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, with the occasional, grudging nod to hard facts. 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 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 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.
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 long, with hardly anyone ever blinking an eye when a young man or woman decides to follow a family tradition and step into the political ring.
That Mitt Romney did just that is no surprise; that he has met with such success in that arena—especially in light of his Mormon faith, which for many Americans remains something of a mystery—says as much about Romney’s ambition and his confidence as it does about his upbringing. Finally, that he has emerged as a player in the 2014 mid-term elections, campaigning for GOP candidates, says a good deal about his desire to continue wielding whatever power or influence he might still have within the party.
The photographs in this gallery, meanwhile—most of which never ran in LIFE magazine—are hardly meant to 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, while a few dozen pictures can never come close to distilling the full character of a large, complex, accomplished family.
Ultimately, these pictures 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 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 comprise not an exhaustive portrait, but a glimpse into what it was sometimes like—at least when reporters and photographers were around—growing up Romney.