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Mad Men‘s formula for success comes from its careful duality: it revels in pinpoint accurate details from its 1960s setting, while playing with themes that are timeless. Sometimes that means a fortuitous opportunity to use news and names that have reappeared in the cycle of American history.
On Sunday night’s episode, the second of its fifth season, Mad Men featured a scene in which Henry Francis, a character who is an aide to New York City Mayor John Lindsay, says that he does not want the mayor to appear with Michigan Governor George Romney. Francis calls Romney “a clown,” which caused an outcry among conservative media figures; George Romney was the father of current GOP presidential nomination front-runner Mitt Romney, and they saw it as a dig from Mad Men‘s politically liberal creator, Matthew Weiner. Tagg Romney, Mitt’s son, complained about the remark on Twitter, calling it an example of the liberal media’s bias and defending his grandfather.
But there is historic context for the comments.
Politically, Lindsay and Romney had similar belief systems; they were liberal Republicans, advocates of gun control and civil rights (Lindsay would eventually become a Democrat). That made them Rockefeller Republicans at a time when Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York. Lindsay, at first a member of Congress from New York, had little regard for the political machinations of Rockefeller, even years before his 1965 run for mayor.
When Lindsay (reluctantly) began his campaign for mayor, he disavowed public and financial support from Rockefeller; the governor was unpopular in the state and tended to control his patrons, which, combined with Lindsay’s distaste for him personally, led to him rejecting a generous $500,000 donation pledge. That infuriated Rockefeller, which led to a war of words in the press.
Fast-forward a year, when the episode of Mad Men took place. Francis, who is Betty’s second husband in the show, has gone from working for Rockefeller to the newly elected Lindsay. The new mayor had ambitions beyond Gracie Mansion, however; he eyed the presidential election of 1968. Earning his party’s nomination (especially given the rift between Goldwater conservatives and liberal Republicans) might have been a long shot, but he at least had a shot at the vice presidential slot.
Rockefeller also had Oval Office ambitions, but having vowed to exit electoral politics forever (at the time), he backed another liberal Republican for the nomination: George Romney. And the Michigan Governor was much more accepting of Rockefeller’s political support, as his entire campaign would be staffed by Rockefeller aides.
Those were the sides: Rockefeller and Romney on one, Lindsay on the other. They still had to work together, given their positions, but behind the scenes, it was ugly. In fact, when Romney made a visit to tour New York City’s more run-down urban areas, it was coming on the heels of the gaffe that would eventually cost him his shot at the presidency: he said that he had been “brainwashed” by generals during an earlier visit to Vietnam, and no longer supported the war.
Lindsay declined to join the tour of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem; when asked by a reporter if he was afraid of brainwashing the governor, Lindsay winkingly called him “naughty.”
Clearly, calling Romney a “clown” wasn’t much of a stretch for the Lindsay-aligned character.
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