Category Archives: Politics and Journalism

Video of My Appearance on C-SPAN’s Book TV


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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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Sex, Scandals and Might-Have-Beens

The airwaves and blogosphere are now filled with the latest details about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cover-up of his  illegitimate child and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s hotel check-out procedures. The list or narcissistic male politicians seems to grow longer every day: Mark Sanford, John Edwards, John Ensign, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton. Men whose infidelities cause jaws to drop–and usually, on some level, disappoint those who looked up to them or worked on their behalf in the political trenches.

Being of a certain age, my own list goes back a bit farther: Gary Hart onboard the “Monkey Business,” taunting the press to bring his infidelities to light. And the “scandal” that derailed another presidential campaign, that of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

In 1962, Rockefeller divorced his wife of 31 years (and the mother of his four children). In May 1963, he married Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, a former aide, one month after her own divorce became final. In her divorce settlement, the new Mrs. Rockefeller gave up her custody rights to her own four children, probably the most scandalous aspect of the story at the time. Rockefeller had been viewed as the front-runner for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, but his approval ratings went south after his divorce–and particularly the news of his remarriage.

From that fount of all 1960s historical wisdom, the “Mad Men” blog, I found this typical quote from  U.S. Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W.:  “Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state — one who perhaps aspires to the nomination for president of the United States — can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?”

Elly Peterson was a big fan of Nelson Rockefeller–and remained so throughout her life. In fall of 1963, as Peterson was about to become assistant chairman of the RNC, she traveled with her predecessor, Clare Williams Shank, to New York for “tea” with Happy Rockefeller. In her memoir, she wrote: “I could not believe this shy, attractive, but simply-dressed lady could be the one about which so much had been written, when Nelson married her after their mutual divorces. Surely those who had written about her had never taken the time to meet her. She was far from the ‘femme fatale’ I expected.” 

Later, in 1976, Peterson was touched when Rockefeller invited her to join him on Air Force Two, when as Gerald R. Ford’s vice president, he made a final campaign swing through Minnesota and Michigan, her home state. Later she observed to her sister, “We had a ball. . . . He will always be the greatest in my mind for being natural . . . .”  (Peterson did not record her reactions to the news of Rockefeller’s death, which prompted another round of headlines when he suffered a heart attack in the presence of a young female aide. )

Rockefeller struggled in the early Republican presidential primaries in 1964, but doggedly continued in the race and scored some important victories. But his fate was sealed when his new wife had the bad timing to deliver their first child a few days before the California primary, reminding voters why they no longer liked him. Rockefeller returned to New York to be by his wife’s side, and Barry Goldwater came from behind to win California’s large pot of delegates–and the Republican nomination.

It’s tantalizing to wonder how history might have been different if Rockefeller had stay married.

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Lies and Name Calling

The 2012 election season is just getting under way, and already it’s a pretty sorry mess. What I find so dispiriting is when otherwise intelligent people lie with a straight face–and no one in their party feels compelled to call them on it.

I’m not talking about name-calling, or looking at a set of economic data and interpreting it differently than I might, or interpreting legislative votes in ways that a reasonable person might consider unfair. No, I’m talking about lies.

But first my usual digression back to the past. . . .

Elly Peterson was not a rabid partisan–certainly not by today’s standards. But there were at least four periods in her life when she was called on to stir up her audiences with negative images of her opponents. The first was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, and she was assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee. The second was the same year, when she ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Phil Hart of Michigan. Although she had a great deal of respect for Hart, she managed to find some points on which to challenge him, including his ties to Johnson. The third was when she served as co-chair of ERAmerica, and was called on to counter Phyllis Schlafly and other opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. The fourth was in 1982, when she opposed her party’s nominee for governor of Michigan, Richard Headlee.

I began my research of Peterson’s life in 2005, and reviewed her first stint at the RNC relatively early in my research. I found that during that period she had directed the preparation of what she called “Mabel cards,” postcards that Republican women could send to their friends, with bullet points that criticized Johnson administration policies.  In my first draft, I wrote that one version suggested Johnson’s “economic policies amounted to socialism. ”

Rereading what I had written a few years, and a new president later, I thought, “Whoa, did she call Johnson ‘a socialist’?”  The context had changed quite a bit in the ensuing years. So I dug out my notes, and decided to include a fuller quote, namely that one card had likened a Johnson quotation—“We are going to take all the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take from the ‘haves’ and give to the ‘have nots’ that need it so much”–to the words of Karl Marx. At least in this case, the recipient of the card could judge for herself, even if the context for the Johnson quotation was not made explicitly clear.

But that’s different, say, from asserting  that Lyndon Johnson was born in the Mexican Territory, and thus not eligible to be president.

Last month, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said on the floor of the Senate that abortion was “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. After fact-checkers set the record straight, Kyl’s staff said that th speech “was not intended to be a factual statement.” 

A few days ago, Newt Gingrich announced he was running for president and then sat for an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox. Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post subsequently dissected all of the lies and half-truths the one-time history professor shared with his audience, ultimating awarding him four “Pinnochios” for his performance.  What I found most appalling was the effort to turn Attorney General Eric Holder into a boogeyman for alleged ties to terrorists, including “writing papers for them.” The lies were so breathtaking that Kessler had to guess at what tenuous connection Gingrich was trying to make. At best, it appeared that Holder might have worked for a law firm whose lawyers had provided representation for defendants charged with terrorist crimes.

Last time I checked, the right to representation was one of the principles embodied in our form of democratic government.

We can count on outlets like PolitiFacts, and fact-checkers with mainstream media and late-night comedy news hosts to shine a spotlight on this kind of stuff. But sure would be nice if some of the Defenders of Freedom spoke up about it occasionally.

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David Broder and Elly Peterson

Yesterday I attended a wonderful gathering to celebrate the life of my former Washington Post colleague, David S. Broder.  David played an important role in my decision to write a book about Elly Peterson in the first place.

On December 15, 1970, when Peterson retired as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, Broder wrote a column devoted to assessing Peterson’s career.  He said,  “It is, I think, accurate to say that [Peterson’s] abilities would have earned her the national chairmanship, were it not for the unwritten sex barrier both parties have erected around that job. Certainly, her organizational talents made her views as respected and her advice as sought-after among her colleagues in the party as anyone in the past decade.”

Broder added, “One basic problem all talented women face is the tendency of the parties to shunt them off to some preserve of tea-party irrelevancies called ‘women’s activities.’ Mrs. Peterson. . . fiercely resisted stereotyping and by sheer energy and capability won her right to operate at the full range of her talents.”

“It was Mrs. Peterson’s fate to serve on the National Committee staff in periods which were hardly conducive to her own brand of progressive Republicanism. . . ,” Broder concluded.  “But hard-headed as she is, Mrs. Peterson would say you should expect to be frustrated in many of your hopes if you get involved in politics.”

When I later reviewed Peterson’s personal papers at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, I discovered that she and Broder had continued to correspond with each other after she left the RNC. A week after his column appeared, he wrote her that it had been “from the heart, and, if I were sentimental, would have said more.”

Broder graciously granted me an interview a few months after I began my research into Peterson’s life. On that occasion, he observed that Peterson’s  key “skill” was her personality. “She had a real warmth, a sense of personal caring that gave her an ability to establish personal bonds with people who might not be inclined to agree with her.  I don’t know where in her past it came from, but she had that in abundance. She was fun to be around.”

The same could certainly be said of David Broder.  Click here for coverage of  the memorial gathering.

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