Will a statement made by a tired politician at the end of a long day of campaigning help define the 2012 presidential race?
• Michele Bachmann placing the “shot heard ‘round the world” in New Hampshire instead of Massachusetts?
• Rick Perry labeling the Federal Reserve chairman’s management of the economy as “treasonous?”
• Mitt Romney’s response to a heckler that “corporations are people, too?”
Romney knows very well the consequences of making a statement that comes to be defined as a “campaign gaffe.” Forty-four years (and 11 presidential election cycles) ago this August 31, his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, spent a day at the Michigan State Fair and then taped an interview with Lou Gordon, the host of a show called Hot Seat on WKBD-TV in Detroit.
At the time, the governor was thought to be one of the leading candidates for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Following his reelection as governor in 1966, a Louis Harris poll indicated Romney would beat President Johnson by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, the best showing among the Republican contenders at that time.
Gordon asked Romney about apparent inconsistencies in the governor’s positions on the Vietnam War. Romney replied, “Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get. When you—“
Gordon: “By the generals?”
Romney: “Not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”
In her own self-published memoir, Elly Peterson, who was then chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, recalled that neither she nor anyone else in the Romney camp realized what impact that remark would have. But when the television station shared it with the wire services, and the national media picked it up, it helped change the course of the campaign.
Editorial cartoonists, Democrats, Republican opponents and stand-up comics all jumped on the apparent “gaffe.” Within two weeks, Richard M. Nixon’s lead widened to 26 percentage points.
By the time the fall dinner of the Gridiron Club, the bastion of Washington print journalists, took place two months later, reporter Clark Mollenhoff wrote in a Romney biography, three of the six tunes in the club’s Republican skit depicted Romney in a less-than-flattering way. The songs included the “Romney Song,” set to “Did you Ever See a Dream Walking?”
“Did you ever get a brainwashing?
Well, I did.
With the plunger and the Duz sloshing?
Well, I did.
Did you ever get your foot caught in your mouth, Just like me,
And, gulping hard, find you’ve choked on your knee?. . .”
The song concluded with:
“Did the White House light stop beckoning bright,
Fading right out of your view?
Well, the thoughts that have wandered
And the brain that gets laundered,
They can make it pretty tough on you.”
The campaign did not go well. Peterson recalled:
“People were discouraged, the brainwash statement hurt, and the press, forgetting all that George had done for Michigan, portrayed him as a dum-dum. It was a tragic time for the Romneys and a bitter pill for a proud man like George to swallow.”
Romney ultimately decided to end his candidacy two weeks before the first primary of the 1968 election season, in New Hampshire. He shocked his supporters by withdrawing, but decided to do so before the Republican Governors’ Association was scheduled to meet.
One wonders how Romney’s statement would have been evaluated in our current political climate. Would it have just become the “gaffe-of-the-day” on the cable news shows and Youtube? Or would it have spread virally much more quickly, forcing the governor to withdraw even earlier?
In any case, the notion of withdrawing right before the New Hampshire primary to enable another governor to step into the race seems quaint by the standards of today’s presidential campaign timetable.