12/20/2007 09:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Romney

Several stories recently have appeared describing Mitt Romney's efforts to study his father's campaign in 1968 and learn from his mistakes. George Romney, a successful Michigan Governor, and noted for his battles against the Big Three automakers to produce smaller, more gas-efficient automobiles, sought the Republican presidential nomination in that year. Widely regarded as the candidate from the more moderate, "Rockefeller" wing of the party, Romney appeared as a winning alternative to Barry Goldwater's failed campaign in 1964.

But Romney's effort dramatically collapsed when the media ridiculed his new-found position on the serious issue of the Vietnam War. Romney had strongly supported the war after a visit to South Vietnam in 1965 but in 1968, he declared the Vietnam venture a tragic mistake. When pressed to explain his inconsistent position, Romney replied, "Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam [in 1965], I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

"Brainwashing" had powerful, sinister connotations in 1968, stirring fresh memories of the Korean War and accounts of Chinese and North Korean "brainwashing" of American POWs. The idea certainly had some basis in fact, but it was often adapted to any individual who criticized the American war effort, willingly or not. The word carried a powerful whiff of weakness.

One man's "brainwashing" is another man's "briefing." Romney, as had others, visited South Vietnam and was hosted by military and diplomatic officials who explained, justified, and sold the war to him. Finally, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, journalists themselves dismissed the "Five o'clock Follies," their cynical name for the military's daily press briefings for journalists in Saigon. After 1966, the US Information Agency, using Army colonels versed in public-relations, conducted these carefully choreographed performances. The spinners provided mimeographed copies of body-counts and colored charts depicting the American march toward victory. And such, of course, was our "news" from the front.

Romney had similar briefings during his trip, coupled with VIP meetings with military brass and diplomats. Was he "snowed," 'persuaded," "conned" - yes, even "brainwashed?" Of course, and he was not alone. And he was not alone in changing his mind. After all, the American public had been "brainwashed" by the likes of Johnson, McNamara, Rusk, and the military. And didn't Congress, leading political figures, and the public change as well?

Romney blamed the "generals and the diplomatic corps" for peddling bad and falsified information. "I have changed my mind," Romney said in his 1968 statement. He no longer believed it necessary to fight in South Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union and China. He rejected the then-popular "domino theory," apparently satisfied that the Reds would not storm the beaches of La Jolla.

Romney's change of sentiment should have been a badge of honor. Instead, our media and opinion-makers turned it into a folly, and Romney's candidacy was doomed. His friendly correspondence with former President Eisenhower noticeably cooled. Today, of course, he would have been accused of "flip-floping," that now-fashionable and wholly abused term. To change one's mind when confronted with the reality of events or policies is a cardinal sin. Alas! how would we have treated Abraham Lincoln who constantly varied his policies and strategies? Lincoln's explanation was simple - and, as always, wise: "events have controlled me," he said.

Maybe Romney's candidacy would have failed - for other political reasons. But on the two burning issues of the day, Vietnam and civil rights, Romney staked out bold public positions - and despite the public views of Mormon Church leaders.

Poor George Romney - his alleged "mistake" haunted his reputation for the rest of his life, and beyond. After a lifetime of success in business, politics, and government, his 1995 AP obituary headlined: "George Romney, Who Said Military Brainwashed Him on Vietnam, Dead at 88."

Imagine, a politician or a journalist spun by military and civilian officials? Do such "follies" beggar the imagination? Shocking! Can it be so today? Are we "brainwashed?" Think Iraq, WMDs, torture, Iran, etc., etc. What lesson exactly has Mitt Romney drawn from his father's experience? Can we expect him to offer such candor and honesty? Certainly, at this point Mitt seems only to never admitting being wrong.

George Romney's frank remarks ended his run for the presidency. The media at its herd-mentality worst and entrenched public officials dismissed his change of mind to disqualify him. And so, in that momentous year, we got Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and, of course, Henry Kissinger - and another 25,000 American combat deaths. We cannot begin to count the Vietnamese.