Those who worked with Romney felt differently. "You'd get lost in his hand," says Meyers. "George was a commanding presence, a very powerful, sparkling individual. In his presence, you felt you were with something greater than you." When Romney left AMC to run for governor in 1962, some rank-and-file employees cried. Later, an executive told a Time magazine reporter with a sigh, "It just isn't the same without George pumping up and down the halls and roaring in and out of the offices."
When he was at AMC, George Romney didn't want or need acceptance from Detroit's gentry. He barnstormed the country promoting AMC and its interests. He spent Saturdays with his family, and he gave his Sundays to church. At first, young Mitt had a hard time understanding AMC's underdog status -- and, by extension, the Romneys', too. At age ten, the story goes, Mitt asked his mother: "Mom, we build the best cars, don't we?"
"Of course we build the best cars," she replied.
"Then, why is it that so many people buy other kinds of cars?"
She told him to ask his father, who sat him down for a straight 1950s talking-to. "Look, son," he said. "Size doesn't always indicate strength, popularity doesn't always indicate truth, and sales volume doesn't always indicate value. And right will always prevail." Mitt drank it in like Vernors ginger ale. "Mitt was like his father's shadow," says Maxwell, a friend from third grade through high school. At the Romneys' dinner table, Maxwell remembers George engaging him and Mitt in adult debates about cars when they were ten years old. "George took miles per hour, and we took the other side -- miles per gallon," he says. Maxwell was astonished that the Great Man was soliciting his opinion, but he notes that Mitt seemed used to having his green ideas considered. "I loved old George," Maxwell says.
So Mitt Romney grew up in the loving lap of a car executive who would become governor of Michigan before making a run at the presidency of the United States. As you walk around the lush campus of Cranbrook School, you think: Of course Mitt Romney is running for president. What else was he supposed to do? Why, then, after his failed 2008 presidential bid and before the 2012 one that he was surely contemplating -- did Romney go out of his way to call for GM and Chrysler to be allowed to go bankrupt in the midst of a cratering U.S. economy? Why piss off Michigan? Romney isn't saying -- his campaign didn't respond to requests for an interview -- and everyone else has a different answer.
"I was shocked" at the Times op-ed, says Meyers, who now teaches business at the University of Michigan. "It was the talk of someone who didn't understand the forces at work." Theoretically, Meyers approved of Romney's call for the creative destruction of GM and Chrysler, but had they gone into bankruptcy at that time, the beleaguered banks wouldn't have helped them through. "You would have seen tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of people thrown into the street," Meyers says. Others see Romney's call for Big Three bankruptcy as consistent with his small-government political philosophy and a product of his career at Bain Capital, evaluating companies in an unsentimental way. "The thing about Mitt is that he's so much smarter than George," says Schaefer.
Or perhaps the Romneys' outsider status in Detroit actually motivated him to slam some fingers in the car door. Although Meyers thinks the Romneys didn't care enough about Detroit to feel antagonistic beyond "disdain for the car industry and the Big Three," Chapin says the Times op-ed sounded like an outgrowth of many conversations between son and father about "those screwups in Detroit." Romney's schoolmates -- even those who resented his bankruptcy stance and disagree with his politics -- remember him fondly and praise his character. "I'm a Democrat, so I won't vote for him," says Maxwell. "But he'd probably make a pretty good president. He's very smart, very principled."
With his powerful father, "He could have been an arrogant, stuck-up, snotty little brat," says Dearth. "But he was a great guy -- an all-American kid with a great sense of humor, very self-effacing." And although it's been documented that Romney played a teenage prank or two -- including once impersonating a police officer in order to scare some female friends -- Dearth remembers Mitt as the most straitlaced kid in the neighborhood.
"Those of us who tested the boundaries in high school still marvel at the self-discipline he displayed," Dearth continues. "With a father who was then governor, Mitt knew where the line was and never crossed it. I think it was a sign of his deep respect for his dad and the way he was brought up. I often tell people he has more personal integrity than anyone I know. And I was raised a Unitarian."
Others went out of their way to praise young Romney's moral spine. What of his more recent reputation as a political changeling? "Well, you've got to separate his principles from this incredible drive," says Maxwell matter-of-factly. "He's determined to claim the highest office in the land -- to be the first Mormon to do it. He keeps that undercover because he doesn't want to frighten people."
Maybe it's not Romney's Mormonism that should frighten people but his seeming lack of emotional connection to the car town that raised him or the people he grew up with. Even his memory of those days seems distorted. During the Michigan primary campaign, Romney said he remembered the Golden Jubilee, which took place the year before he was born. And in a Detroit News defense of his original call for bankruptcy over bailout, Romney claimed that when his dad took over AMC, "I was seven and got my love of cars and chrome and fins and roaring motors from him."
Mitt Romney may be from the golden age of Detroit and the car industry, but it must be clear by now that he is no longer of that wonderful time and place. Then again, these days, what is?