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Defending (George) Romney And "Mad Men"

Devotee though I am of Mad Men, I haven't had a chance to catch up with the first two episodes of its new season, so I'm hearing second-hand that Henry Francis, the aide to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller who earlier rescued Betty from her marriage to Don (and now kind of regrets it because Betty's such a head case) last night--which is to say, in 1966, when this new season is set--called Michigan Gov. George Romney "a clown." Francis is shown saying into a telephone, "Well, tell Jim his honor's not going to Michigan. Because Romney's a clown, and I don't want him standing next to  him."

The comment--which I hasten to clarify is uttered by a fictional character about the non-fictional father of the all-but-presumptive GOP nominee for president in 2012--has got a lot of people riled up. Mitt's son Tagg today Tweeted: "Seriously, lib media mocking my dead grandpa?" and then, in a follow-up: "George Romney was as good a man I've ever known. Inspirational leader, worked for civil rights, promoted freedom. We need more like him." Slate's David Weigel said that while Tagg overstated his point, the insult was historically inaccurate because Romney, like Rockefeller, was "one of the best-known critics of the GOP's conservative wing.... A liberal New York Republican would like Romney." TNR's Alec MacGillis  replied that it's well known that George Romney was a rather bumptious fellow, but in a mostly good way, and too bad his son Mitt isn't more like him.

I think the comment makes perfect dramatic sense. In 1966 both Romney and Rockefeller wanted the presidential nomination that ultimately went to Richard Nixon. Romney was pursuing it more aggressively while Rocky tried to figure out how much lingering fallout there would be from his 1963 divorce. The fact that Rocky and Romney were both in the same ideological camp would have intensified feelings of rivalry, if not between the principals then certainly between their staffs. (Staffs typically feel such rivalries more intensely than the candidates themselves.) Weigel makes passing reference to this fact but fails to give it sufficient weight.

"His honor" should perhaps be spelled "hizzoner" because in the Mad Men scene at issue Francis is surely referring not to Rockefeller (whom Francis would refer to as "the governor") but to New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Lindsay was allied with Rocky and had vague designs of his own (admittedly somewhat delusional; he'd only just gotten elected mayor) on the presidential nomination or, more plausibly, on the vice-presidential slot. In the end Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, who at that point (1968) was a Rockefeller Republican with a profile not very different from Lindsay's, the main difference being that Agnew established law-and-order cred with Nixon after Martin Luther King's assassination by cracking down on African American rioters. (Lindsay famously walked the streets of Harlem that night and no riots took place. He ended up giving Agnew's seconding speech, at Nixon's request, though not with much enthusiasm.) An Episcopalian graduate of St. Paul's, Yale, and Yale Law School, Lindsay would very likely have regarded Romney, a Mormon who lacked a college degree, as a bit of a bumpkin. Or, if you will: "clown." He would also likely have felt, in 1966, threatened by him.

MacGillis is right that Romney was passionate and impulsive, but in 1966 Romney was riding very high. By mid-November the Harris poll had Romney beating President Johnson 54 to 46; "no other Republican came close," Geoffrey Kabaservice reports in his recent book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower To the Tea Party. Rockefeller gave Romney money and lent him some key aides, including a foreign policy adviser named Henry Kissinger. Rocky probably saw Romney as a stalking horse for his own candidacy (though he denied it). That Romney would stumble (as he did, even before his famous "brainwashing" comment) was not hard to predict. He had, Kabaservice notes, "an uninspiring speaking style," and Kabaservice quotes former President Eisenhower observing that Romney tended to leave audiences feeling "doubt and bewilderment" (the pot calling the kettle black, but still). By 1967 "the rising chorus of criticisms caused Romney to lose ground to Nixon in polls of the party rank and file," Kabaservice writes, "while liberals, intellectuals, and Easterners longed for a more exciting candidate such as Rockefeller or [Illinois Sen. Charles] Percy." That's how Henry Francis, a Rockefeller guy, would have felt all along.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that while surely Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner intended a slightly naughty joke at Mitt Romney's expense, the dramatic and historic contexts for Francis' remark are (as usual in this meticulously-researched series) pretty unassailable. That does not in any way diminish George Romney, who was a highly intelligent man of strong character and enlightened political views on civil rights, urban blight, and the Vietnam war. MacGillis is right to wish that Mitt were more of a chip off the old block.