Is Mitt Romney a Bully?

The presidential campaign story of the day is Jason Horowitz's lengthy portrait of Mitt Romney's days as a student at the elite Cranbrook prep school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. While the story contains a lot of detail that paints the picture of who the youthful Mitt Romney was and what kind of environments he grew up in, the headline-grabbing part is Romney's leading role, corroborated by several witnesses, in a vicious assault on a classmate whom everyone thought was gay. Partisan Democrats are certainly going to use this to make the case that the incident gives us important insight into Romney's character. I'll get to what I think this does and doesn't tell us about him in a moment, but here's the key passage:

Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn't having it.

"He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann's recollection. Mitt, the teenaged son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber's look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school's collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber's hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

The postscript to this incident is that Romney's punishment for the assault was ... nothing. Maybe the administration never heard about it, or maybe they did but decided it was just ordinary youthful hijinks, or maybe they decided that since Mitt was the governor's son, they'd just let it slide. Lauber, on the other hand, was later expelled when he was caught smoking a cigarette.

Now, on to what this tells us about Mitt Romney. For the most part, I think everyone should be forgiven for pretty much anything they do before they hit about 20 or so. We've all done stupid, insensitive, even cruel things as teenagers, even if most of us never did anything quite that cruel. Thankfully, our society is coming to an understanding about the harm that bullying causes, but in 1965, a young man who seemed a bit effeminate being tortured by his classmates seemed to most people to be utterly unproblematic, even expected.

Places like Cranbrook taught their charges that the world had a hierarchical order, that order was just and good, and their place was at the top of it. Few people would understand that message more deeply than the governor's son. And someone in their very midst who dyed his hair was a threat to that order. So young Mitt's reaction was unsurprising: "He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" The offender had to be made to understand that non-conformity was not acceptable. And oh boy, was he ever made to understand. Mitt made sure of that.

Let's accept for the moment that the 18-year-old Mitt Romney was a premium-grade jerk, but unlike in a teen movie where the snobby rich asshole gets his comeuppance in the end, he went on to become Cranbrook's proudest product. It's almost half a century later. Does this story tell us anything about the man he is today, or the kind of president he'd be?

I'm really not sure. Whether Romney ever believed that privilege was nothing more than the birthright of aristocrats like him, today he seems to believe, along with the rest of his class, that their privilege is actually something they earned, and those who don't occupy the same exalted place they do just need to tug on those bootstraps a little more vigorously. Is there a correlation between the kind of cruel streak that makes you hold down a screaming, crying boy and cut off his hair, and the kind of cruel streak that makes you want to take away people's health insurance? On one hand, Mitt Romney is a grown man, not the teenager he was. I would be shocked if the process of maturation didn't make him more reflective and less impulsive, and even lead him to regret some of the things he did as a young person. That happens to almost everyone.

On the other hand, we express our personalities and our values—those of today, not those of our youthful selves—through our politics. Imagine that what this story actually said was that Mitt bravely stood up for his gay classmate in the face of the other boys' scorn, showing himself to be admirably humane and courageous. Would that change the consequences of the things he advocates today? Would that make it less abhorrent that he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or that he wants to cut social programs, or that he wants to cut protections for clean air and clean water, or that he thinks gay people should be second-class citizens? No. Whether he wants to do those things because deep down in his soul he's a cruel person and always has been, or because he's perfectly kind to the people he meets but believes in an ideology that is fundamentally cruel, doesn't matter a bit. He's not asking us to elect him hall prefect, he's asking us to elect him president. This story is certainly colorful and interesting, but it shouldn't change what we think about Mitt Romney as a candidate.

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