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Originally published Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Democrats would be wise to avoid the "Romney Line"

Democrats wishing for themselves a national standing are venturing close to the "Romney Fault Line" as they attack the Bush administration's...

Special to The Times

DEMOCRATS wishing for themselves a national standing are venturing close to the "Romney Fault Line" as they attack the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq.

Michigan Gov. George Romney was a bright star in the Republican firmament in 1967, a handsome, square-jawed family man and devout Mormon who had done an excellent job as governor and before that as president of American Motors.

He had the backing of many Republican moderates, including Nelson Rockefeller, as well as more-conservative governors and party leaders. He was testing the waters early in 1967 and it quickly became apparent that Vietnam was the single issue on the minds of most voters and all of the national media.

Romney was a domestic-politics guy, he knew budgets and programs up and down, but he was not experienced in foreign policy, nor were his closest advisers.

On the last day of August 1967, more than a year before the election, Romney innocently and without thinking sealed his doom as he answered a question from a television interviewer.

Why, the interviewer asked, had he changed his views on Vietnam, from tacit support of President Lyndon Johnson's policies to a somewhat-vague opposition?

Romney asserted that on a visit with generals and diplomats in Vietnam, "... I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam." He promptly forgot about a line that no one in the studio felt was important.

But it was. Five days later, an eternity in news time today, the term "brainwashed" showed up in The New York Times, opening a media onslaught basically charging that Romney was too dumb to be president.

He never escaped the "brainwash" comment. It followed him like a choleric mongrel, in part because there was a suspicion among national reporters that Romney was too moralistic to lead a country in the throes of a cultural revolution, and too naïve to deal with an issue like Vietnam.

I spent a couple of days with him in New Hampshire early in 1968 and he could not escape "brainwashed." Under any circumstances, 1968 was a tough time for anyone to campaign — the country was pulling itself apart — and Romney just wasn't up to the task. The campaign plummeted and was abandoned on Feb. 28. We wound up with Richard Nixon.

Romney was too honest and too blunt, and "brainwashed" was a poor choice of words. He had been seriously misled, along with the American public, beginning with the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 and continuing for years.

At the presidential level, a candidate cannot admit being duped or fooled. LBJ fooled George Romney and, ultimately, both men paid a price.

George W. Bush fooled a bunch of politicians and it remains to be seen who will pay the price — which has already been paid by close to 10,000 killed and wounded American soldiers and Marines plus tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

What would have become of Sen. John Kerry in 2004 if he had stood up and said he was wrong to take the president at his word on evidence of weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaida ties to Saddam Hussein? Would he have crossed the Romney Fault Line, or would his grave, serious demeanor and Vietnam medals have saved him? Kerry of late seems to be over the Fault Line, but it probably doesn't matter for his future.

It could matter for others who voted to give Bush authority to go to war. Do they admit they were wrong, that they took the president's purported evidence and failed to ask the tough questions because the 2002 elections were at hand? Does this mean they are too dumb or gullible to be president? Or too honest?

All the evidence points to a president who "cherry-picked" intelligence, choosing that which supported the race to war, a man either too lazy to ask the tough questions of his war hawks or already committed regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof). Does that mean he lied? Probably not; lying implies intent. Does it mean incompetence or intellectual laziness? Almost certainly.

History will be rough indeed on George W. Bush. He has pushed his country into a corner with no good escape route and the chaos he unleashed will outlast his presidency.

The next year or two will see how successful Democrats with Oval Office designs are in maneuvering clear of Bush and Democratic acquiescence on Iraq, while avoiding the Romney Fault Line.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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