how a particular Romney lie, aggressively pursued by the Romney campaign, undermines the integrity of historical accounts
“Two women contacted the Mitt Romney campaign this week, offering their memories of seeing Romney’s father march with Martin Luther King Jr., in Grosse Point Michigan in 1963. Campaign officials were well aware that the women were mistaken,” writes the intrepid, articulate David S. Bernstein in a post titled When A Claim Becomes Offensive available in The Phoenix’s Talking Politics blog.
Yet, they directed those women to tell their stories to a Politico reporter. The motives and memories of the two women are unknown and irrelevant; the motives of the campaign, however, were obvious — to spread information they knew to be untrue, for the good of the candidate.
By getting this story out late on Friday afternoon, heading into the holiday weekend — good luck getting a King historian on the phone before Wednesday — the campaign was pretty well assured that it could keep alive through Christmas their claim that Mitt Romney was mistaken only about “seeing” it, not about it taking place.
Then-governor George Romney did indeed march in Grosse Pointe, on Saturday, June 29, 1963, but Martin Luther King Jr. was not there; he was in New Brunswick, New Jersey, addressing the closing session of the annual New Jersey AFL-CIO labor institute at Rutgers University.
Those facts are indisputable, and quite frankly, the campaign must have known the women’s story would eventually be debunked — few people’s every daily movement has been as closely tracked and documented as King’s. As I write this, I am looking at an article from page E8 of the June 30, 1963 Chicago Tribune, which discusses both events (among other civil-rights actions of the previous day), clearly placing the two men hundreds of miles apart. I also have here the June 30, 1963 San Antonio News, which carries a photo and article about Romney at the Grosse Pointe march; and an AP story about King’s speech in New Jersey …
Note the subtlety, the elegance, and yet the force of Bernstein’s argument:
… Believe me, [the Romneys] know the two men never marched together. This is an attempt to rewrite history. And even if it is a small rewriting, it is offensive.
[The claim that they did march together] is offensive because of people like Russell Peebles.
Peebles is an 88-year-old man, a former resident of Grosse Pointe for 48 years, who was present at both the Grosse Pointe march in 1963, and the MLK speech in Grosse point in 1968 — the event at which the Romney campaign initially insisted Romney and King marched together.
I tried to contact Peebles earlier this week, prior to writing the original article, but we missed each other back-and-forth. Peebles sent me an email today, attesting to the fact that George Romney was at the 1963 march, but not the 1968 speech; and that King was at the 1968 speech, but not the 1963 march.
Peebles, and many others like him, deserve to have the history of what they did told honestly. Changing that history by mistake — which is quite possibly how this began — is unfortunate. Changing that history intentionally — which is what the campaign is doing now — is offensive … etc.
Here is Bernstein’s larger point: The Romneys are undermining the integrity of an historical account—and historical accounts derive from personal accounts, from personal experience, from people, from real, flesh and blood people acting and pursuing their interests in the world. And the integrity of those experiences should matter not just to the Romneys, but to everyone, as we all have a stake in knowing, learning about, and understanding the past.
But wait: Didn’t Romney himself claim that he was speaking “figuratively” when he said that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King Jr.?—how is this exercise anything other than a cynical and pointless act of outrageous vanity on Romney’s part?