In 1995, George Wilcken Romney, the thirty-eighth President of the United States of America, died.
Death of President George RomneyRomney's presidency was the most unlikely of historical accidents. In 1968 he had unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party's nomination. A weak campaigner by most accounts, he was further hindered by his background as a Mormon, which led him to define issues in moral terms in ways which often struck observers as self-righteous. His religion also frightened many right-wing Christian evangelicals, who had difficulty considering it as Christian. Having formally announced his candidacy in November of 1967, he withdrew from the race on February 28, 1968.
He was rescued from political exile by an unlikely ally: Richard M. Nixon, one of his rivals in 1968 and the Republicans' eventual nominee that year. Increasingly confident of victory as the Republican convention approached, Nixon had been considering running-mates and had been favoring Maryland governor Spiro T. Agnew-until, two weeks before the convention was to meet in Miami Beach, Florida, Nixon learned that Agnew had apparently been taking kickbacks from state contractors1. Fearful of the consequences should this blow up into a public scandal before Election Day-or, what might be even worse, after a Nixon victory, when it would taint his administration-Nixon dropped Agnew in favor of Romney, whom he saw as sharing the qualities he had found appealing in the Marylander: limited intellect, a weak personality and a lack of the sort of personal political skills which might enable him to build his own political machine within a Nixon White House.
Nixon's assessment of Romney's intelligence was unfair, but his perception of the latter's political haplessness was accurate enough. After the Republican convention, the gaffe-prone Romney was increasingly kept on the sidelines by Nixon and his campaign staff, who foresaw a close vote in November and worried that the Michigan governor might say something as disastrous to their campaign as his earlier remark that he had been "brainwashed" by the military regarding the Vietnam War had proven to be to his own. The isolation continued after Nixon assumed the presidency in January 1969, prompting cartoonists to produce images of Romney in a dungeon, buried underground, or bound and gagged. Certainly Nixon dared not use his VP to vent his hostility toward the press, college students and the antiwar movement, as he might have done with the combative Agnew.
But ironically it was Romney's very irrelevance within the Nixon administration which would save him and put him in place to become president himself. Romney was deliberately excluded from the deliberations of Nixon and such subordinates as H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, G. Gordon Liddy and John Dean which produced the series of ill-advised actions which became known collectively as the Watergate scandal. As the Watergate crisis mounted, Romney remained untouched by the rising tide of mud. And on August 8, 1974, as a haggard and bitter Richard Nixon boarded a helicopter leaving Washington, it would be George Romney who would become the thirty-eighth President of the United States of America.
It would prove to be a tainted prize. In one of his first official actions, President Romney rejected the calls of diehard Nixon supporters that he pardon his predecessor, pointing out that Nixon had not actually been tried and convicted. However, he then stated that if he were to be convicted of anything while Romney remained in the White House, a presidential pardon would be issued. While this maintained the forms of legality, it angered many Nixon critics, since it effectively made any trial of the disgraced ex-president pointless. In the 1976 election, Romney's declaration would become a serious political issue as opponents hinted that his guarantee had been a quid pro quo in exchange for Nixon's resignation in his favor2.
Nor would subsequent events help him. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-'74, retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Mideast war, would help produce a double whammy of recession combined with inflation-"stagflation," as it would come to be called. That this was not Romney's fault would not help him, nor would his efforts to point out that he had had no honorable choice but to aid America's ally. The ignominious departure of the last U.S. military personnel from Vietnam, fleeing to safety by helicopter from atop the top of of the embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops occupied the city on April 30, 1975 and the North Korean seizure of the USS Mayaguez two weeks later, resulting in a four-month hostage drama3, would indelibly mark Romney as an inept and weak leader. That short of an apocalyptic use of force Vietnam had already been a lost cause by the time he had succeeded Nixon would not matter; neither would the fact that the protracted Mayaguez drama ended with no casualties on either side.
Under such circumstances it was all but inevitable that the President would face a challenge in the 1976 Republican primaries, and one came, from California governor Ronald W. Reagan. A faded movie and television star who had burst onto the political scene with a stem-winding speech in favor of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention and had then defeated Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in the latter's quest for re-election in 1966, Reagan had become a veritable icon of the right for his hard-line anti-Communism, his tough-some would say vindictive-approach in dealing with student protests and his willingness to attack Great Society programs such as Medicare as threats to American freedom. As political demonstrations exploded across the country, sometimes turning violent, Reagan's political popularity had risen. His first run for the presidency, in 1968, had widely been regarded as a joke and had ended after only two months, but by the mid-seventies it no longer seemed ridiculous to imagine he might someday occupy the Oval Office.
And as the primary season wore on, President Romney's disadvantages as a candidate increasingly hobbled his reelection bid. A wooden speaker, he could not compete with Reagan on the stump or in that year's debates. In addition, the President's religion soon became an issue with evangelical Christians, just as it had in 1968. Right-wing Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Catholics tilted heavily toward Reagan, as did secular conservatives angry at Romney over such foreign-policy issues as his perceived "betrayal" of South Vietnam. Evangelicals began a whispering campaign suggesting that Romney secretly practiced polygamy, which survived among some Mormons despite their church's having banned it in 1890 as a condition for Utah statehood.
By the time of the Republican convention in Kansas City, the handwriting was on the wall. Though the balloting proved closer than anyone had expected, Reagan would win, with 1,201 delegates against Romney's 1,056 and one for minor candidate Elliott Richardson4. Reagan went on to choose New York's Sen. James L. Buckley, a favorite of right-wing stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, as his running mate.
Despite the alleged handicap of being the Republican nominee in the first presidential election since Watergate, Reagan handily won the November election against Georgia governor James Earl Carter, and on January 20, 1977, was inaugurated as the thirty-ninth president of the United States. Romney returned to Michigan, where he devoted himself to promoting voluntary work and civic responsibility through the National Center for Voluntary Activity which he founded.5