Monday, February 6, 2012

Nixon's Civil Rights 6: George Romney

In my reading today of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights, the topic was George Romney, the father of current Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. George Romney was Richard Nixon's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

George Romney was different from Mitt, or at least how Mitt is characterized to be. Whereas Mitt Romney decries federal intervention (for example, in health care), says that he supports the states taking care of problems, and praises conservatism, George Romney pushed for federal intervention in issues (even beyond what Nixon desired) as well as disdained the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party. Whereas Mitt Romney strikes many as a man without firm convictions, one who will change his political stances to get elected, George Romney was much more adamant about his beliefs, and many called him a crusader.

But what Kotlowski argues is that George Romney did not have good political skills. George Romney acted as a lone-wolf when he pushed suburban communities to accept low-income housing at the threat of losing their federal money, and he did not seek the support of white liberals or even prominent people in Nixon's administration. Suburban communities feared that the influx of low-income people could bring "delinquency", "family disorganization", and "poor maintenance of housing and grounds" (page 56), and they resented Romney's coercive approach. Some may have felt that Romney was a hypocrite, for he lived in an exclusively white suburb and "recruited few black employees for his department" (page 51). Moreover, some African-American leaders actually wanted to keep low-income African-Americans in the city ghetto so as to preserve their own power. Romney later admitted that he tried to make the perfect the enemy of the good: "When there is too much pressure for what ought to be, it prevents what can be" (page 59).

Romney genuinely was passionate about integration, and he did not want African-Americans to be stuck in poor and high-crime cities. According to Kotlowski, Romney's personal background may have had something to do with that. Romney was born in Mexico after his Mormon parents fled there to escape American anti-polygamy laws. (Romney later ran for President, and his candidacy was challenged by some on the basis of the constitutional requirement for Presidents to be natural-born citizens. But Romney's parents were U.S. citizens, and he never became a citizen of Mexico.) When his family came back to the United States, Romney was somewhat of an outsider, as his "playmates questioned his nationality by tagging him 'Mex'" (page 50). While Romney accepted the Mormon church's practice of excluding African-Americans from the clergy, he zealously campaigned for civil rights, as he "fought for open housing during World War II" and marched as Michigan's governor in NAACP marches (page 50). One Michigan Democrat speculated that Romney's Mormonism made Romney overcompensate in standing up for racial equality.

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