Vicious TV Attacks on 1960s Politicians

So those who don’t watch Mad Men woke this morning to find that a TV show had taken a shot at Mitt Romney’s dad. Let’s get into it!

First: the character who calls Michigan Governor George Romney a “clown” is an operative for New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and for that matter not one who we in the audience are supposed to be, as far as I can tell, particularly fond of.* At the time, both Romney and Lindsay were positioning for the 1968 Republican nomination, on the hope that the Goldwater debacle of 1964 would make a liberal Republican the choice — and, as Garry Wills tells it, on the assumption that Kennedy-like “charisma” was needed against LBJ (see also  here for more Wills quotes on G. Romney; and here for Brad DeLong on Nixon Agonisties).

Dave Weigel says:

This episode of Mad Men was set in 1966, when George Romney was about to be re-elected governor. He was one of the best-known critics of the GOP’s conservative wing; he trashed Barry Goldwater for his Civil Rights Act vote, and would say in speeches that “state’s rights” was a weasely term that excused racism. A liberal New York Republican would like Romney.

Would Francis feel otherwise because Romney threatened his client’s national ambitions? Maybe, but the “clown” line still sounds out of place. The myth of Romney’s foolishness really got going when he gave an interview in 1967 about his shifting position on the Vietnam War. He said, mea culpa, that he’d had “the greatest brainwashing” from generals and the diplomatic core.

See also Ezra Klein, who says that “In 1966, George Romney was an incredibly admirable politician.”

Two things. One is that Wills has Robert McNamara helping Romney to get his political career going (remember, they were both auto industry executives), but later believing that the problem with Romney was “no brains.” Unfortunately, Wills doesn’t tell us where he got that from, or more to the point when he got it from, and I couldn’t find it after a quick search (and remember — it was McNamara’s DOD and generals that Romney was criticizing). My impression is that (as Wills basically says) George Romney was always vulnerable to getting a “no brains” reputation, and that one reason the “brainwashed” gaffe hurt him was that it was taken to confirm something that political insiders already believed.

The second and more important thing is that it’s certainly very possible that a politician could hold positions on matters of public policy which one agrees with, and which may even be courageous in a way, but still be widely viewed as a moron; indeed, it’s possible that such a politician might actually be a moron. There’s a natural tendency to attribute smarts to those who agree with us on issues, and moreover to assume that the side politicians take on pressing issues of the day tell us something about those politicians. But neither of these is a safe assumption. It’s true that many choices politicians make come from their beliefs about the world; it’s also true that choices politicians make are just responses to the incentives they are faced with. Granted, one might believe that a politician is admirable even when (and again, not saying it’s true in this case) she’s a moron and her positions are just what her pollster told her to take, but I probably wouldn’t agree.

As for George Romney…I really don’t know whether his reputation among insiders was already formed in 1966, pre-brainwashing. But I suspect so.Nor do I have any idea at all whether the reputation was deserved. I am certain, however, that admirable positions on public policy give us surprisingly little hint about the intellectual firepower of politicians.

*100 years from now, Lindsay will be even more forgotten than he is now — but will achieve immortality as Gotham Mayor Linseed on the Adam West Batman show. Hey, you take what you can get in politics.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.