When Chafee backed Romney in the New Hampshire primaryJanuary 10th, 2012 at 2:56 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
It’s a safe bet Lincoln Chafee never planned to be in New Hampshire today getting out the vote for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Four decades ago, though, their fathers were joined at the hip ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary.
From 1966 to 1968, Rhode Island’s then-governor, John Chafee, played a pivotal role in marshaling support for the doomed presidential bid of his fellow liberal Republican, Gov. George Romney of Michigan. The very different roads their sons traveled subsequently are a reminder of the GOP’s transformation in the years since.
Both Chafee and Romney were first elected governor in 1962 and easily reelected two years later despite a Democratic landslide for candidates from LBJ on down. As leaders of the GOP’s apparently ascendant moderate wing, they were involved with the Ripon Society, a centrist Republican think tank that criticized Goldwater’s campaign.
The pair won resounding reelection victories again in 1966, a banner year for Republicans, and Chafee emerged immediately as one of Romney’s strongest backers for president – as well as a potential vice presidential nominee in his own right. He even penned the foreword to a biography of the Michigan governor.
‘Haven’t heard much’ on Reagan
But Romney’s early lead in the polls quickly evaporated, and there was little excitement about his candidacy among other Republican governors, who didn’t unit behind one of their own as some had expected. In June 1967, Chafee and New York Gov. Nelson Rockfeller, another leading moderate, tried to boost what the AP was now describing as Romney’s “lagging presidential prospects”:
Chafee told a news conference he is “doing all the missionary work I can” to enlist his colleagues in Romney’s cause. …
In the absence of the Michigan governor from this conference, Mrs. [Lenore] Romney arrived to represent him. She characterized Chafee’s statement as “nice.” …
“We’re backing him because we think he’s a winner,” Chafee said. “We think that he represents the best hope of our party.”
He said former vice president Richard M. Nixon ranks as Romney’s chief rival. He dismissed California Gov. Ronald Reagan as a presidential threat, saying, “We haven’t heard much about him.”
(Another now-amsuing comment by Chafee: In a sign of just how much the presidential nominating process has changed since 1968, he tried to throw cold water on Nixon’s candidacy by telling reporters, “I don’t think that just the fact that Nixon might win the primaries would put the nomination in the bag.”)
A gaffe on Vietnam ‘brainwashing’
Romney did irreparable damage to his prospects in August 1967 when he committed what today’s media would call a gaffe, telling a reporter he’d received ”the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam” during a 1965 trip there with Chafee and eight other governors.
Chafee, by now the incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association, walked a fine line, saying he personally didn’t feel brainwashed on the “interesting, constructive and helpful” trip, but adding: “I don’t want to disagree with what someone else felt.” Vietnam made headlines again that fall, when Chafee was among those who blocked the Republican governors from passing a resolution supporting Johnson’s war policies.
By January 1968, Romney’s chances of winning the nomination had all but evaporated, with polls giving Nixon a huge lead in New Hampshire’s March 12 primary. Nevertheless, Chafee and Rockefeller traveled to the state that month to serve, in a UPI reporter’s words, “as advance men to lay the groundwork for a five-day Romney campaign swing through the Granite State starting next Friday.”
But it was Rockefeller, not Romney, whom moderate Republicans saw as “the only man in the party who could beat President Johnson,” UPI said. Even Chafee briefly forgot which man he was there to support on the trip, telling one gathering: “I have come here to give my wholehearted support to Governor Rockefeller – er, I mean Romney.”
Romney finally dropped out of the race in late February after he decided Rockefeller was “using him” as a stalking horse, the columnist Drew Pearson reported. (Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes compared Romney’s campaign to “watching a duck try to make love to a football.”) Chafee quickly switched his support to Rockefeller, giving the New Yorker crucial cover with other former Romney supporters – though Romney himself declined to endorse him.
‘Classy and demanding type’
It was too little, too late for the liberal Republicans. While Chafee – whom William F. Buckley described at the time as a “classy and demanding type” – supported Rockefeller into the summer, Nixon never lost his commanding lead and was assured of the nomination by the time the Republican National Convention met in Miami in August. (Romney never released his delegates.)
But there was one last defeat in store for Chafee and his allies. To their “shock and dismay,” as columnist Mary McGrory put it, Nixon decided he wanted his running mate to be Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, a conservative who’d been with Rockefeller until late in the primary season.
Chafee frantically worked with other moderates – including New York Congressman Charles Goddell, father of the NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell – to decide whether to back Romney or New York City Mayor John Lindsey as an alternative to Agnew. They didn’t pull the trigger and Agnew won easily, but their angst was highly publicized.
“The unusual gesture of pique at Mr. Nixon’s choice of a running mate is but one sign of the fundamental disunity that still plagues the GOP,” wrote Josiah Lee Auspitz, editor of the Ripon Society’s publication.
“The progressive governors are an attractive lot,” McGrory wrote, singling Chafee out as “handsome and able.” Prophetically, she continued: ”But on the national political scene, as they displayed in 1964, they cannot cope with the wily opposition of the right.”
Administration posts for both
Nixon was nothing if not Machiavellian, and he found spots for both men in his cabinet, Chafee as Navy secretary until 1972 and Romney as Housing and Urban Development secretary through 1973. Chafee won a U.S. Senate seat in 1976 and held it until his death in 1999. Romney never returned to public life, and died in 1995.
Mitt Romney was 20 and Lincoln Chafee was 14 during the winter of 1967-68, when their fathers were working on Romney’s presidential campaign. Mitt was a Mormon missionary abroad throughout that period, while Linc was still in school. The lessons they learned from their fathers’ experiences, then and later, led them in very different directions.
Chafee stuck to his father’s liberal Republicanism as the party moved steadily to the right, finally leaving the GOP in 2007 and winning his father’s old job as governor with the support of liberals and unions. Romney started out as a moderate Republican in Massachusetts, but has now evolved into a down-the-line conservative in two bids to win the presidential nomination his father failed to get.
At this writing, it looks like New Hampshire will be better to Mitt Romney than it was to his dad. But the jury is still out on whether he’ll win the White House. As for Lincoln Chafee, while he may or may not endorse Barack Obama again, he almost definitely won’t back the son of the man his father once supported so energetically.
Thank you to M. Charles Bakst for suggesting this post. An earlier version incorrectly said John Chafee served in the Senate until shortly before his death in 1999; he died in office after announcing his plans to retire.