But in the course of a single afternoon, the Romney campaign became a national joke. As Theodore White told it in The Making of the President 1968, Romney, who had a tendency to revise his previous comments and positions, told a radio host that he changed his mind about Vietnam. The way he phrased it proved his undoing. Referring to a trip he had made, Romney said “Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there . . . ” He went on to explain that upon his return he had done his own study of the nation “going back to World War II” and concluded that the war was not necessary.
You might suppose that the anti-Vietnam press corps might have approved of this demonstration of independent thinking. But Romney was, after all, a Republican. Moreover, as White makes clear, he was a particular kind of Republican — naïve, innocently moralistic, and old-fashioned — qualities that the liberals in the press were inclined to loathe. Within days, the “brainwashing” quote was everywhere. Eugene McCarthy added a cruel but amusing quip that no brainwashing was needed as “a light rinse should have been sufficient.” Romney’s polls tanked. He was finished.
Mitt Romney seems determined never to let his guard down, never to permit a slip that could prove fatal. His extreme caution is psychologically understandable but may prove politically costly in its own way. Trying too hard to avoid mistakes is itself a mistake. People want to vote for a person, not a robo-candidate.