During my high school years up in Michigan, George W. Romney was our governor. The man who told his son Mitt not to run for public office as long as he had to worry about a mortgage also presided over the booming economy brought about as the result of auto manufacturing. Michigan in the 60s was often at the economic and cultural center of the U.S. The jobs and technology were drawing newcomers from California, the intermountain west, the northeast, and all across Dixie. In Detroit, Motown was beginning to crowd rock and roll off of the stage. Work was available. Neighborhoods were being built overnight. Wages were livable. It was mostly a good time to be governor.
There were, of course, problems. Detroit caught fire in July 1967 in race riots and Governor Romney asked for federal troops. Most of the racist white southerners that had come north to work the factories instead of the fields in the south had managed to set themselves up in segregated communities, regardless of their incomes. The high school I attended, Grand Blanc, between Flint and Detroit, was still all white in 1969. Dr. King's message was rattling around unheard in the tin ears in much of America.
Governor Romney's son Mitt was at least partially insulated from the times by his family's wealth. He was raised in Bloomfield Hills, an affluent suburb of Detroit, where his father had become the CEO of American Motors. Mitt was not to be seen in public schools during his high school years. The family sent him across town to Cranbrook, an exclusive boarding school that offered a better education than the public system. One of his classmates was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine who stood up to protest the U.S. political mistakes and deceptions in Vietnam by releasing The Pentagon Papers. There was one black student in Romney's graduating class.
Mitt's progress from there was predictable. While the sons of southerners were mostly running to the car plants to fill out applications to work on the assembly lines, he was off to Stanford and Harvard and Brigham Young. In California, when students were staging a sit-in at an administration building to resist draft assessment tests, the future head of Bain Capital took part in a counter protest. The Vietnam War he was supporting was a conflict in which he would not be compelled to participate. Mitt got two student deferments and another one for being a "minister" of the Mormon Church while he was a missionary in France. His luck held when he drew the number 300 in the first ever draft lottery.
What, exactly, makes him presidential?
There is something troubling about the collective American consciousness that enables us to elect persons of privilege to a job whose most basic requirement ought to be a first hand understanding of economic struggle. Like the two Republican Bush presidents, Mitt Romney has always had a soft place to fall. In 1975, when he left Harvard, he went straight to Wall Street with a class of business school graduates who became consultants instead of employees. The mortgage his dad told him to deal with first was probably never a big worry and when Mitt landed at Bain Capital in 1977 he was launched on the business career that is somehow supposed to qualify him for the White House. Please explain how being successful at an investment fund trains an individual for dealing with foreign policy, a stubborn congress, and a lagging economy.
We Americans celebrate wealth and business success as if it were a form of religion. Of course, people who work hard and accomplish their goals, financial, material, or even spiritual, ought to be admired because they contribute to the advancement of our culture. But the rich are not necessarily special; they tend to be prepared and lucky. Their money is generally not the consequence of any intellect or insight that can translate to leadership or government. We simply want to believe that is how they earned it.
In Romney's experience, he has been almost as disconnected from the concerns of the working class as was George W. Bush and his father. W once asked a friend to help him "to understand the poor," as if the economically disadvantaged had somehow made a decision to not have money. "Why'd they do that?" W seemed to be asking. W's father loved to tell the tale of leaving Connecticut in an old car with "Bar" and heading out to West Texas to become a wildcatter in the Permian Basin oil patch but he always leaves out the part where his father the senator staked him to a half million dollars to get the oil business rolling. Eventually, H.W. sold the company for millions, set up trust funds for all of his children, and ran for Congress.
There isn't any class warfare in America. We are all participants in the same game and some of us have greater advantages and use them to gain wealth but that doesn't mean the rich should be president. I've often thought the difference between the two political parties was that one was rolling down the highway in a nice new car and ignoring all of those who had fallen into the ditch while the other party was slowing down and pulling over to help get the stranded travelers back on the road. Capitalism is imperfect and x amount of effort does not necessarily produce y amount of results. Some of us end up in the ditch. People fail for many reasons. But almost all of them are trying. Our national discourse is over how we provide assistance.
We've had wealthy presidents in the past and some have had greatness. Our greatest president, however, came from a log cabin and understood the common man's struggle, and it is not about corporate tax cuts. Leadership is a product of intimate understanding, which rarely is a consequence of wealth. But America has only two types of citizens: millionaires and those of us who very shortly expect to be millionaires. The result is we admire money and project onto the wealthy characteristics they often do not possess.
And putting those people into the White House tends to be a grave mistake.
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