Has an apple ever fallen farther from the tree than Mitt from George Romney? The latest exhibit is this interesting McKay Coppins interview at Buzzfeed with GR's biographer, T. George Harris, who tells the story of how Romney pere came to release 12 years' worth of tax returns.
Harris, now 88, asked Romney to share with him his 1040 for one year. Romney resisted at first, according to Harris, on the grounds that one year wouldn't mean much. He went away and thought it over, and:
But then he called Harris back and made a surprising offer: He would release the past 12 years of tax returns, including those paid when he became a millionaire by saving American Motors Company. That way, Romney reasoned, the move wouldn't look like a stunt.
So there you have it. Later, Harris reflects on the difference between father and son:
Harris attributed their night-and-day approaches to political transparency to the contrast in the way the two men made their fortunes.
When the elder Romney took the reigns of American Motors, his public persona — and the one he assigned to his company — was that of a feisty populist, taking on the "Big Three" auto behemoths with an ad campaign that urged people not to waste money on "gas-guzzling dinosaurs." Under Romney, AMC developed a new line of smaller, more efficient vehicles like the Rambler, and made the case that these cars represented the best deal for the average driver.
"He got in a habit when he was working on the Rambler of making a point of disclosure and argument," Harris said of the campaign-quality messaging Romney pushed as CEO. "In that case, he was running against General Motors."
Both the ad campaign and the car were hits — even Harris said he bought a Rambler because "it was the cheapest way to drive" — and George Romney seemed to take from that experience a tremendous confidence in his own ability to level with the public. As Harris put it, "He discovered the benefits of openness."
Mitt, on the other hand, seemed to develop a different set of values in his private sector career. Whereas his father made a living selling consumer goods to the masses, Mitt made his money hashing out wonky, complex private equity deals behind closed doors. Far from taking their case to the people, Bain Capital thrived in an industry that was all but incomprehensible to the world outside the sharply-dressed Harvard MBAs who populated its ranks.
Makes sense to me. Moreover, I have been mightily struck by the way Mitt doesn't talk about his father very much. Mostly, he mentions that dad was born in Mexico, either as a means of shallow ingratiation toward Latino audiences, or to imply in some vague way that the Romney family was once poor, since Mexico = poor (the full story is more complicated; George's father went to Salt Lake City when George was a boy and started a successful business, so George didn't exactly grow up in poverty).
If I had a dad like that and were running for office, I'd be bragging about him a lot. But Mitt seems to know that he suffers badly in the comparison and so chooses not to draw attention to it. He has to know his father would be ashamed of him for hiding his tax returns, and more importantly for the substantive thing he's probably hiding. I wonder what kind of dreams he's having.