08/30/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Fathers and Sons (and a Mother, Too)

It will be interesting to see what use Mitt Romney makes of his father -- since heritage was the key theme in both Rick Santorum's and Chris Christie's Tuesday speeches. Santorum celebrated his grandfather's life as coal miner; ironic, given the viciously anti-union tone of this year's Republican convention. (Santorum's grandfather was a United Mineworkers member, walked picket lines and went on strike to try to escape from a system which tied him to the infamous "company store" and paid him in scrip -- not legal currency.)

Christie made no bones about his attitudes towards that part of Santorum's heritage, proclaiming that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was that Democrats believed in unions and Republicans believed in individuals. And he tied his own character to that of his mother, declaring how "touch as nails" she was.

So what will Mitt Romney do? Romney's father, George, the president of American Motors, occupied a favorite slot in my grade-school TV watching. He sponsored Walt Disney Presents, and used his ad slots to discuss auto fuel efficiency and innovation. American Motors was the closest thing the U.S. had to a "green" company in the 1950's, providing Americans with small, fuel efficient vehicles like the Rambler when the Big 3 would only turn out tail-finned monstrosities, which Romney liked to call "gas-guzzling dinosaurs."

Romney, of course, was busy creating jobs in the U.S. not outsourcing them to other countries. It's quite clear he couldn't get a ticket into this year's Republican convention. Like Mitt, he served as the moderate (even progressive) governor of a highly unionized state -- Michigan. Romney senior's presidential run in 1968 was truncated when he clumsily explained his change from support to opposition of the Vietnam War as the result of "brainwashing," so the "flip-flop" problems do seem inherited. He then served as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs, a position that Paul Ryan would probably abolish.

The big difference between George Romney and his son, of course, is that no one ever wondered, as this week's Economist laments of Mitt, "What does he believe?" George Romney never changed his political stripes -- in 1964, with Mitt at his side, he walked out of the Republican National Convention in protest against Barry Goldwater's extremism.

So how much will we hear about George Romney from his son Thursday? The Romney for President web site mentions his father, American Motors and the Governorship of Michigan. His term at HUD and his presidential run have been air-brushed out. This is true even though Ann Romney says that her husband is running for president because of his father's experiences. But if Chris Christie attributes his character to the fact that his mother made him, like her, tough, Romney is on the record as saying that he decided not to forge his own character on his father's straight-forward style.

"It did tell me you have to be very, very careful in your choice of words," Mitt Romney said in 2005. "The careful selection of words is something I'm more attuned to because Dad fell into that quagmire." John Kerr in Daily Kos endorses the view taken in the book Nixonland by Rick Perlstein:

In his almost Shakespearean tale of filial piety gone wrong, Mitt is an undoubting Hamlet figure, the son who must avenge his beloved father George's 1968 defeat most foul at the hands of Richard Nixon... But to succeed in his quest for his party's nomination, Mitt the Redeemer had to become Mitt the Repudiator. ... the son cast aside the bluntness, candor and authenticity that also made his father politically vulnerable, replacing it with secrecy, serial flip-flopping and almost pathological dissembling.

George Romney certainly would have been on Barack Obama's side of this week's big debate on auto fuel efficiency. He was a big believer in thriftiness as a conservative value. Ironically it was George Romney's mockery of the oversized American vehicles of the 1950's that helped get Mitt his job at Bain Capital. Bill Bain once said, "I remember [George] as president of American Motors when he was fighting the gas guzzlers and making funny ads, so when I saw Mitt, I instantly saw George Romney...."

The Obama Administration chose the week of the Republican Convention to release the final version of its new fuel efficiency and pollution rules for cars. These rules will require passenger vehicles to double their average fuel efficiency, up to 54.5 mpg, and halve their carbon pollution by 2025. They are, by far, Barack Obama's most important environmental legacy.

They are also, polls show, wildly popular. There's a reason.

If asked in a pop quiz,
"Are these rules
a) Likely to lower the price of oil by $25 a barrel
b) Going to save consumers $6000 net per car?
c) Take the U.S. a significant way down the road to curbing global warming?
d) Going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 25%"

The correct answer is, "All of the above." George Romney would have applauded loudly -- but his son is busy complaining that even if motorists are going to save lots of money, maybe they don't want to. (Don't worry -- big, gas-guzzling cars will still be sold for those who want them -- but the rest of us will have a choice.)

But fuel efficient, low-polluting and innovating cars are not the only precedent set by his father that Mitt has rejected. It was George Romney who first released his income tax returns as a Presidential candidate, many years of returns, because one year "might be a fluke." And the returns revealed that Romney senior, unlike his son, didn't believe in aggressive tax avoidance -- indeed he almost certainly paid more taxes than he needed to. His son does not believe this is an admirable role model. Indeed, he told ABC News. "I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires."

So here again, the American people are likely to learn less about Mitt Romney the person than they would like -- because a significant part of Romney's personal history is not something he wants either conservative Republicans or the rest of the electorate focused on -- conservatives because George Romney's legacy makes them suspect his son's bona fides as one of them, and everyone else because -- well, the father's character raises some real questions about Mitt's.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."