Romney, MLK, Mike Allen, & Eric Fehrnstrom

It has come to my attention that a lot of people, particularly in the realm of political reporting and commentary, are under the impression that there is an open question about the veracity of Mitt Romney's 2007 claims of his father marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.. There is not. Romney's claim, whether deliberate or from faulty memory, is factually untrue. While I have generally tried to avoid rehashing this whole thing too much, I've decided to recount the tale here.

I largely blame Mike Allen of Politico for this confusion, as I'll explain below, although I want to make clear that I'm not trying to badmouth him, and I have no problem with him generally (although I was a bit put off by his dismissal of the great Donovan Slack a few months ago; minor issue).

I also don't want to indicate any great offense or resentment about the media failing to retell the story. I make no claim about the relative importance or relevance it may hold. But to the extent that the false claim may have been downplayed or forgotten because it's seen as a he-said/she-said difference of opinion, I'd like to clear that up. (For example, in their new book, The Real Romney, Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman refer to it this way: "After he said he had seen his father march with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the assertion was questioned and he backed away from it.")

To lighten the mood of this post, I will also reveal here for the first time some of the snotty correspondence I received at the time from long-time Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom -- all of which was on the record, but that I have never previously disclosed.

So, back to the beginning. In late 2007, during the closing month or so of the Presidential campaign before the first voting contests, Romney claimed in very high-profile appearances that his father, former Michigan governor George Romney, had marched with Dr. King. The most notable was his nationally televised "religion speech" from College Station, Texas, in early December. He repeated the claim later that month on Meet The Press, and if memory serves he said it earlier on Jay Leno.

After the Meet The Press appearance, I thought to check into it, and quickly realized it was almost certainly untrue. Bear in mind, this isn't you or me saying that our Aunt Ida once served coffee to Barbra Streisand; these were two of the most prominent public figures of the time, supposedly participating together in a very newsworthy, very public event -- it should not have been difficult to find accounts.

Instead, the only references I could find all traced back to a single, brief, unsourced clause in the book The Republican Establishment by Stephen Hess and David Broder; it said that George Romney “has marched with Martin Luther King through the exclusive Grosse Pointe suburb of Detroit.” (When I contacted Broder, he very cordially allowed that he had no recollection of where that came from, and added that if there is evidence to the contrary so be it.)

It was not difficult to determine that the two men never actually marched together in Grosse Pointe. At this point, I began contacting the Romney campaign, trying to get any information from them about when and where they believed the march took place. Eventually, late Tuesday afternoon, Fehrnstrom emailed me, saying that it was in Grosse Pointe, as referenced by Broder.

This in itself struck me as something of a confirmation. Again, this is not Aunt Ida; the Romney campaign had enormous resources at its disposal (and a well-funded, aggressive team of researchers) that should have been able to give me something from the George Romney archives, or a photo, or a news clipping, or the recollection of a family member or George Romney associate -- something. If all they had was the Hess-Broder book, that meant they had nothing.

I replied to Fehrnstrom that the only time King was in Grosse Point was to give a speech (with no march) in February, 1968, and that accounts were clear that George Romney was not there. "Is it possible that there was some other example?" I asked. "1968 in Grosse Point" Fehrnstrom insisted. That night, he also sent me the quote from the Hess-Broder book, and a link to the Google scan of the page.

I responded with the counter-evidence I had. Fehrnstrom responded, late that night: "Since you don't accept the Romney family recollection as authoritative, I would encourage you to talk to David Broder. He is one of the most esteemed journalists in the business. His book is contemporaneous to the times. Do you need his number?" In the morning, he sent me a reference they had dug up from some obscure blog, again pointing to Grosse Pointe in 1968.

It was at this point -- having multiple times asked for any other possible examples -- that I emailed Fehrnstrom to point out that Hess and Broder could not have been talking about the 1968 speech, since their book was published in 1967.

I did not hear back from him again until after the story began to spread.

I posted the story midday, Wednesday December 19th. Over the course of the afternoon, it got picked up by several widely read blogs, including Wonkette and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. The major media held off, however -- the Romney war machine was in DefCon 4 over the story (I later got some tidbits from inside about that) and was warning writers and editors that they would regret having bought into the lies of some schmoe from a liberal sex-ad rag. I can't say I entirely blame the media for their reticence -- I was, in fact, some schmoe from a liberal sex-ad rag.

Late that afternoon, Fehrnstrom emailed to me: "It looks like it was in 1963." Over the rest of that afternoon, he sent me three obscure, unsourced, contradictory references they dug up through their exhaustive searching, one mentioning that Romney had marched with King in Detroit in 1963 -- absolutely contradicted by all contemporaneous accounts -- and one mentioning that King was at a small Grosse Pointe march in 1963. I had mentioned that event in the article (and suspect that it was likely the source of the Hess-Broder error), but King was absolutely not present there, according to contemporaneous accounts and other records.

I continued to press Fehrnstrom for any Romney family recollections or materials of any kind about the march, and he responded by accusing me of not doing the "due diligence that would be expected of any fair and objective reporter." At 5:30pm he wrote: "Your attempts to salvage your discredited story are amusing." (This would be the last communication I got from him until the Allen story.)

His triumph was short-lived. A few hours later, the Detroit Free Press posted an early version of a story it was running in the next morning's edition. The paper had decided to check into it, including a deep search through its archives, which provide a pretty thorough chronicling of George Romney's daily activities. The conclusion: the schmoe from the liberal sex-ad rag was correct; the two men never marched together.

In that article, Fehrnstrom changed his tune. He now acknowledged that Romney and King had not marched together in the same place and time, but that Romney's appearance in Grosse Pointe, a week after King's march in Detroit, counted somehow as marching together. From that Free Press article (which seems to no longer be available online):

On Wednesday, Romney's campaign said his recollections of watching his father, an ardent civil rights supporter, march with King were meant to be figurative.

"He was speaking figuratively, not literally," Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman for the Romney campaign, said of the candidate.

The Free Press imprimatur Thursday morning unleashed the Romney travelling press corps, leading by midday to an instantly YouTubed midday press availability in which Professor Romney parsed the meaning of the verb "to see." A few hours later, Romney communications director Kevin Madden endured (quite well, I thought) an interminable grilling by Chris Matthews on Hardball. The next morning, Friday, the Boston Globe weighed in with an article that included this flat-out statement from Stanford University's Susan Englander, who was editing King's papers: "I researched this question, and indeed it is untrue that George Romney marched with Martin Luther King."

By that time, I had found and been sent lots of additional documentation about the events in question, but I saw little point to running them all up the flagpole; the question seemed to have been well settled. The Washington Post "Fact Checker" column had given four Pinocchios to Romney's claim, and later gave it a Pinocchio Award as the #1 Presidential candidate Fib of 2007. The campaign itself had publicly acknowledged that the two never marched together in any literal sense.

I did rebut one more thing. Reports had included the explanation, found in news accounts of the time, that George Romney had declined to participate in the 1963 Detroit march because it took place on the Sabbath. That prompted Mitt, later in the day Thursday, to offer a new memory: that he recalled his father planning to not march because of the Sabbath, but then changing his mind because it was so important.

In a commentary I posted that Friday -- wrapping up my thoughts about what this episode said about Romney -- I provided a news account from the time, in which King defended Romney after the Detroit march, for choosing not to participate.

By that point, the tale had pretty much run its course through the news cycle. (Sadly, this was during the TV writers' strike, so there was no entertaining piling on from Jon Stewart, David Letterman, et al.) I figured it was what it was, and from then on "father marched with MLK" would be added to "lifelong hunter" and "endorsed by NRA" as Mitt errors of fact on the campaign trail. It was now Friday afternoon leading into a four-day Christmas weekend; we'd all have moved on to more interesting material by the time things started back up on Wednesday.

This is where Mike Allen comes in. At 5:45pm (according to the timestamp on the article; Fehrnstrom emailed me the link at around 6:30pm), Allen posted a story in which two people claimed to have personally witnessed George Romney and Martin Luther King march together at the 1963 Grosse Pointe event.

“They were hand in hand,” recalled [Shirley] Basore, a former high-school English teacher. “They led the march."

Allen acknowledged that both witnesses had been sent to him by the Romney campaign, but he gave their 44-year-old memories absolute credence. He gave no indication of what had been reported to the contrary; suggested that Romney had been accused only of exaggeration; and stated as fact that -- although Mitt himself may not have literally seen it -- the two men marching together in Grosse Pointe in 1963 "certainly happened."

Basore’s memory became important this week when news accounts questioned the recollections of the late Michigan governor’s son, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor.

News stories suggested that Romney was exaggerating. It turns out that he may not have attended the Grosse Pointe march, but it certainly happened.

I posted about Allen's article, conveying it as fairly as I could and then running through some of the contradicting contemporaneous accounts of that Grosse Pointe event, with no King; and accounts of King's actual whereabouts that day, in New Jersey. A day later I posted a rather peevish commentary, criticizing the campaign for pushing the two witnesses forward with what the campaign had to know were erroneous recollections.

At the time, I assumed that the campaign meant the "witnesses" story to circulate in the conservative blogosphere (which it did), to assuage Romney supporters. But I soon began noticing that even very smart and savvy journalists had been swayed. Just as an example: Michael Crowley, one of my faves, blogged the next day (with a link to Allen's story) that "evidence is mounting that Romney's father did march with MLK, if not that Romney actually "saw" it." With everybody headed home for the long holiday weekend, Allen's widely-circulated story was the last thing most insiders and journos read about the controversy. 

Again, I'm not trying to bash Allen -- I think he blew it in this instance, but one instance doesn't tarnish an enormity of good work just because it happened to pertain to something I wrote. And, again, I'm not saying that people should be running around constantly reminding voters of when Romney used to erroneously claim that his father marched with MLK. 

I just want to clear up the apparently widespread misperception that the claim was merely "questioned," or even that it was proven correct. That is not so. George Romney and Martin Luther King Jr. did not march together. For whatever that's worth.

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Talking Politics Archives