Tag Archives: politics

The Mother as Candidate

Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times quotes my book in a front-page story about Lenore Romney’s 1970 race for the U.S. Senate. The accompanying video has some great clips of Mitt Romney’s mother from her appearances as a candidate and first lady in Michigan in the 1962-70 vintage.


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Filed under Presidential Campaigns, Republican Politics, Women in Politics

The Michigan GOP Presidential Primary, 1976

As the Republican presidential primary race has unfolded this year, commentators have noted that all the campaign contributions and televised ads mean little if a candidate doesn’t have an organization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, failed to meet the somewhat stringent requirements to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Virginia, the state where he now lives.

President Gerald R. Ford nearly suffered the same fate in 1976. The Ford campaign, it turns out, came very close to missing the filing deadline for the Republican presidential primary in Michigan, Ford’s home state.

The little-known story turns up in the personal papers of Elly Peterson, the moderate Republican leader who is the subject of my recent book, Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates. Peter Fletcher, then the Republican national committeeman from Michigan, also recounted it when he provided a videotaped oral history for the Michigan Political History Society. On March 15, 1976, four days before the primary’s filing deadline, Fletcher discovered that the Ford campaign had failed to file the necessary papers to get the incumbent president’s name on the Michigan primary ballot.

Peterson was an old friend of Fletcher’s; at that point, she was serving as the volunteer co-chair of ERAmerica, but had not yet been recruited to join the Ford campaign. Fletcher wrote and told her that when he had tried to alert the President Ford Committee, “the big legal brains said I was wrong. Sent them back to their law books and they called back confessing I was right.” Fletcher was asked to go to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and wait so that he could hand-deliver the appropriate papers after they arrived on a plane. He told Peterson they never arrived. He concluded cynically: “Renews my confidence in the strong hands of leadership in which we have entrusted the future of our nation.” Fletcher eventually received the affidavits, and said he delivered them with only two hours to spare.

Ford’s name went on the ballot, and he beat Ronald Reagan in the May 18 primary by a margin of 2 to 1, stemming a tide of primary defeats that might have ended his presidential election hopes right there. That night, he captured 55 delegates to 29 for Reagan.  Reagan eventually lost at the convention by a margin of 1,187 delegates for Ford to 1,070 for Reagan. If Reagan had captured all 84 Michigan delegates in that topsy-turvy campaign year, it might have made the decisive difference in the race.

Stuart Spencer, deputy chairman of the Ford campaign, later said, “I have always maintained—and a lot of his right-wing friends think I am nuts—that Reagan was lucky he got beaten in the 1976 primaries. He would not have won that race: Jimmy Carter was going to carry the South, and without the South, Reagan could not have won in 1976. But come 1980, after Carter had basically had a bad presidency, Reagan was the beneficiary. He has always been a lucky politician.”

As this year’s Republican primary battle drags on, actually being on the ballot becomes more and more critical.


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Filed under Presidential Campaigns, Republican Politics

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


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Filed under In Peterson's Words, Politics and Journalism, Republican Politics, The Writing Life, Women in Politics

Conspiracy Theories

A number of years ago, when I was an editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, I had the privilege of spending a month as the journalist-in-residence at Duke University’s public policy institute. I remember an occasion when a professor asked me to sit in on his seminar, and respond to students’ questions, many of which were related to how The Post had covered–or not covered–important stories of that time. I remember fielding a question from a student who argued that our failure to cover a particular story adequately obviously revealed the existence of a conspiracy (whether it was a liberal media conspiracy or a fascist media conspiracy, I can no longer remember.) But I remember laughing and saying something to the effect of, “No, actually, we just screwed up.”

Two weeks ago I delivered a speech about my book that was recorded by a professional video crew at a venue where they had filmed before. If all went well, the speech was to be broadcast on a national cable channel. Last weekend, the speech was slotted on the network’s schedule on its Website. Two days later, when I prepared to share this happy news with family and friends around the country, I double-checked the listing. It had disappeared. Further inquiry brought back the word that when checked, the video turned out to be unusable.

Now, looking at the list of authors whose videos weren’t messed up, it would be easy to develop a conspiracy theory to explain this episode. I could allow myself to imagine that an over-zealous producer with a particular point of view didn’t like my message, and pulled the plug. Or that a recently divorced audio technician just decided to flip a switch in the wrong direction because on that particular night he was mad at all women. But that presumes that someone thinks I’m important enough that the plug is worth pulling.

No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think somebody screwed up. Simple as that.

But it’s easy to fall back on conspiracy theories when we are mad or frustrated or can’t understand why the world isn’t turning out the way we want it to. At her most cynical moments, Elly Peterson believed that conservative operatives in President Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign deliberately tried to throw his race because they really wanted Ronald Reagan to be elected president four years later. She saw conspiracies where the reality was more likely simply campaign chaos and incompetence. And considering that Ford came back from a 33-percentage-point deficit before the Republican National Convention to lose one of the tightest races of the 20th century, I’d argue that the “conspirators”  failed pretty miserably.

So I’m prepared to accept that my lost video was a screw-up. And I hope I will get another chance to record a speech.

But if it happens a second time. . . .

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Filed under The Writing Life

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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The “M Word”

The front page of Thursday’s Washington Post posed the question “Can a Republican moderate survive?” (The headline on the online version of the story is slightly different, presumably to prompt more hits from a search engine.)

I smiled when I saw the headline because if one was setting out to write a book today, you would not choose to write about a moderate Republican if you were hoping to tap into established groups to help market it.  The current Republican establishment is not very interested in “moderates,” and Democrats are not very interested in things that are labeled “Republican.” And for someone like Elly Peterson who abandoned the Republican Party and eventually labeled herself an “independent,” ….well, perhaps there’s a support group somewhere on Facebook that fits the bill.

The Post story discusses the presidential prospects of Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah who recently stepped down as U.S, ambassador to China to pursue a presidential bid. Huntsman’s aides are apparently already concerned that he might be labled a moderate–the “M-word” one called it–because that is apparently viewed as cause for immediate disqualification among the voters likely to turn out in Republican presidential primaries.

They are probably right.

On the other hand, it is thought that Huntsman might attract the kind of Main Street and Wall Street business types that Mitt Romney is going after. And because he rides a motorcycle and once played in a rock-and-roll band, I, for one, would look  foward to viewing the inevitable bio-documentary that will be shown at the 2012 Republican National Convention, should he succeed.

But I scratch my head a little when I read that the main gripe against Huntsman is that he served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. Personally, I like the thought of someone with that kind of experience, not to mention the intellectual chops necessary to be able to speak Chinese, in the White House. Sure prefer it to a candidate who bases her foreign policy expertise on the fact that she can see Russia from her home. And since when did responding to a presidential call to service become disqualifying. In one breath, Republican leaders were calling on Obama to build a diverse, bipartisan Cabinet and then 18 months later seem to be intent on trashing any Republican who answered the call.

In 1971, after she stepped down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, Peterson was very dispirited about the prospects for moderates like herself within the party.  She believed that Richard M. Nixon had not been interested in building and broadening the party the way that she felt George Romney had in Michigan.She went on to express her disappointment that Nixon had failed “to build a strong, vital, exciting party” the way Romney had in Michigan. She wrote in the first draft of a memoir she later self-published:

“This is what I failed to realize, that time is short and men are eager for power, their own power, not that of a party or a nebulous group of leaders—some effective, some ineffective, some with it, some way out of it. The job of President, itself, makes a politician a statesman and the concerns of the party are left to advisors, who, in too many cases are not political.”

Romney, she concluded “was an ‘accident of fate.’” Moderates, she added, “fail in this regard to build strong parties with their philosophy for they are based too often on men of power, interested largely in themselves while conservatives are based on an idea, a philosophy. They therefore are ready to accept a new leader if he offers them what they want in the way of ideas—to heck with his personality or appearance.”

“This then is the bitter pill I learned to swallow—that the ideas I have dreamed and thought of for so many years, yes, and worked for, simply will not come to pass.”

Huntsman’s fate over the next 12 months will be instructive.

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