(That was then: Donald Trump endorsing Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president in 2012. Photo by Steve Marcus / Reuters)


When Earl Butz, the sitting agriculture secretary of the United States of America, was overheard telling an especially vulgar, racist joke on his way out of the 1976 Republican National Convention, I was a young reporter at a little daily newspaper situated squarely in the Old South.

It was so unprintable that few newspapers repeated it, and of course there was no Worldwide Web, no Twitter, no Snapchat to stream the slur around the globe. John Dean, an erstwhile counsel in President Nixon’s Watergate-tainted White House, overheard the joke aboard an airliner and attributed it to an unnamed Cabinet member in his account of the convention for Rolling Stone magazine. After some enterprising reporters traced the itineraries of President Ford’s Cabinet members, Butz was outed and forced to resign.

As the episode dominated headlines above news reports only vaguely alluding to what Butz actually said, the Associated Press issued advisories to editors detailing the specific, ugly wording of the slur. The editor of my newspaper approached my desk with a print-out from the AP teletype in his hands and asked me: “You know what Butz said?” Yes, I replied. “What’s wrong with that?” the editor asked me with a chuckle of his own.

That’s when I knew it was time to move on.

One assumes that the brawling and sometimes bawdy Donald Trump isn’t so vile as to traffic in remarks such as Butz’s aboard his own private Boeing 757. Yet publicly, the front-runner for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination promises to build a wall against Mexicans whom he labels as “rapists” and “criminals” flooding into the United States. He has publicly proposed barring members of the world’s second largest religion, Islam, from entering the country. And most recently, Trump had trouble deciding whether to publicly disavow the campaign support of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, while feigning a lack of knowledge about someone whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial.”

Only now, in the aftermath of the Duke debacle  —  which Trump finally settled with a simple tweet: “I disadvow”  —  have several of the Republican Party’s foremost leaders concluded that it’s time for the party to move on.

Amid a remarkable crescendo of rising complaints within the Republican Party, with elected party leaders vowing to vote for anyone but Trump in November  –  even for Hillary Clinton  —  Mitt Romney stepped forward today with a speech suggesting that American democracy itself is imperiled.

“John Adams wrote this,” Romney said, quoting the second president during his remarks today: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

“Let me put it plainly,” the party’s 2012 presidential nominee said. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”

The public anger fueling Trump’s candidacy is understandable, Romney said, but it should be “transported into energy directed for good.” Instead, he said, evil is “trumping good” in Trump’s bid for the White House.

Trump “creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants, he calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”

“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said, making fun of the campaign cap Trump wears. “He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”

“Trump’s bombast is already alarming our allies and fueling the enmity of our enemies,” Romney said. “The president of the United States has long been the leader of the free world. The president and yes the nominees of the country’s great parties help define America to billions of people.”

Americans have defied Adams’ warning, Romney said, because “we have been blessed with great presidents, with giants among us. Men of character, integrity and selflessness have led our nation from its very beginning. None were perfect: each surely made mistakes. But in every case, they acted out of the desire to do what was right for America and for freedom.

“The second reason is because we are blessed with a great people, people who at every critical moment of choosing have put the interests of the country above their own,” he said, anticipating how Trump would handle his searing criticism. “Watch how he responds to my speech today,” Romney said. “Will he talk about our policy differences or will he attack me with every imaginable low-road insult? This may tell you what you need to know about his temperament, his stability, and his suitability to be president.”

“Choke artist”: Trump’s response for Romney.

“Mitt is a failed candidate,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Maine punctuated with repeated ousters of protesters  - - ”get ’em out, get ’em out, bye, bye,” the candidate said from a stage lined with American flags.

Romney “failed horribly. He failed badly,” he said. “That was a race, I have to say folks, that should have been won… I backed Mitt Romney  - - you can see how loyal he was, he was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”

“When Mitt started raising his head a few months ago, I was very strong,” Trump added of a potential Romney campaign in 2016. “I said, ‘Mitt Romney should not run, he’s a choke artist.'” Jeb Bush talked Romney out of making another bid, Trump suggested (with a little campaign humor in calling Bush “a high-energy good salesman”) but “I’ll tell you the real reason he chickened out. It wasn’t Jeb, it was me…. Mitt was going to run, as sure as you’re standing here… Mitt did a big, big choke, and we had to keep him out.”

“I have made so much more money than Mitt,” the billionaire leading the pack of Republican presidential candidates said in his ultimate dismissal.

Romney glossed over rather large pieces of history today in asserting that Americans always have been “blessed with great presidents  —  giants among us, men of character, integrity and selflessness.” The darkness and bigotry that lurked within the Nixon White House, the administration that covered up a “third-rate” burglary of the rival party’s national headquarters and first made Earl Butz a cabinet member in 1971, was revealed over time in the secret Oval Office tapes kept by the only president ever forced to resign.

“I’ll act presidential,” Trump said today, revealing that his wife had suggested he respond presidentially. “But if somebody hits me, I’ll hit back harder.”

Trump is the one moving on now  —  his party’s nomination within reach.