"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."
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?