My Dinner Date with George Romney (How Republicans Used to Look, Think….and Act)
I n 1966, Look Magazine awarded its annual “All-America City” award to my hometown, Michigan City, Indiana .
The late George Romney (1907–1995) was Governor of Michigan at that time. He was also the father of the current junior senator from Utah, former governor of Massachusetts, and former Republican Party standard bearer for the presidency, Willard “Mitt” Romney.
Governor George Romney was chosen to present Look Magazine’s award to Michigan City. (Don’t ask me why a Michigan governor was asked to present a national award to an Indiana city — maybe because Look did not grasp that Michigan City was actually in Indiana)?
In any event, the city fathers (yes, civic leaders were all men back then, of course) and the local Chamber of Commerce asked the honchos of MC’s only public high school to choose an “outstanding student” to present and introduce Gov. Romney to Michigan City.
Yeah, it was me. Why me?
I had just turned 17, had a GPA of 3.9, had been accepted and offered scholarships by 100 colleges and universities around the country, was a National Merit Scholar Finalist, a two-year member of the National Honor Society, and was a full year ahead of my high school graduating class. These were not athletic scholarship offers. I didn’t play basketball or football or run track. But I didn’t think I was all that “smart,” either. I just out-worked everybody else, studying four to five hours a night, and reading everything I could get my hands on.
The ceremony was held at Michigan City’s swankiest (and only) hotel, The Golden Sands, situated about three miles from the Indiana-Michigan border.
My father rented me my first tuxedo for the occasion, and the MC Police Department sent a patrol car to take me to the hotel. As I followed the officer out of our front door, I overheard my dad whisper to my mother, “I’m thankful the po-lice comin’ to take ‘im to see the governor and not to the jail house.”
As I was escorted down a long, thickly carpeted corridor leading to a canyon-sized banquet room, the uniformed Indiana and Michigan National Guardsmen lining both sides of the hallway eyed me curiously. They were relaxed, talking, smoking. Their talk dropped to whispers as I passed. “Who the hell is he?” I heard one of them ask. “What the hell is he?” another one wondered. “All dressed up in that monkey suit.”
The governor had not yet arrived, but the gigantic room was filling up fast. There were local and state dignitaries, and one prominent national politician, Indiana’s US Senator Birch Bayh, father of Evan Bayh, former Indiana Secretary of State, Governor of Indiana, and a US Senator himself.
Just as I took my place on the dais next to the podium, the Governor of Michigan, George Romney, began that same walk down the long corridor I had just traversed. Those same National Guardsmen snapped-to as sharply as any Marine has ever saluted any president entering Air Force One. The governor entered the room. The whole crowd stood, me included.
In ’66, George Romney was a speckled-gray-haired, middle-aged white man, very distinguished-looking, and somebody who was obviously quite comfortable in his own skin.
He shook all outstretched hands as he made his way to the dais — preceded, followed, surrounded by some serious-looking security guys. They led him to the stage, sat him down right next to the podium…and me.
The Master of Ceremonies scurried over and introduced us. As we shook hands, the governor said, “So you’re that young honor student they’ve been telling me about…Good to meet you Herb, good to meet you!”
I have never been “star-struck,” but there was something about this man, George Romney, that just screamed “LEADER!”
I am rarely speechless, but Romney’s folksiness and down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth persona caught me off-guard — especially with that “honor student” bit and calling me “Herb.” He’d obviously done some homework and had been well briefed about me and this event.
“Thank you, governor….Ahh…Nice to meet you, too,” was all I could manage.
As we toyed over our rubber chickens, people on all sides of the governor approached, questioned, made statements, even mini-speeches. He virtually ignored them all and talked directly to me:
What was I planning after high school? Had I heard from the University of Michigan or Michigan State? He knew I didn’t play ball, but he also knew that our high school basketball team was on the verge of wining the state championship. Did I know those guys? What did I think of the recently passed civil rights bills? Had I ever met Dr. Martin Luther King? Would I like to?
The waiters removed our plates, and the Master of Ceremonies began introducing me to the crowd. As he talked, my mind raced, rehearsing for the 3,003rd time my five-minute speech….And then, there it was…. “Herbert Dyer, Jr.”
Polite applause. I sensed more curiosity than anything else. I stood at the podium and began my introduction, ending with, “…the Governor of Michigan, George Romney!”
A rousing, five-minute standing ovation began. I assumed it was for the governor and began clapping as well. I then turned slightly toward him, and saw him standing, facing me directly, and vigorously clapping.
As I tried to move past him back to my seat, the governor grabbed my hand and pumped my whole arm. He then walked the few steps to the podium. He stood there silently for a couple of minutes after the applause died down.
Finally, Governor Romney spoke: “I do believe,” he said, “that that was the best, the finest introduction I have ever received.” The audience rose again. The governor motioned me to stand and take a bow.
I was completely stunned, shocked….and I don’t remember a single word of the governor’s speech.
His last words to me were, “You know, Herb. I have a son about your age.” He had one of his aides give me a card and then invited me to come see him in Lansing whenever I was in Michigan. “Maybe you could talk some sense into him.” I never saw him again in person.
I didn’t know then, of course, but I do now — and so does the whole world — that the son he referred to had to be Mitt, who at that time was going through his bullying-of-gay-students stage at an exclusive boarding school.
George Romney was a man of deep personal and public commitment to people…all people. He was the personification of and exuded honesty and integrity. His work as president and CEO of American Motors Corporation, by then, was legendary. And, in just three short years as governor of Michigan, he brought the state out of deep recession and debt and into a surplus, reducing unemployment to almost zero percent, to boot.
George Romney was a front runner for the 1968 Republican Party nomination for president until his return from an investigative trip to Vietnam. The anti-war movement was just kicking into high gear then, but millions, if not most, Americans, certainly the majority, still supported the war.
As was his habit, Governor Romney made the “mistake” of speaking his mind honestly and openly. He called our presence in Vietnam questionable, at best, and downright illegal, immoral and just plain wrong, at worst. He accused the American news media, the military and US diplomats of “brainwashing” and corrupting the American public about the true nature of that war.
After those comments, George Romney’s political career took an immediate nose-dive from which he never really recovered.
Most unfortunately for the entire world, but especially for Vietnam and American dissenters and protesters against that war, Nixon just barely won the ’68 race for the White House.
Surprisingly, though, Nixon promptly appointed his one-time rival, Governor George Romney, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But Romney resigned in frustration after Nixon’s first term because of Nixon’s lack of support and even open disdain for some of Romney’s too “liberal” ideas and policy proposals, i.e., finally and completely ending housing discrimination against “Negroes.”
George Romney’s resignation from the Nixon Administration came not a moment too soon. Nixon’s rendezvous with history, with Watergate, and his eventual possible impeachment were all waiting patiently just over the political horizon — waiting for Richard Nixon and anyone associated with him.
If George Romney Were Alive Today?
I dare say that if George Romney were alive today he would be leading the Republican parade against Donald Trump, yet another lawless Republican president.
But, today, son Mitt is the junior senator for Utah. Has anyone heard him denounce the blatant racism of Donald Trump? Since he has now been elected to a relatively “safe” senate seat, one would think, hope, that Mitt Romney would “show the blood of his daddy,” and rally fellow Republicans and the general public against a president who is making Richard Nixon look like a virtual saint.
Or, is that too much to ask? I shouldn’t think so. We know he has the DNA for it. But, alas, seems this apple may really have fallen far too far from the tree.