Clowns

I’m impressed by the amount of buzz today over the passing remark of a character on the TV show Mad Men about Mitt Romney’s father, George. Henry Francis, the second husband of Don Draper’s ex Betty, and one of the less believable political characters to appear on television recently, asserts that his boss, New York Mayor John Lindsay, would never been seen around that “clown” Romney.

The fictional snark seems to be pleasing many Mitt-o-phobes, but before the day is out we’ll see at least a couple of serious conservative complaints about the liberal bias of Hollywood.

For what it’s worth–and that’s not much, given the Francis character’s profound lack of credibility as a former gubernatorial mouthpiece who somehow has huge power (sic!), considerable wealth (sic!) and even glamour (sic!)–it would probably make sense for a Lindsay factotum in 1966 to mock Romney as a bit of a bumpkin. Lindsay was very much the It Guy of the moment, at least to Gotham-o-centric observers and aficionados of liberal Republicanism. But anyone who really remembers that era might observe that the joke was ultimately on the Lindsayites.

Yes, George Romney ignomimously lost the 1968 GOP nomination contest to Richard Nixon. But Lindsay’s main distinction in that campaign was to second the nomination of Spiro T. Agnew as Nixon’s running-mate at the Republican Convention. A year later, he lost the GOP primary for renomination as mayor, and while he did gain a second term by winning a plurality of the vote running on the Liberal ballot line, he was through as a Republican. Lindsay soon switched parties, and ran a Democratic presidential campaign in 1972 that was even more ignominous than Romney’s 1968 effort.

I obviously don’t know where Mad Men is headed as a series, much less whether Henry Francis’ career as a Republican hack will continue to provide a very minor subplot. By the early 1970s, even as Lindsay left the GOP, Francis’ former boss Nelson Rockefeller was exectuting a hard-right turn in his image, which didn’t keep him from being dumped from the 1976 GOP ticket after Gerald Ford realized he was a major liability in a primary struggle with Ronald Reagan. George Romney became Nixon’s HUD secretary and lasted until near the end of 1972 despite frequent conflicts with his boss. Depending on how you look at it, all these men could be described as “clowns” who did not understand which way the wind was blowing in the Republican Party of their era. The wind’s still blowing hard in the same direction, and George Romney’s son seems determined to say just ahead of it, unlike Rockefeller, Lindsay–and his father.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.