George Romney

Power To the People

VTR Date: March 20, 1992

Guest: Romney, George


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Governor George Romney
Title: “Power to the People”
VTR: 3/20/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…which is not, and never has been political in nature, not in a partisan sense, anyway. Indeed, just as many people accuse us of leaning to the Right as accuse us of leaning to the Left. And perhaps as many more accuse us of leaning nowhere…of so meticulously maintaining an open mind that perhaps our brains have fallen out, at least as far as taking political stands is concerned.

All to the good, I think, and perhaps that’s what pleased me most about having as my guest today a former Governor, Cabinet member, and candidate for his party’s Presidential nomination who still energetically urges upon his countrymen principle above partisanship…as he insists that ”America’s future hangs by a thread”.

A generation ago when Republican George Romney, the ex-President of American Motors and ex-Governor of Michigan resigned as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he said he intended to form a “Coalition of Concerned Citizens” to help solve our nation’s “life and death” issues.

Noting recently that he is no longer even asked about Presidential elections, Governor Romney voiced his continuing concerns anyway, personally paying for dramatic newspaper “advertorials” that, titled “An American for America”, once again called for “power to the people”, not to political parties to do, as he wrote, “what’s necessary for America to educate, be competitive, resume economic growth, provide economic opportunity and enjoy social stability”.

Now all of that is intriguing, or course, but still there is for me some dissonance to his cry: “power to the people”…and I want first of all to ask Governor Romney precisely what he means by that phrase.

Romney: Well, you know the most distinctive thing about our society is that when they wrote the Constitution they vested ultimate power in the people…”We, the people”, and progressively in my lifetime the participation of the people in the political process has declined.

Heffner: What do you mean by that…declined?

Romney: Well, I mean there are fewer voting. In these primaries only 18% to 20%, 30% maybe vote in the primaries. As a matter of fact even the parties have declined. And then you’ve go the PACS, money has become more important than people almost. Here’s a Presidential candidate yesterday who had to withdraw because he didn’t have the resources. Not because he didn’t have a message, not because he didn’t want to continue. But money and TV have tended to replace the people. And that’s unfortunate.

Heffner: Now how do you reverse that? Because certainly it has grown.

Romney: I think you only reverse it by recognizing that we need to supplement the parties with an opportunity for people who are basically truth-seekers to join in a process that really brought me into public life. I didn’t come into public life as a result of coming up through the political parties. I came into public life as a result of a deadlock in Michigan and a crisis between the Democratic Governor and a Republican legislature and I said “a plague on both your houses” and organized Citizens for Michigan. And this…invited all citizens in the state to participate in the effort to identify what we needed to do to correct the problems of the state. Now we didn’t have a lot of people join, but we had them join throughout the state and enough so that with media coverage, we created an enlightened electorate…the public understood what needed to be done. And the result was we got reforms adopted that have been neglected for years. So that’s basically what I mean. And there’s a process that works in doing that.

Heffner: Governor Romney you say “aided by media coverage”…

Romney: Oh, sure.

Heffner: You don’t find then that media coverage of politics generally, over the past generation has in, in a very real sense intensified the problem?

Romney: Well, I…no, I don’t think it has. I think generally speaking the media does a pretty good job. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen the media do things that the FBI couldn’t, so I have great respect for the media. But on the other hand, I don’t think the media can do an adequate job of creating the understanding that needs to exist…the …a consensus that needs to exist with respect to our critical problems so they can be dealt with in time, and the result is that I think we need to supplement the current political process, and we need to afford an opportunity for citizens with different interests…a cross-section of citizens…to participate and identify what are the key problems…what are the alleged facts, discuss them to the point of agreeing on those that are valid, that reduces ignorance and prejudice and differences to a point, and then you get around to talking about solutions, and you identify those solutions on which a cross-section of citizens are in agreement , so that there’s no minority report going to be filed. The most powerful force in any society is a cross-section coalition of concerned and informed citizens who have reached a consensus. And I’ve seen that work. And it works in some of our cities. But we don’t have that nationally and the result is problems like the deficit and other problems drag on and on and on, and we never get at them.

Heffner: You’re suggesting I gather that if the people feel that power resides in them, they’ll come back into the political arena.

Romney: If they have the opportunity to do so. You see even our parties don’t play much of a part any more, when you get right down to it. Even the political conventions don’t (laughter) amount to much because the selection of the nominees is already settled before the convention’s convened. So there’s been a tremendous change in our whole political process. As a matter of fact there’s been a basic…there’s been a change in every basic method that we’ve used to become the greatest nation in history. And, and we’ve got to return to those basic methods. I use a sports illustration…you know in every field of sports there’s certain basic things you have to do to be successful. In football you’ve got to be able to block and tackle and hold on to the ball. And you have to have a game plan. Now we had these basics and we had a game plan, but we’ve shifted away from them and the result is we’re floundering and we’ve lost our competitiveness. Japan and Germany have picked it up.

Heffner: Well, if you talk about the citizen…not bureaucrat, obviously, not political person, but the citizen participant…

Romney: That’s correct.

Heffner: How do you get back to that? Are you in favor of these suggestions that we limit the number of terms that a person can hold office?

Romney: Oh, I think…I think that’s relatively superficial as compared to making it possible for the people themselves to again be the principal source of power in this country. I think that’s what has to take place. I think it’s completely contrary to our Constitutional precepts to permit corporations and unions to raise money and use that money to influence the political process. And there are other special interests that are involved in doing it. That’s the right of a citizen. There should be no economic organization directly involved in the political process.

Heffner: How do we get out…

Romney: Huh?

Heffner: …how do we get away from the PACS and what they mean and what they bring?

Romney: You’re only going to get away from it if a cross-section coalition of citizens in this country take the time to study that problem and other problems and identify what needs to be done and then they insist on it being done. Now when they do that then the elections are going to focus around those basic issues and problems rather than the superficial things that currently dominate the presidential process. And, and that’s the only way that I know of that it can be done. But I’ve seen that happen. You see I’m not talking theory because that’s what we did in Michigan to straighten out Michigan back when I became…before I became Governor. And, and we created enough public understanding of what the real problems were so that to run for office you had to deal with those problems. You had to indicate what your position…what you were going to do about them.

Heffner: Well, you know, we’re taping this program…Lord knows when it will be seen…but we’re taping this program in, in mid-March. Do Jerry Brown and Mr. Buchanan, do they seem in their relative poverty to represent what it is that you want?

Romney: Oh, they…they’re not in a position to do it. As a matter of fact one of the things I learned as a result of my involvement in the political process is you can’t be right too soon and win elections. If you take specific positions with…about problems that people don’t yet understand, you’re not going to win. And that’s what basically happened with Tsongas. I mean Tsongas had to pull out. He had a message. I think from an economic standpoint his message came closer to being what is needed than any of the other candidates, but he was just right too soon and, and furthermore, he didn’t have the resources to carry on because money has become so important a part in the whole political process. Now Jerry Brown’s right to an extent. Jerry Brown’s talking about the special interest and the influence of money in the whole political process and getting away from it, but he’s not going to win with that because the people of the country haven’t yet been convinced that that’s a necessary change. And there are other problems besides those two problems. I don’t see any candidate running at the present time who’s really going to address the concerns that the people of this country have. I think the people in this country are more fearful about their future than they’ve been in my lifetime. I think they’re more apathetic, and many of them are…just think it’s hopeless to even become involved in the political process. They don’t even vote. So that you don’t get an expression of the people themselves in a…one of the most astounding things to people who’ve come to this country and visit us is to find out that only about 50% of the people vote in our national elections.

Heffner: And the, the emphasis that foreign observers put upon voluntarism in America has sort of decreased because we’re not that much involved anymore. But, but let me ask this question: What do you see happening in terms of the response to your own “advertorials”? You pled for this kind of approach to our problems.

Romney: Well I listed…I listed certain…

Heffner: Right.

Romney: …areas that I thought should be used to gauge candidates. I’ve had a very excellent response from people. I’ve been on radio, I’ve been on TV, I’ve been asked to prepare Op-Ed articles, and I’ll do that. Now, I, I really dealt with two things in that ad. I dealt with the seriousness of our social problems. If I had to identify what I think are our most serious…is our most serious threat, it wouldn’t be in the economic area, it wouldn’t be in the political area. It’d be in the social area. I think these horrendous social problems that we face are undermining every other aspect of American life.

Heffner: How would you identify those problems?

Romney: Well, you, you start out from the departure from the fundamental principle on which the country was based. The fundamental principle on which the country was based is the Declaration of Independence, and the fact you’re endowed by a Creator with certain inalienable rights. And then consent of the governed. And Jefferson himself indicated that the God who gave us life, gave us liberty, can any nation’s liberties remain secure if he removes the conviction that its liberties are the gift of God. Well, not only is God dead, we’re substituting condoms for God in a lot of places throughout the country today…we don’t even teach the correct history of this country anymore. And then you move on to the disintegration of the family, the disintegration of communities…the widespread promotion of sex outside of marriage, teenage pregnancies that are exploding, single parent families, drugs, crime, extreme pockets of poverty, a growing under-class in our urban areas. I go on with all these problems. Education that in too may instances doesn’t educate, illiteracy and so on. These social problems are undermining…the business leadership of this country is more concerned about getting adequately educated employees than any other single thing. And yet the problem of getting adequately educated employees gets back to dealing with these social problems because the youngsters are going into school not ready to learn, but confronted with so many social problems that the teachers are having to deal with two crises. Not only the crisis of educating to a higher level because of the more complex economy in which we’re competing, but also having to deal with these social problems. They can’t deal with these two crises at the same time.

Heffner: Now, you said a moment ago that you didn’t see on the political horizon anyone who was really ready to deal with these problems.

Romney: All, all these problems in an adequate way.

Heffner: Okay. You’re such an incredibly up-beat person…how can you remain so when you describe these problems? You obviously don’t see anything on the horizon happening that’s going to be good.

Romney: Well, I…I’m working on them. And doing what I can in two areas. I concluded some years ago…in 1948 I concluded that the people of this country didn’t appreciate this third sector that we have…that deTocqueville talked about so much in his history of America. He said that the mot unusual thing about our country was that as people faced problems, they didn’t run first to government, they turned first to their fellow citizens, and they organized some association or voluntary means of dealing with the problem. And I became convinced way back then that this was the least recognized and the least organized, and therefore, the least utilized aspect of our society for problem-solving purposes. And I’m encouraged in this. I’ve worked since then to do what I could to strengthen that area, and I’ve seen in, in the past three years a President and a Congress for the first time take actions for the purpose of strengthening this aspect of American society…Points of Light Foundation, a Commission on Community Service…one created by Congress, the other the result…a private organization, but as a result of a Presidential candidate’s statement. And I see for the first time the likelihood that there’s going to be the mobilization of our people in effective action about the social problems. Now this other area, the political aspect that I’m concerned about, this decline and the influence of the people and our inability to have an enlightened electorate so that really those who run for public office can deal with the real problems and, and when they get elected do something about them, that’s something I’m working on to the extent that I can, and I’m hopeful that before the next election in 1996 we can bring about a means by which enough citizens who want to put their citizenship first above their partisanship and their economic interests can identify the basic issues and problems and create enough public understanding so the candidates will have to deal with those issues and problems in their campaigns. And when they do that, then when they get elected they can do something about it.

Heffner: Do you feel that the public financing of political campaigns is importantly a part of that change that you hope to see come?

Romney: No, not necessarily, no. I, I, I’ve never seen the government get into anything directly that wasn’t ultimately influenced by politics. So I don’t think that it’s the best way to deal with it. I, I think this financing of campaigns is something that, that the individual citizen has a right to do, but I don’t think it should be either by government or by economic organizations. I think that we’ve vested the ultimate power in the people, and I think the people should be the source of financing. And I think the people should be the ones to vote and determine the course of our country.

Heffner: By “the people” you mean in individual direct contributions to…

Romney: Sure.

Heffner: …people before them…candidates.

Romney: Sure. And, and look. It used to be that the political parties were the principal instrument of shaping what the, they were going to have as a candidate…determining the candidate. That’s no longer the case. Any individual can decide to run as a Republican or a Democrat, who’s got the money and he’s got the backing that he thinks he needs, then he can run. And there’s no party discipline as there was earlier in our country. They don’t have to pay any attention to the party anymore.

Heffner: Of course, we used to be negative about the smoke-filled room, and the, the convention that was dominated by the bosses. You don’t look with such a jaundiced eye…

Romney: Well, look…

Heffner: …on the PACS.

Romney: …let me tell, let me tell you what happened in Michigan. Let’s take a look at Michigan in this primary. Tsongas has withdrawn as a result of what happened in Michigan basically because he came in third. Now Brown made a spectacular rise in Michigan from about 5% to 27%. Now why? Because Brown decided to take positions that would get the…as much of the labor vote as he could get in Michigan and we’d had the plant shut-down at Ypsilanti, and there’s great concern on the part of the people in the auto industry, employed in the auto industry, so Brown picks up enough labor support, a special interest support, basically, to knock Tsongas out of second place, and, and knock Tsongas down to the point where he withdraws, see? Not that’s…I bumped into Cliff White…I don’t know whether you remember Cliff White…

Heffner: I do, indeed.

Romney: He was the one that managed Goldwater’s nomination and he lined up the delegates long before the people in the party knew they had been lined up. I bumped into him about two weeks ago in my morning walk in Washington. We got to talking about these primaries…with only 18, 20, maybe 30% of the people voting. He said that just opens up the primary process to the influence of the special interests. Because if a special interest, as happened in Michigan just the other day, decides to become involved in a meaningful way, and undertake and influence the outcome of that primary, it can do it.

Heffner: But we always had this ugly picture of the back room, smoke-filled back room…right?

Romney: well, but look…what did we, what did we have originally when the constitution was written? They asked Franklin “What have you given us?” He said “We’ve given you a republic, and…if you can keep it”. Now we didn’t keep it. As a result of various changes that were made to change the representative character of the structure that they created, we created a democracy. And in my opinion, we no longer have a democracy. We’ve got a special interest democracy…a political process that’s dominated by the special interests. That’s why they can’t deal with this deficit. The presidents for some time have recommended getting rid of programs that are obsolete, should have been eliminated many years ago…they can’t get them eliminated because there are enough people benefiting from some…the program that they’re trying to get eliminated, so that they can’t get the votes in Congress. As Senator Long of Louisiana said, “Don’t cut me and don’t cut thee, but cut that guy behind the tree”…in other words, cut everybody else but my constituents. Let’s take it…look at what President Ford said. President Ford made a very honest statement when he made his first talk to Congress. He said, “When I was a representative of the Grand Rapids district, I went after every dollar I could get for my district, because that was a worthwhile public investment”. And then he turned to the Speaker of the House, a Democrat, Speaker Albert, and he said, “But I opposed every dollar you went after for your district because that was pork barrel waste”. Now I’ve seen the Federal government balloon to proportions that are way beyond everything conceived by the founders and in my opinion, completely in violation of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which only gives the Federal government the power not reserved for the states and the people. Well the states are just almost satellites of the Federal government now, and most people are getting some benefit from the Federal government. We, we really have moved (laughter), we’ve changed the method. We’ve not only changed our political…we’ve changed the economic system. If, if I had time I could take you right through the change…we no longer have a free, competitive enterprise system…that resulted in our becoming the first nation in history to lift people out of poverty…with the consumer in the driver’s seat. We’ve substituted what’s now a, a semi-monopolistic economy. Let me tell you what Walter Reuther said to me when we decided really to talk about our basic philosophy. Number one we started out, “Do you believe in a Creator?” That’s pretty fundamental. Walter Reuther, now this is 1957, Walter Reuther said to me “Collective bargaining in the united States is on a dead-end street”. He said, “This pattern of more and more for less and less is a dead-end street”. And that’s what it has proven to be. Now I’ve…I don’t cite that to indicate that unions are completely responsible for what’s happened here economically to us because the managements have been equally at fault in my opinion. These atrocious salaries and bonuses and, and profit-sharing plans and so on that they’ve inaugurated, Golden Parachutes, have made it difficult for them to even deal with the economic relationship effectively. But I cite that because the hard facts are that when Roosevelt had the Wagner Act passed to encourage collective bargaining which was a good thing, he also had another act passed that was a very bad thing. And that was the Norris/LaGuardia Act. And the Norris/LaGuardia Act exempted unions from the anti-trust laws. And that meant that the unions no longer had to be concerned about competitive discipline. And they created these vast monopolies. Now Reuther couldn’t say that publicly without…and still remain President of the UAW. But I tell you what happened. He and I then worked out the most significant…he said…the most significant contract in the history of collective bargaining because it was a profit-sharing contract, where everybody in the company shared on the same basis in our results.

Heffner: George Romney is no longer head of a great automotive company. Walter Reuther, I think you would say doesn’t have many peers today in the labor movement. Therefore, I have to say I hear what Governor Romney has said about what is needed, but I don’t see it coming. I don’t see people like that in the frontlines.

Romney: Well, it’ll only come providing there are enough leaders who recognize that we need to get back to the basics. You know (laughter) I kind of think it’s like baseball…you know, a pitcher’s out there and he’s mowing them down for the first few innings and then he…they begin to hit him allover the lot…so the pitching coach goes out and says, “Look, brother, you’re doing this a little different. Get back to the basics”. And there are some of us, I think, that are still around who have lived long enough to see what’s happened to this country, to realize that we’ve got to get back to the basics. We’ve got to strengthen our fundamental principles. We’ve got to get back to the basic methods that made us the most competitive nation on earth. Now we’ve let the Japanese use methods not as good as ours to take away that competitive superiority.

Heffner: What do you mean “not as good as ours”?

Romney: I mean not as effective as ours.

Heffner: I see.

Romney: I, I should say that at this particular point they are more competitive than we are. But that’s only in my opinion because we’ve departed from the basic methods that we had that made us the most competitive nation on earth and the most successful nation on earth.

Heffner: Well, we have two minutes left for our program, and I can’t help but…I want to go back and ask you, what did happen in the War Department, in the Department of Defense with that comment about brainwashing? Tell me in a minute and a half to two minutes.

Romney: Well, I was the first one to, on the national level to conclude that we’d made a mistake going into Vietnam. Now not a moral mistake, but I concluded that we made a foreign policy and military mistake going into Vietnam. So I began to voice my concerns. And I concluded that after that visit in ’65 during which I had this story by the Ambassador that if we had to be there to…

Heffner: Briefing.

Romney: …prevent…yes, briefing…had to be there to prevent World War III and the general, he, he said we were just going to be there as advisers, we weren’t going to become involved…but all those things turned about to be false. Furthermore, this idea that we were there to prevent China from taking over is a lot of baloney because the Vietnamese had been resisting Chinese…Chinese influence in that area for centuries, see. So, we were given a lot off misinformation with respect to why we were in Vietnam, and I voiced this with a term I used to use in the Design Room at American Motors when they were trying to make those small Ramblers bigger cars…I’d say “Stop trying to brainwash me”, see. Now, they picked it up…the press picked it up and then the Democrats jumped on it…that was in the Fall…but that wasn’t the reason I dropped out of the Presidential race, by the way.

Heffner: What was…in half a minute.

Romney: The reason I dropped out of the Presidential race was I had an understanding with the Republican Governors that if I couldn’t see my way clear to get the Republican nomination, I’d drop out and let them get behind somebody else. And I had that understanding with Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller…three times he had indicated he would support me right through the election and two weeks before the New Hampshire primary he indicated he was available for a draft and he thereby became a candidate and that’s when I dropped out. Because I could no longer see my way clear to defeat Richard Nixon in getting the nomination. There couldn’t be two of us running against Nixon and win.

Heffner: Sounds like a little bit of Tsongas’ figuring, too. Thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND Governor George Romney. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, about our guest today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.