Of Romneys and Kings: Stephen Hess Looks Back

There has been a not-quite-Clintonesque dispute over the word “saw” these past few days as Mitt Romney now says he didn’t actually “see” his father George march with Martin Luther King, as he had been reported to have told some audiences. That is relatively minor business.  The question now is whether the elder Romney did actually march with the civil rights martyr.

Mitt Romney has cited one of my favorite political books as his source for praising his father’s association with King:  The Republican Establishment, by David Broder and Stephen Hess, an informative bookon the state-by-state condition of the GOP in 1967 and profile of its possible candidates for ’68, among them Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and then-Michigan Gov. George Romney.

In citing the Michigan governor’s passionate commitment to civil rights (despite of his church’s refusal at the time to admit blacks) the authors report the elder Romney: “He has marched with Martin Luther King through the exclusive Grosse Pointe suburb of Detroit and he is on record in support of full-coverage Federal open housing legislation.”

When I spoke to Hess yesterday, the political scientist and Brookings Institute scholar said that “both David [Broder] and I knew George Romney and liked him.”  As for the source of the report he marched with King, Hess said “It either came from a document we saw , or more likely, something he said to one of us.  David traveled a lot with Gov. Romney and I suspect he might have said that to  him.”  (In separate interviews, Broder told reporters he could not recall the source of the Romney-King connection; Hess also told me that the Detroit Free Press had called him, that they “were going through their archives and no one found anything” about the then-governor marching with King in Grosse Pointe.”

The elder Romney was indeed passionate about civil rights and drew a handsome 34% of the black vote when he was re-elected governor in 1966, two years before his own ill-fated and very brief bid for the Republican presidential nomination.  George Wallace once denounced Romney for being “out in the street with the demonstrators” — a possible reference to marching with King — and, as Hess told me, “it certainly rings true.”  But for now, no one can reference it.