December 21, 2007

It all depends on what "see" means

And also what "march with" means. The Romney campaign is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain that the candidate said something that isn't literally true, without admitting that he said something false. This all works out for them if see means "be aware of", and march with means "support", or maybe "march for the same cause, but in a different day and in a different city".

According to Michael Levenson, "Romney never saw father on King march", Boston Globe, 12/21/2007

Mitt Romney acknowledged yesterday that he never saw his father march with Martin Luther King Jr. as he asserted in a nationally televised speech this month, and historical evidence shows that Michigan's Governor George Romney and the civil rights leader never did march together.

Romney said his father had told him he had marched with King and that he had been using the word "saw" in a "figurative sense."

"If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described," Romney told reporters in Iowa. "It's a figure of speech and very familiar, and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King. I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."

Here's the phrase from Governor Romney's 12/6/2007 "Faith Speech":

The Globe story clarifies what actually happened back in 1963:

Susan Englander, assistant editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, who is editing the King papers from that era, told the Globe yesterday: "I researched this question, and indeed it is untrue that George Romney marched with Martin Luther King."

She said that when he was governor of Michigan, George Romney issued a proclamation in June 1963 in support of King's march in Detroit, but declined to attend, saying he did not participate in political events on Sundays. A New York Times story from the time confirms Englander's account.

A few days after that march, George Romney joined a civil rights march through the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, but King did not attend, Englander said. A report in the New York Times confirms Englander's account of that second march, mentioning George Romney's attendance but making no mention of King.

So George Romney publicly supported -- but wasn't present at -- a march in Detroit that King attended; and participated in a march a few days later in Grosse Pointe, which King wasn't present at. It's not clear from the Globe article whether Mitt participated in either of these marches; as far as I can tell from his biography, he was at boarding school at Cranbrook, an hour or so away, so it's possible.

Romney has repeated the story of his father marching with King in some of his most prominent presidential campaign appearances, including the "Tonight" show with Jay Leno in May, his address on faith and politics Dec. 6 in Texas, and on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday, when he was questioned about the Mormon Church's ban on full participation by black members. He said that he had cried in his car in 1978 when he heard the ban had ended, and added, "My father marched with Martin Luther King."

Mitt Romney went a step further in a 1978 interview with the Boston Herald. Talking about the Mormon Church and racial discrimination, he said: "My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit."

I can appreciate his current frustration. It's certainly clear that his father supported the civil rights movement in 1963, which was not a position to be taken for granted for a politician at that time. And "I read about my father issuing a proclamation in support of a march that Martin Luther King participated in", or "my father (and I ?) marched in Grosse Pointe a few days after Martin Luther King marched in Detroit" are wimpy statements -- "I saw my father march with Martin Luther King" is much punchier. Its only drawback is that it's not exactly true.

[Update -- predictably, this is the presidential campaign story of the day:

David S. Bernstein, "Was it all a dream?", The Boston Phoenix

John Gibson, "Mitt Romney's Big Oops", Fox News

Michael D. Shear, " Romney the Elder and Martin Luther King Jr.", Washington Post (The Trail)

Michael Luo, "Romney Learns that 'Facts Are Stubborn Things'", NYT 12/22/2007 (original head: "Romney shows a tendency to imprecision")

Dawson Bell, "George Romney was at march, King wasn't, activist says", Detroit Free Press

etc. ...]

[Update -- Romney seems to have made things worse by claiming the expert status of a former English major, and then getting the World Series and the Super Bowl mixed up:

CBS News: "Did you actually see -- with your own eyes -- your father marching with Martin Luther King?"
Romney: "My own eyes? You know, I speak in the sense of I saw my dad become president of American Motors. I wasn't actually there when he became president of American Motors, but I saw him in the figurative sense of he marched with Martin Luther King. My brother also remembers him marching with Martin Luther King and so in that sense I saw him march with Martin Luther King."
Later he said, "I can't even give you the time frame. I just remember that we talked about it. My brother also remembers my dad having spoken about the fact that he did not do political events on Sunday but that he decided at the last minute that he was going to break that self-imposed rule and participate and I think he did so on a Sunday as I recall."
He added, "You know, I'm an English literature major as well. When we say, 'I saw the Patriots win the World Series, it doesn't necessarily mean you were there -- excuse me, the Super Bowl. I saw my dad become president of American Motors. Did that mean you were there for the ceremony? No, it's a figure of speech."

The Romney campaign has done a better job of making the case than the candidate has.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 21, 2007 10:54 AM