Q&A: George Romney Biographer Dan Angel

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Gov. George Romney and his son, Mitt _ currently a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination _ look out over the New York World's Fair grounds May 18,1964.

In 1964, Dan Angel became a participant observer of Michigan Governor George Romney’s re-election campaign. He served as Lenore Romney’s escort and drove the governor’s press vehicle in order to gather research for a Ph.D dissertation at Purdue University on Romney’s bid. He was a frequent guest at the Romney residence and conducted six extensive interviews with the governor. He published his book, Romney, A Political Biography, in 1967, the year before Romney’s ill fated-presidential bid. Before pursuing his career as a college administrator, Angel served three terms in the Michigan legislature as a Republican representative of the 49th district. He is now president of Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California. In an interview with TIME, Angel reflected on his relationship with Romney and what Mitt might have learned from his father’s career.

How have George Romney’s setbacks in his 1968 GOP campaign influenced Mitt’s outlook?

I was with George Romney when he made the now infamous “I was brainwashed” statement on the Lou Gordon Show in Detroit. During the program there was a hardly a reaction, but it was picked up by the press and in two to three days it took off like a rocket. That one comment knocked him out of a strong position in the presidential primary and completely out of the presidential field. He later referred to that moment as being “Like a mini- skirt… short and revealing.” There were lessons learned from that one thing. The takeaway for Mitt was be aware that any one word or phrase can seal your fate. Especially when you are the frontrunner, you don’t want to say anything foolish. It was a lesson the whole family learned. Consequently, there had been a measured caution in Mitt’s campaign based on his dad’s experience. That caution light was extinguished in South Carolina.

What else did Mitt learn from his father?

Mitt grew up in a household with a family interest in national leadership and issues.World issues were always being discussed. You can’t grow up with a role model who was President of American Motors, a three term Governor of Michigan, and HUD Secretary without it having a deep impact on your character and values. You think, “Gee, my dad ran for President of the United States, maybe I should do that.” This was positive for Mitt, but also intimidating. “Can I do what my father does? Can I be that dynamic?” He became interested in the presidency because his dad was not successful getting there. It was a challenge for him as he was growing up and I think he has prepared most of life in that regard.

How has the Romneys’ Mormon faith influenced them as politicians?

It makes them very solid and value-based people. Mitt grew up in a context of values he deeply believed in. He is very steady and he is not going to take off and do something drastically different. When Romney got married, he married for life.

Mitt mentioned in an interview that wealth distribution and taxes should be discussed “in quiet rooms” and was slow to release his tax rates. How did George react to similar issues?

In terms of wealth, everyone knew George was president of American Motors, and you don’t do that with out making much money. Mitt would have and did release some documents when he decided to run for nominee to ensure no conflicts of interest. It’s not required when you are a candidate. It’s about curiosity. I think George would have said this is not an important issue.

How might George have handled Newt Gingrich on this issue?

He would have looked him in the eye and said: “What a frivolous argument. Let’s not trivialize the big ticket issues. My income tax return is not the issue. The issue here is the lack of income for millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, their homes, and their investments. We need a President who can get Americans back to work, one who can restore pride and hope. I can and will do that as the next President of the United States.” Mitt has to go back and pick up things his father had that he has and should realize it sooner rather than later.

What else should Romney do?

I would advise him, “as your father often said, ‘Pursuit of the Difficult makes you strong.’ Let the passion flow. Bait Newt and let him dig a hole. Remember, millions of Americans don’t like him. You can and must neuter Newt.”