Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Political Gaffe of 1967

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.

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Teens for Dad

Okay, first a confession. After driving eight hours home from a vacation on Saturday, I settled into my armchair to catch the final moments of coverage of the Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, surely one of the most bizarre spectacles in a presidential campaign season that promises to be full of them. As the cable news shows recounted highlights of the candidates’ pitches to their paid-for voters, Rick Santorum’s caught my attention.

Santorum was on a stage with his wife and four of his seven children–the sons, who range in age from about 18 to 10. Santorum thanked the boys for all the telephone canvassing they had done on his behalf, and joked to the crowd that there probably wasn’t a person present who had not received a phone call from one of them.

I was curious about the boys. It’s quite possible that in the tightly-knit, “family values” world of the Santorums, they are actually quite dedicated to their father’s campaign and the views he espouses. Or it’s possible that their smiles and phone calls were extracted as part of a negotiation over something else they wanted (sports car, TV in bedroom, Iphone?) Or it’s possible that the Santorums simply imposed their parental will–“you WILL go to Iowa, you WILL call potential supporters and you WILL be polite.”

No matter which scenario is closest to the truth, there’s one candidate in the pack who might identify with the Santorum boys, and that’s Mitt Romney.  George Romney, Mitt’s father, first ran for public office when Mitt was 15. In her self-published memoir, Elly Peterson recounted how Mitt would sometimes accompany Peterson and his mother, Lenore Romney, when they campaigned around the state on behalf of the Michigan gubernatorial candidate. She recalled how the religious convictions of Romney senior could be a source of amusement for the rest of the family. On one trip near Traverse City, she recounted:

“We consulted the maps which showed a road that looked like it went over the water. In talking about it, Mitt kept returning to the fact that the road had to be okay because the map showed it.

Finally, his mother, in exasperation, said, ‘Oh, Mitt, you know good and well a road will not go over water unless there is a bridge.’

‘Oh, that’s right,’  Mitt comes back, ‘Dad isn’t here!’ ”

As it turned out, Mitt missed out on his own father’s failed presidential campaign five years later because he was off in France, performing Mormon missionary service.

One wonders whether the Santorum boys think THEIR father walks on water…or whether, off camera, you could find them off in a tent at the Iowa state fair, making snarky comments over a fried butter stick.

No matter which, they are certainly not experiencing the summer of a typical American teenager….for better or for worse.

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A Rallying Cry for the National Women’s Political Caucus

Last weekend, the National Women’s Political Caucus gathered in Washington to celebrate its 40th anniversary. There were workshops on campaign skills, and rousing speeches from feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood. But for me the high point was the Saturday luncheon, when four women who had been present at the first gathering  in the summer of 1971 shared their memories of it.

 Ronnie Feit recalled that she was “just a housewife inNew York City,” when Betty Friedan asked her to help organize the first meeting. Feit explained that after she had lost one of her young sons to leukemia, “I decided to look up the women’s movement.” She joked that “those were the early days when Betty was still modest.”

 Friedan, she recalled, had received thousands of letters from women who had read The Feminine Mystique, and now Feit and others worked to sort their names by state and reach out to them and encourage them to come to the meeting. Friedan, she said, had been determined that the caucus should be broader than the  “Eastern liberal establishment” and that “all hell broke loose” when Friedan returned from vacation and discovered that the meeting was in danger of becoming just that.

Initially, Elly Peterson decided, as she wrote a friend at the time, that the gathering was “definitely just the same womens lib people,” and chose not to attend. But after the founding meeting, when Peterson saw that women like Democrat activistLiz Carpenter and Virginia Allan, a former president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, were involved, she changed her mind. When the caucus immediately set out to recruit more Republican leaders, Peterson joined its first National Council.

 At this year’s gathering, Eleanor Smeal, the former president of the National Organization for Women and now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, joked with Alice Cohan, political director of the Feminist Majority, about their memories of the battles between various sub-caucuses that occurred 40 years ago. Smeal was then a polyester-pantsuit-clad activist from Pittsburgh and Cohan, a tie-dyed-caftan-clad college student, when they discovered their common interests as younger members of the caucus.

Many battles ensued before an organizational structure was hammered out. But as Feit observed,  the caucus meeting resulted in positive stories on the front page of The New York Times and in other major newspapers. “If we had not had a good positive response from the press,” she noted, the caucus never would have gotten off the ground.

Forty years ago there was only one woman serving in the U.S. Senate and only 13 in the U.S. House. In 2011, there were 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House. Still no one at last weekend’s meeting was ready to declare victory. In the last election cycle the numbers of women in Congress actually declined, though women have since won two special elections for open congressional seats.

 At an afternoon workshop at this year’s gathering, Smeal sounded a rallying cry: “All of us have to come to the aid of our movement because it is being battered.” She pointed to recent legislative challenges to funding for Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court’s recent decision rejecting sex-discrimination complaints at Wal-mart, as well as threatened cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

  “They still want to keep us barefoot and pregnant,” she said,  “but we are not going back!”

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