Growing Up Romney: Mitt’s Early World

With 'Mitt,' 10, youngest of Romney children, [George Romney] inspects house at Bloomfield Hills which he and his wife designed.
Grey Villet—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from March, 1958, issue of LIFE. "With 'Mitt,' 10, youngest of Romney children, [George Romney] inspects house at Bloomfield Hills which he and his wife designed."
History
1958
1963

The childhood narratives that inform the public’s perception of so many political figures — Abe Lincoln’s log cabin; George Washington’s cherry tree; JFK’s privileged youth — often assume the shape of myth, or at least of very-tall-tale, with the occasional, grudging nod to hard, historical facts. In the current race for the White House, the candidates’ upbringings are once again subjects of conversation — and of sometimes willfully fact-averse allegation from the spittle-flecked fringe. (“Obama’s a Kenyan!” “Romney’s a bigamist!”)

But then, there’s no reason at all why a candidate’s younger days should not be of interest to pundits and to the electorate as a whole. As Wordsworth long ago observed: “The child is father of the man.” Even if we wanted to escape our earlier selves, we can’t; consciously or unconsciously, for better or for worse, our earliest days inform our later years.

In other words: Wherever we go, it’s often where we come from that really matters.

In the 1950s and ’60s, LIFE magazine spent a lot of time with the parents and the kids — and, occasionally, the grandkids — of a well-known American family, the Romneys of Michigan. George W. Romney (1907 – 1995), was for eight years the president of American Motors Corporation and, from 1963 to 1969, served as the Republican governor of Michigan. (In the early ’60s he feuded, both privately and publicly, with GOP right-wingers like Barry Goldwater, whose deeply conservative views on pressing issues like the civil rights movement struck the moderate Romney as out of step with the times, and counter to what he saw as the party’s traditions.)

[See all of TIME.com's Mitt Romney coverage here.]

George Romney’s second son, Willard Mitt Romney, has followed the same path taken by the children of countless eminent families in the United States. Kennedy, Bush, Cuomo, Daley, Roosevelt — the list of family names associated with the presidency, Congress, governorships and mayoral seats around the country is tremendously long, with hardly anyone ever blinking an eye when a young man or woman decides to follow a family tradition and jump into the political ring.

That Mitt Romney did just that is no surprise; that he’s gotten as far as he has — especially in light of his Mormon faith, which for many Americans remains a something of a mystery — says as much about Romney’s ambition and his confidence as it does about his upbringing.

The photographs in this gallery, meanwhile — most of which never ran in LIFE — are hardly meant to capture the “real” Mitt Romney, or to somehow miraculously convey the essence of the Romney family as a whole. (Many of the pictures focus not on Mitt, but on his father, mother and other family members.) After all, the man’s own statements and actions as a public figure over the past two decades provide more than enough informational grist — for supporters and detractors, alike — while a few dozen pictures can never come close to distilling the full character of a large, complex, accomplished family.

To pretend or imply, then, that this is anything like a definitive look at Mitt Romney as a boy or a man would suggest an outsized faith in one’s powers rivaling the unmitigated chutzpah of, say, a politician.

Nevertheless, it remains clear that President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s backgrounds are part of the larger national conversation this fall. Electing a commander in chief solely on the basis of his experience of childhood would, of course, be absurd; but ignoring the public curiosity about where these men came from would be equally silly. Both candidates, after all, have proudly proclaimed that the people who raised them unquestionably shaped the way they see the world.

These photos, ultimately, offer one, small window through which to view the world in which Mitt Romney was raised.  His father (“lean, hard George Romney,” as LIFE put characterized the AMC chairman and president in 1958) is here, as are his mom and his siblings. Some of the pictures feel rather stagey; others seem genuinely informal and, as it were, intimate; all of them suggest a close-knit family defined, in large part, by its faith and by the pursuits of its dynamic patriarch. Taken as a whole, they’re one more piece to the puzzle that is the current Republican candidate for president. This is not an exhaustive portrait, but instead a glimpse into what it was sometimes like — at least when reporters and photographers were around — growing up Romney.

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