Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mitt the Bully: What Romney's high school "pranks," including physical assault, tell us about his character and values

It's an ugly story. The Washington Post takes us back to 1965, to Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a prestigious private school for the moneyed elite, and to a teenaged Mitt Romney, illuminating something, something essential, about Romney's character, about what kind of a person he was, and still may be:

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.

In other words, Romney was a moralizing bully who physically assaulted a fellow student. As Richard wrote earlier today, this highly disturbing incident reveals "Romney's need to enforce conformity with his own views and his sense that other people who are different are a personal affront to him."

There are some who will call this a prank, excusing it as a youthful misdeed, if a misdeed at all. They will say that it was all in good fun, or, if not, that it hardly matters now, that the Romney of 1965 isn't the Romney of today. Those people, in my view, will be -- and are -- wrong. Because it shows that the privileged rich douchebag of today is very much the same person as the abusive, perhaps bigoted bully who terrorized John Lauber because he didn't like his look, because he thought he was gay.

As you can imagine, Romney's campaign has been on the defensive today, urgently trying to bring in character witnesses from Romney's high school days to tell us that their guy wasn't the abusive bully he would appear, from several independents accounts, to have been. And Romney himself was just laughing if off today -- he always laughs when he's uncomfortable, and when he's hiding something, have you noticed? -- saying he doesn't remember the incident in question. But is this credible? I think not. As Think Progress reports:

Mitt Romney was asked about the Post's story during a live radio broadcast with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, apologizing before explaining that he didn't remember many of the details of what took place: "Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that... I don't remember that incident," Romney said, laughing. "I certainly don't believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case."

It seems odd that Romney would not recall such a bizarre event, especially since so many other students who were asked about it painted clear pictures of what transpired, but perhaps such "hijinks and pranks" were so frequent he has simply lost track of them all.

A separate incident, in which Romney ridiculed a closeted gay classmate by sarcastically praising him with "atta girl!" comments, helps paint a troubling picture for the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee.

It was a different time, certainly, a time when anti-gay sentiment was widespread and even in some circles completely acceptable, but what we see here is a young man who clearly had a problem with difference, and specifically with homosexuality (he's lying when he says sexual orientation was "the furthest thing" from his mind), and who was a leader, not a follower, when it came to taking out his nasty prejudices on others. And one classmate is painting a pretty clear picture of just what sort of a person Romney was:

One former classmate and old friend of Romney's – who refused to be identified by name – said there are "a lot of guys" who went to Cranbrook who have "really negative memories" of Romney's behavior in the dorms, behavior this classmate describes as "like Lord of the Flies."

The classmate believes Romney is lying when he claims to not remember it.

"It makes these fellows [who have owned up to it] very remorseful. For [Romney] not to remember it? It doesn't ring true. How could the fellow with the scissors forget it?" the former classmate said.

Politically, this story alone won't sink him, but it adds an ugly, violent element to the "privileged rich douchebag" narrative that has been building around him for some time now. He became super-rich as a vulture capitalist destroying jobs and ruining lives, and back in high school he liked to abuse others, both verbally and, it seems, physically. I acknowledge that people can change, but there's a common theme to Romney's character here, exposed in those old "pranks," both this assault and others, as well as in how he has behaved both in business and in politics -- and, for all I know, in his personal life. As Jon Chait writes:

My cautious, provisional take is that this portrait of the youthful Romney does suggest a man who grew up taking for granted the comforts of wealth and prestige. I don't blame him for accepting the anti-gay assumptions of his era. The story does give the sense of a man who lacks a natural sense of compassion for the weak. His prankery seems to have invariably singled out the vulnerable — the gay classmate, the nearly blind teacher, the nervous day student racing back to campus. It's entirely possible to grow out of that youthful mentality — to learn to step out of your own perspective, to develop an appreciation for the difficulties faced by those not born with Romney's many blessings. I'm just not sure he ever has.

I'm not sure either, but the evidence that he hasn't keeps piling up. And while it may not be fair to blame him for "accepting the anti-gay assumptions of his era," there's a difference between having generally anti-gay views common to many at the time, including to those of his socio-economic ilk, and physically assaulting and otherwise abusing those he suspected of being gay -- and otherwise singling out the vulnerable for abuse.

We'll have to see to what extent, if at all, this story sticks, adding to the Romney narrative, to the general perception of Romney as an arrogant prick, but to me he ought to be held accountable for his character, and for what these "pranks" say about his character, as well as for his values, and for how those values have manifested themselves in his actions over time, including in high school. Saying that he doesn't remember, or that he "might have gone too far," isn't nearly good enough.

Mitt Romney has spent his life being a bully, and worse. The American people deserve to know just what sort of a person he really is.

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  • This incident tells us about Romney's character. Romney claims he has changed; yet he still calls a mean and vicious assault a "prank". So I don't buy it. Where is the real regret or remorse ?? Once a mean, callous and cowardly bully, always a mean, callous and cowardly bully. The slick, older Romney may be more sophisticated about concealing the bullying side of his character; but somehow I think we are now going to learn a lot more about it, despite his best efforts to conceal it or laugh it off.

    About Romney and cowardice: during the Viet Nam war, Romney did everything he could to avoid military service ... even though he went on demonstrations in favor of the Viet Nam war. Didn't want to be one of the 50,000 young Americans who lost their lives in that war -- or the thousands more who lost their limbs. He wanted the war he clamored for, to be fought by the "little people" like you and me. Like Dick Cheney, Romney had "other priorities" for his life.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:40 PM  

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