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David Brooks' 'Aristocratic' Presidency: A Tale of Two Romneys

01/16/2012 01:25 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2012

No one should be surprised by the news that presidential candidates are necessarily millionaires. But last Friday New York Times columnist David Brooks -- in his thinly veiled support of Mitt Romney -- anointed another class of those Americans we should expect to occupy the White House. Call it the Aristocratic Presidency.

As Romney slogs toward Saturday's South Carolina primary -- through a thicket of distrust about his wealth and a briar patch of his own gaffes ("Corporations are people," "I like to fire people") -- Brooks ("The CEO in Politics", Jan. 13, 2012) attempts to reconstitute Romney by enumerating the qualities of a successful United States president.

Heading Brooks' list of the prime presidential attributes successful presidents have shared are that they tend to be "emotionally secure" and "often raised in an aristocratic family."

The erudite pundit concludes by declaring Mitt Romney's performance at the private equity firm Bain Capital to be "largely irrelevant to the question of whether he could be a good president." Good character, you see, may be its own reward; never mind what those on high have actually done.

Life's Experiences (Including at Prep School and Bain)

Brooks asserts that "the real question" is whether Romney, the son of an industrial leader who became a governor and GOP presidential candidate, has absorbed the traits "from his upbringing and the deeper experiences of life" that would manifest later as greatness.

It can't hurt if some of Romney's early experiences and those of past presidential successes , suggests Brooks, "were infused, often at an elite prep school, with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service."

Certainly, the advantages of wealth and position often clear a path to the top, such as for Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy. And Brooks' column also gives nods to the emotional security evident among "military leaders like Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in serenely successful movie stars, like Ronald Reagan."

Historians can argue over Brooks' discussion of meritorious presidents, serene movie stars in politics and their attributes. But somehow the genteel commentator doesn't quite count Romney's decades of business practice among the factors most would regard as central to his life experience.

Mitt's Real Rival, His Dad

The genuine question is not how Mitt Romney's business practices and the values they reveal stack up against Gingrich, Paul and Santorum, but how well he compares to the one he can be most sharply measured against -- his father, George W. Romney.

On his way to business and political success, George Romney's leadership qualities were annealed by mien family circumstance in the Depression and a tough course at the prep school of hard knocks, where by all reports he learned the meaning of a day's work.

The senior Romney emerged as the CEO of American Motors Corporation (AMC), and there he revitalized a struggling company by reviling Detroit's "gas guzzlers." He proved there was an American market for smaller, more efficient cars, notably the Rambler. George Romney rolled steel off assembly lines; he didn't push companies and their workers off the financial edge of his desk.

George worked closely with labor, although he'd certainly bumped heads with them. And he was among a breed of CEOs who understood that it is unseemly to fract the company's coffers for personal riches, thus sowing resentment down on the line.

During Mitt's bid for the 2008 GOP nomination, Brooks' New York Times colleague David Leonhardt wrote that George Romney "voluntarily turned down $268,000 in pay over five years when he was chief executive, which was equal to about 20 percent of his total pay during that time."

In 1960, the senior Romney refused a $100,000 bonus after persuading the AMC board that no officer of the firm should make more than $225,000 a year (equal to about a million and a half dollars today).

In addition, Wikipedia notes, George "was one of only a few Michigan corporate chiefs to support passage and implementation of the state Fair Employment Practices Act."

Times have changed along with what Leonhardt termed "cultural norms and basic economics." He wrote that before Mitt left Bain in 1999, he owned 100 percent of the company's voting stock, thereby earning "the hero status conferred on executives."

Unlike his father's old-fashioned model of domestic manufacturing for the mostly American market, Mitt rode an international wave of "new financial instruments like junk bonds, borrowing money to make big bets and, when they paid off, big returns." One might add subprime mortgages, derivatives and other exotic instruments that contributed to today's economic gulf between rich and poor -- not to mention the financial collapse.

George certainly was among the super rich of his day, not merely a member of the 1 percent (or 1 in 100), but of the top 0.01 percent (1 in 10,000) in annual earnings. However, explained Leonhardt, that group absorbed 1.2 percent of all income in the United States. By 2005, the wealthiest of the swells sucked up over 5 percent of U.S. earnings.

Leonhardt praised Bain for transforming some firms and building up some companies. Mitt gets credit for developing Staples, for instance, and also Dominoes Pizza.

George Welcomed MLK, Hit Goldwater's "Racist Campaign"

In politics, George, like any public figure, did not serve as governor of Michigan without controversy. History credits him as a champion of civil rights, welcoming Martin Luther King, Jr., to the state with an official endorsement of King's 1963 march in Detroit. When Romney was sharply criticized by a top Mormon leader for proposing a civil rights bill, Romney stood his ground.

In 1964, as a proud leader of the now-clipped liberal wing of the Republican Party, George "picked a fight with supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater by suggesting he planned a 'racist campaign,'" according to a 2007 Times article by David D. Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick reported that while the father had kicked off his 1968 presidential campaign "with a tour of slums," son, Mitt, in 2007, was "courting Christian conservatives and anti-tax activists" for their support.

True, George also handled Motor City's 1967 riots poorly. But he is remembered overall as a man of integrity. On another issue as Michigan governor he promoted a tax-increase to improve Detroit schools -- while his son now advocates for private universities, epecially one that contributes to his campaign. And George led the way for a new state constitution to make raising revenue easier.

Of course, in South Carolina this week, Mitts opponents are vilifying him as a "moderate." (Imagine Bernie Madoff calling Willie Sutton a moderate because he only robbed one bank at a time.) But it would be difficult to conceive of George, who built his reputation as someone who could get things done on a bipartisan basis, coming hat in hand to the Tea Party and swearing to repent his past sins -- in the way that Mitt has with universal health coverage, among other flip-flops to the right.

Time will judge whether, if elected, Mitt Romney will nobly acquit himself as a successful president in the Brooksian mold. But in considering Brooks' ruminations on presidencies from the base to the aristocratic, readers last Friday didn't have to do more than shift their gaze to the left, of course, for a differently informed viewpoint, that of Paul Krugman.

A Whiff of Gordon Gekko

Yes, yes, Krugman is dismissed by some as a shrill liberal, while many read Brooks for his seeming philosophical equanimity. But Krugman's 2009 Nobel Prize for advancing economists understanding of the global economy should count for something in evaluating a candidate who claims his business experience as his chief qualification to occupy the White House.

Krugman's instructive column questions whether Mitt "understands the difference between running a business and managing an economy."

As to Mitt's business acumen and his character, though, Krugman cuts to the cold heart of the issue. Referring to the "greed is good" character in the film Wall Street, Krugman writes, "There is at least a whiff of Gordon Gekko in his time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm; he was a buyer and seller of businesses, often to the detriment of their employees, rather than someone who ran companies for the long haul."

You know, a company like his father's AMC.