In Defense of Mitt Romney, High School Bully

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign stop in Lansing, Mich., May 8, 2012.

Jason Horowitz’s story in the Washington Post on Mitt Romney’s teenage years is a first-rate piece of reportage. The portrait of a high school class in 1965 is laced with anecdotes about the posh prep school’s social dynamics and institutional pressures, and it offers a useful window into Romney’s formative years. Unfortunately, now is the moment in the story’s short life cycle when shouty pundits and partisan activists harness the reporter’s labor to pontificate about Romney’s current character, based on incidents that happened almost 50 years ago. 

Horowitz recounts two searing tales of Romney’s alleged bullying. In one, corroborated by five people who witnessed the incident, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is the ringleader of a group that forcibly cuts the hair of an effeminate transfer student. In the other, Romney taunts a closeted gay classmate with a derisive “Atta girl!” when the kid speaks in class. The latter was cruel but hardly eye-popping; the former was, at best, a “senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do,” as one of Romney’s cohorts puts it now. Neither is the kind of mischievous “prank” that Romney’s campaign has cited to dispel talk of the former governor’s wooden personality.

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The story’s timing is abysmal for Romney, of course, coming on the heels of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage (which prompted Romney to reaffirm his opposition to it) and Romney’s messy split with former spokesman Ric Grenell, who left the campaign amid blowback from religious conservatives incensed that Romney would hire a homosexual. A Romney spokeswoman told the Post that “the stories of 50 years ago seem exaggerated and off base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents.” This seems implausible — most people remember the slights and slings of their teenage years, whether suffered or administered to others. But it’s possible. Romney, despite maintaining that he didn’t remember the incident, offered a vague apology during an interview with radio host Brian Kilmeade. “Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize,” he said.

The story doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of the presumptive Republican nominee. And by the time most people read the allegations in the Post, the spin cycle was already churning. Democrats quickly seized on the incident, terming it “vicious,” while the Human Rights Campaign denounced Romney’s “anti-gay past.” On the right, the banshees at Breitbart’s stomping grounds, who are fantastic at summoning outrage but possess zero self-awareness whatsoever, accused the Post — which held Horowitz’s story from the print edition to avoid juxtaposing it with an editorial praising Obama’s gay-marriage stance — of being a propaganda organ for the Democratic Party.

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It’s standard fare for revelations about a candidate’s past to be leveraged against him. But it’s unfair to draw sweeping conclusions about Romney’s character based on allegations of high school cruelty. For one thing, it’s hypocritical. The vast majority of high schoolers, as anyone who attended high school can tell you, are pretty unbearable. They can be mean, stupid, cliquish, insecure. They blame everything on their parents, probe for signs of weakness, bad-mouth one another. There is no such thing as a human being who did not make bad decisions in high school, whether it involved binge drinking or bullying a weaker kid. That’s not to minimize the pain Romney allegedly caused; as Horowitz shows, the incident haunted both the victim and some of the perpetrators for a very long time. But it’s not necessarily a measure of who Romney has become.

It was silly four years ago to argue that Barack Obama was unsuited for the presidency because he smoked pot and snorted cocaine once upon a time. It is silly to reach the same conclusion about Romney now. Recreational drug use and adolescent bullying are different — the former crime, most of the time, is victimless. But in 1965, homophobia was even more common than it is now. That doesn’t excuse it, yet even today, in what is supposed to be an era of social progress, anti-gay epithets are still flung haphazardly by kids grasping for touchstone insults, including kids who aren’t anti-gay.

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Running for President means signing up to have the mundane details of your life excavated by reporters in search of a Rosebud. Horowitz turns up incisive vignettes about Romney’s adolescence — but less so about his attitudes toward gays than those toward wealth. Take these recollections from classmates:

Lou Vierling, a scholarship student who boarded at Cranbrook for the 1960 and 1961 academic years, was struck by a question Romney asked them when they first met. “He wanted to know what my father did for a living,” Vierling recalled. “He wanted to know if my mother worked. He wanted to know what town I lived in.” As Vierling explained that his father taught school, that he commuted from east Detroit, he noticed a souring of Romney’s demeanor.

Romney was bowled over by the wealth of some of his friends. He briefly dated Mary Fisher, the daughter of the philanthropist and diplomat Max Fisher, who acted as a finance chairman to George Romney’s political campaigns. At her house, he watched the James Bond film Goldfinger in the family’s private theater before it was widely released. He reported excitedly back to [close friend Matthew] Friedemann about the theater, noting that the seats even had numbers.

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He inhabits a bubble in which his status as the son of a governor accords him certain luxuries — including, it seems, avoiding serious discipline for his bullying — while the victim gets expelled for nothing more than smoking a cigarette. Certainly one can argue that embedded in these stories are flecks of the ambition toward great wealth that drove Romney to corporate success.

But it seems dangerous to draw meaningful conclusions about Romney the adult from the not-so-shocking revelation that a high school kid sometimes acted like a jerk. It would be relevant if Romney exhibited this kind of bad judgment, prejudice or cruelty in his adult life. There’s no evidence of that. If Obama is allowed to “evolve,” Romney is entitled to the same privilege.

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