Mitt Romney has a history problem.
It's not only that past events and stances—say, his implementation of an Obamacare-like reform in Massachusetts, or his 1994 call for "full equality" for gay and lesbians—undermine his current efforts by calling into question his political integrity. Romney often distorts—or is detached from—significant realities of his personal past.
Voters and the media world received a glimpse of this last month when the Washington Post disclosed that Romney, while attending an elite prep school, once led a posse of schoolmates to assault a fellow student who was thought to be gay. Though the newspaper cited five sources, including several participants in the brutal episode, Romney, through a spokeswoman, claimed he had "no memory" of the matter. After the story appeared, Romney, still insisting not to recall the event, apologized for pranks that "might have gone too far." Yet his lack of recollection was tough to believe, especially given the searing memories the attack had left within others. More important, Romney's blank-out was in keeping with a pattern of selective and manipulative presentations of his past. He's not merely a flip-flopper; he's a self-revisionist.
I. The Father
Romney has a wonderfully colorful and much-storied family past. His great-great grandfather Miles Archibald Romney, an English carpenter, was one of the first Brits to convert to Mormonism. Following the call, Miles immigrated to Illinois. Three generations later—after plenty of family drama intertwined with the rise of the Mormon Church—the Romney family would yield George, Mitt's father. He would become an innovative auto executive, a well-regarded governor of Michigan (who in 1964 walked out of the Republican National Convention to protest nominee Barry Goldwater's opposition to civil rights legislation), and a presidential candidate.
On the campaign trail, Romney, attempting to establish some 99-percent cred, has emphasized his gritty and hardscrabble family roots, citing his father. In a campaign appearance in February, Romney repeated a familiar refrain:
My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter. And he [was] pretty good at it. He actually could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the trunk of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas in the hotels.
Mitt's father, in this account, was one helluva tough guy with quite a pair of bootstraps, a working-class hero. But that's not quite what happened. George attended George Washington University in Washington, DC, and while he was a student, according to Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's fine biography, The Real Romney, George Romney became a typist and then a policy aide for Sen. David Walsh (D-Mass.). He then used his Capitol Hill connections to obtain a job as a salesman for the Aluminum Company of America. He only dropped out of school to chase after Lenore, his sweetheart (and future wife), who had headed to Hollywood to become an actress.
George Romney may have been a good nail-spitter. But he was also a fellow who benefited from inside influence. He parlayed that Senate job into the salesman position, and a few years later, after he had persuaded Lenore to marry him in 1931, George returned to Washington—to become a lobbyist for the Aluminum Company of America. He would later leave that perch and go to work for the Automobile Manufacturers Association.
A carpenter who sold paint, or a well-connected lobbyist? George's lathing and plastering had little to do with his future success. He had been a Washington insider. But that crucial part of the Romney family biography is excised from Romney's public memories. (Romney has distorted the past regarding his father in another way, claiming in a 1978 interview, "My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit." When later news accounts questioned whether this had occurred, Romney said he had meant it as "figure of speech.")
II. The War
Mitt Romney, who was born in 1947, was eligible for the Vietnam War draft. But he did not serve in the military. In 2007, he told the Boston Globe that he "longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there, and in some ways it was frustrating not to feel like I was there as part of the troops that were fighting in Vietnam." Romney could have acted on that supposed longing by merely signing up—or by not taking steps to avoid the draft. But he chose to duck the war.
Romney's blank-out was in keeping with a pattern of selective and manipulative presentations of his past.
In 1994, when Romney was running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, he told the Boston Herald that he did not "take any actions to remove myself from the pool of young men who were eligible for the draft." But that's exactly what he had done.
As the Associated Press recently reported, Romney, while at Stanford in 1965, sought a deferment as a college student. Then for two-and-half years, as he served as a Mormon missionary in France, he maintained a deferment "as a minister of religion or divinity student." After that deferment expired, Romney again received another academic studies deferment.
That final deferment ran out in 1970, and Romney became eligible for the draft as US troops in Vietnam were decreasing. But his draft number was high, and he was never called.
So his story—he yearned to be fighting for the United States in Vietnam and did nothing to keep himself out of the reach of Uncle Sam—is false. And he has not acknowledged in public a particularly interesting wrinkle. At Stanford, Romney led a protest against demonstrators who mounted an anti-war sit-in at the university. He held a sign that proclaimed, "SPEAK OUT, DON'T SIT IN." Yet five years later, in 1970, after George Romney had turned against the war, Romney told the Boston Globe, "If it wasn't a political blunder to move into Vietnam, I don't know what is."
Romney wished he could have gone to war, but he didn't enlist. He took no steps to prevent himself being drafted, but he did. He supported the war, then he didn't. As a politically-minded son of privilege and politics, Vietnam was a confusing matter for Romney, and he has not addressed that publicly.