Political incorrectness — by George
It was a big event for us. George Romney was paying a visit to a small paper in a declining Pennsylvania industrial town where we did not often see prominent national figures. Romney was one. He had a distinguished business career as CEO of American Motors. He was governor of Michigan. He came to Chester that day to meet with our editorial board and make his case to be the next president of the United States.
This was an old newspaper office, right out of the "Front Page" era. It had pneumatic tubes, which took copy from the newsroom up to the composing room, where the clank of machines stamping out metal type seemed non-stop. You only see that communication technology today at bank drive-thru stations. The editors worked under low-hanging lamps and wore green eyeshades. The senior woman who wrote obituaries studied the racing sheets and mumbled names of horses and jockeys between chats with funeral homes. When the presses on the ground floor rolled, the whole building shook. The reporters’ desks were old and had generations of coffee stains that turned the finish to tar. If you sat on the edge of a desk, it stained your pants.
We were not aware at the time that we had an editorial board, but we put one together pretty fast. Mr. Romney showed up looking very presidential—a handsome man with silver slicked back hair, he exuded command and control. He was a candidate for the Republican nomination. Many of us thought we were meeting a future president. Not long after, the man was toast.
In September 1967, Romney gave an interview with a Detroit TV reporter. He was asked about the Vietnam War, which had grown unpopular, and Romney, apparently caught in a contradiction with a previous stance—not uncommon in politics—said he had been “brainwashed” by military figures. Had he used that same term when he met with us some months before, it might not even have made the paper. At that time, everybody was brainwashed by the military, who kept saying we were winning a war in which the shipping caskets bearing dead young men were arriving more frequently every day, with very little to show for it. Nobody realized it then, but President Kennedy’s growing opposition to that war is one reason he was killed.
But when George Romney used the term that day, expressing a thought so common as to be almost irrelevant, his political career was over. The press picked it up and made Romney look like an earnest dunce who had to rely on military spokesmen, including the secretary of defense, to form his opinions about world affairs. Romney quickly fell out of favor with his party, and the result was the election of Richard Nixon, whose 1968 campaign consisted of appearances before audiences that were hand-picked and who, upon election, approved an idea for Republicans to counter their perceived media bias by starting their own news network. Today it is called Fox News.
We have wondered over the years why George Romney’s phrase was such a big deal. We wonder it more strongly today when we see what outrageous things politicians say and it seems to make no difference to their fans. Despite, we should add, almost universal criticism from the media.
Take Donald Trump’s assertion that thousands of people cheered in New Jersey when the twin towers went down. There is no way that could have happened without thousands of reporters screaming about it. But Trump insists he is correct. He also insists he would never make fun of a person’s handicap, although he clearly made fun of a reporter shaking as the result of a nerve disease. These are just the most recent of a series of statements, including mocking John McCain’s war record, which back in the 1960s would have destroyed him, or any other candidate who made them.
And yet, if we believe the polls, they seem to make little difference to his Republican fans. And we think of poor George Romney, looking presidential as could be, until he made a statement, which was as true as it seems, today, innocuous.
Are Republicans today really that dumb? Or were they dumb in 1967?