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The Basis For Mad Men’s George Romney Tweak

As “Mad Men” advances through the 1960s, you knew it was coming: a shout-out to the moderate Republican whose profile grew during the decade to the point where he was, very early on, a leading contender for his party’s 1968 presidential nomination. Yes, George Romney had his moment last night. And his family’s not happy about it. No “Mad Men” aficionado myself, I’ll let someone else recap the moment:

In the 1960s-era series, the character  Henry Francis, who in previous seasons worked as a political aide for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, calls Gov. George Romney, who led the state of Michigan from 1963-1969, a clown.
“Well, tell Jim his honor’s not going to Michigan,” Francis says during a work-related phone conversation in Sunday’s episode. “Because Romney’s a clown, and I don’t want him standing next to him.”

Ouch! It may seem like a gratuitous Hollywood shot at the father of the likely 2012 Republican nominee, but it’s also worth noting that the remark is not implausible. Because what is often lost in all the talk about George Romney’s proud moderation—in contrast to his son’s Etch-A-Sketch nouveau conservatism—is that Romney was also regarded as, well, a bit of a clown. In contrast to his straitlaced son, Romney pere sported an esprit de joie that led him to plunge into parade crowds when the moment moved him—or march out of political conventions, as he did in 1964 over his party’s refusal to adopt a civil-rights plank. As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write in The Real Romney, “George was famously headstrong and outspoken, willing to follow his gut wherever it took him. He was, in that way, more idealistic than pragmatic...If George Romney shot from the hip, his son, before he shoots at all, carefully studies the target, lines up the barrel just right, and might even fire a few practice rounds.” Hugh Hewitt wrote much the same thing in his 2007 book Mormon in the White House: “Whereas George Romney was often zestful, impulsive and hot-tempered, Mitt is analytical, cautious, even-keeled. Michigan reporters loved to cover George because they knew they could always get him worked up enough to deliver a headline. You never hear Beacon Hill reporters talk about Mitt like that.” (Though as readers of this blog know, I strongly maintain that Romney fils is less unflappable than often believed—his outbursts are more occasional than his dad’s, but arguably uglier.)

The most notorious example of George’s impulsiveness came a year after this “Mad Men” episode, his declaration that he had earlier supported the Vietnam War because he had had “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” from American generals during a tour of Vietnam. The remark seems fairly harmless in retrospect, but it amplified the notion that Romney was somewhat less than fully grounded, and effectively ended his short-lived campaign for the 1968 presidential nomination. As Kranish and Helman write, “The Detroit News, once a reliable supporter, blasted Romney’s ‘blurt and retreat habits’ and urged him to get out of the race.” Gene McCarthy, running for the Democratic nomination, famously followed up the brainwashing remark by joking that in Romney’s case, “a little light rinse would have been sufficient.”

Not surprisingly, the historical basis for the “clown” line has not kept the Romney family from objecting to it. Mitt’s eldest son Tagg fired off a tweet: “Seriously, lib media mocking my dead grandpa? George Romney was as good a man I’ve ever known. Inspirational leader, worked for civil rights, promoted freedom. We need more like him.”

Yes, we do need more like him. For one thing, it would help if the son of the civil-rights champion would stop running SuperPAC ads (designed by the creator of the Willie Horton ads) attacking Rick Santorum for supporting the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and would also stop promising to uphold the rights of Southern states to tighten ballot access by minority voters. Something tells me that George Romney would be more bothered by that than a passing reference in a Sunday night TV drama.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis