Public Relations President?

Brass Tacks

The most important thing to remember about George Romney is that he is a public relations man by trade--the first professional PR man to become a serious contender for the Presidency of the United States. For twenty five years he has held jobs in which his main function has been to publicize products of varying quality to convince a not-too-skeptical public that they are all tops. During the '40's he was the head of the Automobile Manufacturers' Association. He moved to Nash-Kelvinator as PR Vice-President in 1953, and when the floundering company became American Motors, moved up to President. His success at AMC was a public relations triumph--as anyone who recalls the Rambler ads of the late '50s knows.

Romney's political career seems to have been planned and timed with the same skill as the Rambler ad campaigns. He moved from a supposedly non-partisan Citizens for Michigan group to become Vice-President of a Republican-dominated state Constitutional Convention in 1961 and, finally, a successful Republican candidate for Governor in 1962. All the while he carefully preserved a non-partisan facade (the word Republican never appeared on any Romney campaign literature until 1964). The voters bought the package.

More interesting than this success story is the necessarily more speculative history of what has been going in Romney's mind. Anyone who wants to prove that he is an unvarnished Chicago Tribune sort of Republican can go back to his AMA speeches and find the usual derisive references to Walter Reuther, creeping socialism, etc. But people's minds--even Midwestern businessmen's minds--can change. Romney apparently had an idea sometime in the late '50s that Michigan could be saved from the twin evils of big labor (the Democratic Party) and big business (the Republican Party) by a knight-on-a-white-horse-in-shining-armor figure (Big George himself). He has stuck to it ever since.

Acquaintance with Romney's political allies, aides, and family leaves no doubt about his utter sincerity--or his simple-mindedness. At every step in his seemingly well-planned political career, he has claimed, and there is every reason to think he has really believed, that he had not decided to take the next one. He came to the decision to run for Governor in 1962 only after a well-publicized day of fasting and prayer. The fact that it was well publicized and that there were plenty of Romney-for-Governor buttons available in Bloomfield Hills the next day only proves that his supporters recognized more clearly than he did how surely his actions for the past three years had been pointing toward the Governorship.

As a politician Romney has none of the critical detachment that was one of the chief graces of President Kennedy. In Romney's view, everything is clear and certain: others behave for bad ("political") motives or special interests, while he alone is working for the public interest. This fundamentalist self-confidence is another illustration of the fact that the most dangerous politician is not one who can fool others, but one who can fool himself as well.

The dangers posed by Presidential candidate Romney become apparent when one measures the magnitude of his certainty against the puniness of his ideas. On state issues his conception of the public interest has somehow invariably led him to support what is likely to be adopted: tight budgets when there was a Republican legislature; more generous spending on education, etc., when the Democrats took over after 1964. He seems more concerned with his legislative batting average than with any specific programs.

On the issues a President must deal with Romney utters cliches that would make Richard Nixon blush. His all-purpose speech finds the locus of our nation's problems in moral decay; the solution must come in strengthening moral values in the school, the church, the home. The powers of big business and big unions must be curbed. Presumably the government has something to do with all this, but Romney never quite makes clear what it is. His knowledge of foreign policy, incidentally, is non-existent.

Some time last year George Romney convinced himself that he should run for President. He was saved from making the race in 1964 by a series of political setbacks in Michigan the preceding year: his state constitution was almost defeated, his tax program killed by a Republican legislature, and he was running behind ex-Governor Swainson in the polls. Now he must prove himself to conservative Republicans, who dislike the non-partisan tone of his earlier efforts and his refusal to support Barry Goldwater in 1964. He will almost certainly win reelection. The three Democrats who might have threatened Romney--Detroit's Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. Attorney General Frank Kelley, and Congressman John Mackie--have refused to run against him, and the likely Democratic candidate, State Chairman Zoltan Ferency, is unknown to most of the state's voters and unpopular with most of the rest.

But another personal victory will not satisfy Mel Laird and the other ex-Goldwaterites who are watching Romney. They want a nominee with coattails, and to date Romney has not led a single Republican running mate to victory in a state-wide election. Nor are the Republicans likely to recapture the reapportioned State House or Senate this year. Republicans will probably win back one to three of the four Congressional seats they lost in 1964, but that may not be enough to convince hard-boiled national convention delegates to abandon the more congenial Richard Nixon.

The fate of Romney's Presidential bid, then, depends heavily on what happens to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death this week of Senator Pat McNamara. Romney will probably appoint the already hand-picked Republican candidate, Congressman Robert Griffin. The fiercely contested Democratic primary between ex-Governor G. Mennen Williams and Mayor Cavanagh will probably help Griffin, and both Democratic candidates will have serious electoral weaknesses. Romney will certainly be out campaigning hard this fall to keep Griffin in the Senate--and to put a public relations man in the White House in 1968.