeover and why seething tensions within the Republican Party pitted George Romney against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Moderates like Romney genuinely believed that there were what he called “philosophic, moral and strategic reasons” why they were unable to support Goldwater and the conservative takeover of the GOP. Did this make Romney and other moderates bad or disloyal Republicans? That depends on your view of whether the moderates’ objections were valid, particularly on the key issue of civil rights.

Like other moderates, Romney felt that Goldwater, by voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and countenancing a “Southern strategy” aimed at bringing Southern segregationists into the GOP fold, had betrayed the Republican Party’s civil rights heritage and would cost the party the election. Bohrer implies that Romney should have been satisfied by Goldwater’s “plainspoken” and forthright responses to the moderates’ objections, as Goldwater vowed to “uphold” the civil rights law and the Republican platform promised the law’s “full implementation and faithful execution.” But these were code words for permitting the South’s inaction in making the law a reality, just as the region had for a decade refused to take action on the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating integrated public schooling. What the moderates wanted, and Goldwater and the Republican platform refused to give them, was a commitment to immediate enforcement of civil rights laws. Indeed, Texas Senator John Texas, Goldwater’s agent on the platform committee at the 1964 GOP convention, killed the moderates’ civil rights plank on the grounds that the word “enforcement” had negative implications in the South.

Goldwater, in his private correspondence with Romney, still insisted that only a change in individuals’ hearts and consciences could end discrimination, failing to acknowledge that what was needed was federal action to counteract the segregation that was mandated and enforced by state and local governments in the South. Goldwater also opposed federal efforts to ensure African Americans’ right to vote, arguing that such action would mean the “end of democratic processes and the republican form of government we have so long enjoyed.” Goldwater’s approach, had it been followed, would have left the structure of Jim Crow in place for years to come. Segregationist southerners knew it, and demonstrated their appreciation by giving Goldwater his only Electoral College votes outside of his home state. The rest of the country rejected not only Goldwater but the party that had been remade in his conservative, segregation-tolerant image. Republican representation in Congress was reduced to its lowest level since the Depression, and Democratic president Lyndon Johnson was given the opportunity to create what amounted to a second New Deal. You could say that Goldwater’s anti-civil rights stance made possible the passage of Medicare and Medicaid.

If moderate Republicans like George Romney were correct to object to the conservative position on civil rights, does it follow that they should have walked out of the 1964 Republican convention? Some did, of course, including (as Bohrer notes) New York Senator Kenneth Keating, who faced a tough reelection campaign against Robert F. Kennedy (which he ultimately lost). Most others, including Romney, did not. The reasons that Romney remained in the convention and in the GOP are probably much the same reasons that he remained in the Mormon Church despite his public opposition to its racist doctrine regarding African-American membership (until black males were admitted to the priesthood in 1978). Romney made what he called “efforts to bring about circumstances under which I could support the ticket,” including his attempts to include pro-civil rights and anti-extremism planks in the Republican platform, and to persuade Goldwater to offer public support for those moderate positions. In return he got a platform that conceded nothing to the moderates and Goldwater’s famous declaration that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Bohrer sees Romney’s delay in separating himself from Goldwater’s candidacy as evidence of vacillation and poll-watching, but a more charitable explanation is that Romney acted on the assumption that Goldwater and the conservatives could be reasoned with until events proved him mistaken. Romney’s eventual decision to withhold his endorsement of Goldwater and to downplay his Republican affiliation in his gubernatorial reelection campaign was prudent. He needed no polls to know how unpopular Goldwater was and how disastrous association with him would be in the election. Most Republicans who stood openly with their toxic nominee were defeated, with the most conservative Republicans outside the Deep South suffering the most voter disapproval.

Just because George Romney was correct on the civil rights issue doesn’t mean that he was a natural politician or a faultless human being. He could be willful, bad-tempered, blustery, moralistic, inarticulate, self-aggrandizing, and self-contradictory (“I believe a man can be a genuine conservative and a genuine liberal at the same time”). Bohrer isn’t wrong about Romney’s flaws, but doesn’t sufficiently recognize what remains appealing about him: his heartfelt and outspoken support of civil rights, his visits to the ghettos to convince poor people and minorities that Republicans cared about them and that GOP policies could improve their lives, his willingness to criticize the business domination of his party as well as union dominance of the Democrats, his ability to secure genuine bipartisan accomplishments from the Michigan state legislature regardless of which party was in power, his capacity to admit error and reevaluate his previous pronouncements, and the sense that his political positions reflected what he honestly believed despite their ideological inconsistency. For all his defects, he had the qualities that are most needed to overcome the defects in our current political system. That’s why George Romney still matters, and why so many Americans hope that if Mitt Romney is elected he will prove to be his father’s son.