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Commentary: The Romneys

I don’t claim to really know Mitt Romney, who is going to be nominated for president tonight at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. I did, however, interview him at length five years ago, the first time he ran for president.

Democrats may find this hard to believe, but this is what Mitt then said about the auto industry: “I care very deeply about the manufacturing base of this country, and I believe the automotive industry is an important contributor.  I want to see the domestic automobile manufacturers succeed, so I look for ways to make that possible and that the government can help make that possible.“

That may sound strange, given that Mitt Romney opposed the government so-called “bailout” of General Motors and Chrysler.

But my conversation with him was a year and a half earlier, when, while both domestic automakers were losing money, nobody thought they were close to financial collapse.

What Romney meant by government help was incentives for the auto companies to invest in what he called “basic science and technology.” He said he was distressed that Toyota seemed to be moving ahead of us. And he said with a snort, “I saw that they [the automakers] spent more last year on tort claims than on research and development.” You don’t have to be a Romney supporter to share his feeling that there’s something deeply appalling about that.

And reading my notes last night, I suddenly remembered another conversation I had with another Romney, 30 years ago this summer. As I said, I don’t claim to really know Mitt.

But I did get to know his father, the former governor of Michigan, after he left office. Back in 1982, I asked George Romney what his greatest regret was.

I expected it would be the famous incident in which he said -- on television after getting official briefings during the Vietnam War, “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get.” That comment helped end his presidential campaign.

But no. George Romney told me that back when he was CEO of American Motors, Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union, once came to his house for lunch. Both men agreed, Romney said, that the pattern of bargaining always giving workers more pay for less work wasn’t sustainable.

Yet, Romney said, neither knew how to break the cycle in a way their constituents would accept, although his conversations with Reuther did eventually lead to the industry’s first profit sharing plan.

George Romney died 17 years ago. A year later, Mitt Romney’s older sister Lynn told me, “You know there wouldn’t have been any Watergate if Dad had been president then.”

I’m sure that was true. I’m not sure what kind of president his son would make. But I found something Mitt said about that very interesting.

He said, “If you look back at the history of the country, the issues people campaigned on generally turned out to be quite different than the issues that defined their presidency. More important than their view on a particular issue is their character and their capability and their vision and their leadership skills.”

This week he gets to display his skills to a national audience.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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