"I love cars, American cars. I was born in Detroit."
So wrote Mitt Romney in a November 18, 2008, New York Times op-ed, less than two years after he launched his first presidential campaign at the Henry Ford Museum, standing in front of an old AMC Rambler.
And then he called on the U.S. government to let the Big Three auto companies fall into bankruptcy.
This year, Romney returned to his hometown, failed to connect emotionally with the Motor City, and even seemed to forget basic details of his upbringing. As a consequence, he nearly lost the Michigan primary. What on earth had happened? Had the man no loyalty to his hometown? Or, because his father, George Romney, worked for American Motors Corporation, did Romney actually have antipathy to the Big Three and the city its cars built? * When journalists and pundits speculate about Mitt Romney's economic views, they plumb his career at Bain Capital. When they want to explain his moral code, they study Mormon theology. And when they speculate about his motivations for wanting the presidency, they pop-psychoanalyze his relationship with his politician father. And Detroit shakes its head. * No doubt Mitt Romney has had many influences in his life, but if you fail to take into account the influence of growing up in Motor City, U.S.A., in the 1950s and 1960s, you're clearly not a product of '50s and '60s Detroit. To not know about Romney's complex relationship with that time and place -- and the mixed feelings his Detroit contemporaries have for him -- is to misunderstand the man.
"Absolutely nobody's shit stunk in Detroit," says Bill Chapin, son of Roy D. Chapin, Jr., who became CEO of AMC in 1967, five years after George Romney left to run for governor of Michigan. When I suggest that a young person growing up in Detroit in those days could have been excused for thinking they lived at the center of the universe, Chapin exclaims: "Thinking we were at the center of the universe? We were at the center of the universe!"
And so proud of it. On June 1, 1946, on behalf of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, George Romney organized the Automotive Golden Jubilee to celebrate fifty years of American carmaking. A million people showed up to watch 10,000 people march and ride in 1000 vehicles and eighty floats in a four-hour-long parade down Detroit's Woodward Avenue. "Detroit had won World War II," says Phillip Maxwell, an attorney in Oxford, Michigan, who grew up with Mitt. The city's assumption was the same as the grateful nation's: "If GM didn't know it, nobody did."
Fifteen postwar boom years later, George was the president and chairman of American Motors Corporation and his fourteen-year-old son Mitt was attending Cranbrook, an exclusive private school in Bloomfield Hills. "In the 1960s, it was said that one out of every three families in Detroit owed their living to the automobile business," wrote Mitt's Cranbrook classmate Gregg Dearth in an unpublished essay about his growing-up years. "In the nouveau riche...Bloomfield Hills, it was closer to 100 percent." In an interview, the New York marketing executive elaborates: "Mitt was surrounded by scions of the car business at Cranbrook. Virtually every Cranbrook boy came from a family that owed its employment in some way, shape, or form to the auto industry."
Most of those boys were crazy about cars, and Mitt was no exception. Because his father was determined "that his sons would not grow up to be spoiled brats," Dearth says, "Mitt didn't get a car at sixteen -- like many Cranbrook kids did. He didn't get to drive special factory cars -- like some Cranbrook boys did." Young Romney did, however, frequently ride in Dearth's fast 1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone. "I'm sure he was in my car when I was going through the gears and flooring it." Although he didn't race or get his hands dirty under car hoods, Romney held up his end of teenage conversations about the various merits of Fords, Chevys, and Chryslers. He felt duty-bound to defend AMC's excuse for a muscle car, the Rambler Marlin. "He was certainly at a disadvantage," Dearth remembers with a laugh.
As important as it is to understand the car culture in Detroit, one must also understand the Romneys' peculiar relationship to that culture. They were outsiders in a number of ways. "George was no tin-bender," says Gerald Meyers, another Romney successor at AMC. Having come up in the automobile trade association where he began with "only a motorist's knowledge of the automobile business," according to a biographer, George Romney, who died in 1995, was more of a pitchman than a car guy.
AMC wasn't one of the Big Three, of course, and Romney sold the company's compact Rambler on the strength of truculent speeches and ads that ridiculed the Big Three's cars as "gas-guzzling dinosaurs." He lampooned "cars nineteen feet long, weighing two tons...used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drugstore for a two-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick."
"What's the excuse for such heavy concentration on the production of big cars?" Romney thundered at the Motor City Traffic Club of Detroit in a 1955 speech. "Why, even the smallest cars of the Big Three are as big as the biggest cars used to be!...Yet most of you spend your own hard-earned money for extra bulk and weight on the highway....Do you have an inferiority complex that makes you buy much more car and bulk than you need just to make you look successful?"
He called for the breakup of the Big Three into smaller competitors and made many speeches about the dangers of not only too much labor power but also excessive corporate influence. This in the era of "what's good for General Motors is good for the country."
No wonder Birmingham divorce attorney John Schaefer, who used to cadge rides to school with Mitt and his older brother, Scott, finds every word to describe the Romneys except outsiders. "They didn't socialize too much. They didn't drink, for one thing," Schaefer remembers. "And Mr. Romney was a rather unusual guy."
As an example of George Romney's eccentricity, Schaefer recalls that the old man would be first off the tee at Bloomfield Hills Country Club, playing in "exercise clothes" never otherwise seen at the golf-only club. He sometimes would carry only one club but play several balls, lashing clumsily at the ball and running from shot to shot. "Odd," Schaefer says, adding that, as a consequence of such behavior, the Romneys were "not people sought out by people in the community."