National Perspective

Overtones From the 1960s

In classical music an overtone is what's present but not easily discernible. The beauty of Brahms' music is enhanced by resonances you can barely hear. The clear, inspiring musical utterances of Bach are enriched by Byzantine harmonic structures.

So, too, with the unfinished symphony of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination struggle.

This campaign may sound like an atonal string quartet by Schoenberg. But listen carefully -- search beneath the discordant notes -- and you may determine that the strains you hear, of ideologues fighting regulars, of a party steeped in primogeniture struggling with questions of entail, of a movement coming to blows but not to peace over the nature of conservatism, are overtones of 1964 and 1968.

It is not entirely a coincidence that in both those long-ago years Gov. George W. Romney of Michigan, the father of the 2012 contender, looms as a prominent figure. Former Gov. Mitt Romney's father was one of the giants of Republican politics then -- the former chief of American Motors Corp. and one of the masterminds behind the famous Rambler automobile, known for its reputation, as the GOP in that day was, as smart and thrifty.

Then, as now, the Republican Party was undergoing one of its periodic changes. Americans of a certain age grew accustomed to regarding the Republicans as the models of stability, committed in their policies as in their own profile to resisting change rather than promoting it. But that is a lazy misreading of the party, which began as an ardent advocate of a strong federal government (and of civil rights). The Republican Party has been changing and evolving for generations.

In the mid-1960s, new forces and personalities rocked what seemed for a while like the classic party of social rest, propelling the Republican Party rightward, adding emotional energy and intellectual power to conservatism even as it moved away from the comfort zone of moderate American politics. The engine of this transformation was Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a handsome Western romantic and political realist as much at ease on horseback as President Lyndon B. Johnson, perhaps even more so. Standing against that rightward movement were three Republican governors, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York -- and George Romney.

How significant a threat to the Democrats was Romney? John F. Kennedy believed he might be facing the Michigan governor in 1964, according to the recently released Jacqueline Kennedy tapes. In his newest LBJ volume, "Passage of Power," to be published May 1, Robert A. Caro writes that on the day after Kennedy's assassination, George Romney called the White House from National Airport to see if he could arrange a meeting with the new president. Johnson, who thought Romney might be his opponent 11 months later, picked up the phone himself.

The struggle for the 1964 GOP presidential nomination was bitter and brutal -- exceeding "in savagery and significance," as political chronicler Theodore H. White would write, "any other in modern politics." Commentators write easily about periodic struggles "for the soul of the Republican Party," but the 1964 contest, in which Goldwater forces argued that "in your heart, you know he's right," was worthy of the description.

The new Goldwater conservatism was what Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson described as a "federation of the fed-up," a description that might be applied to today's conservatives.

Goldwater had been one of those who encouraged George Romney to run for governor in the first place. Indeed, the two seemed broadly similar -- "rugged and amiable men from the West," according to Clark R. Mollenhoff in a 1968 biography, "and each said just about what he thought on even the most controversial issues of the day."

But as Goldwater closed in on the nomination, Romney worried that in the rush to the right, the ethos of the Rambler automobile -- "a happy medium," in the description of Tom Mahoney in his 1960 Romney biography, "offering the interior space and comfort of big cars and at the same time the ease of handling and economy of small cars" -- was being jeopardized inside the GOP. Later, when he was trying to win passage of an anti-extremism plank in the platform, Romney employed a vivid automotive metaphor. He said the Republican Party ought to have a "big wheelbase."

Today his son faces many of the same pressures -- but has taken a different path.

Mitt Romney is a born moderate, reared at the private Cranbrook Schools to be accommodating. But he learned at Harvard Business School to be calculating, and he knows that he cannot win the nomination of the modern Republican Party without appealing to the GOP's new base, which views moderation as, to employ the famous Goldwater phrase, "no virtue."

The younger Romney has reason for this reckoning. Look, for example, at the exit polls this month from Alabama, a state the Republicans have won in every election since the Goldwater campaign with the exception of 1976, when a Southerner, Jimmy Carter, was the Democratic nominee. Only 5 percent of Alabama Republican voters described Romney as a "true conservative"; some 51 percent applied that description to former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Which brings us to the 1968 election, when the older Romney was again regarded as a leading contender. His campaign was sunk by his famous remark about getting "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get" in Vietnam, though if you go back and watch the television broadcast you might find little fault with his comments.

That's not what's relevant here. The year 1968 was the breakthrough election for the Republicans in the South, a political desert for them for a century. That year former Vice President Richard M. Nixon and former Gov. George C. Wallace basically split the South, which by 1980 would become a Republican redoubt. The younger Romney has been stymied from the start in the South, where Santorum has shown greater strength.

Every election is bathed in overtones from the past, but in this one they are unusually audible. The former Massachusetts governor from the start has been struggling with issues first raised in 1964 and 1968, elections in which his father played important but ultimately unsuccessful roles. In the weeks to come, Mitt Romney must do more than break free from his remaining political rivals. He must break free from 1964 and 1968, and their overtones.

More like National Perspective