According to five people who were private-school classmates of Mitt Romney’s in the 1960s, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee led a group assault on a gay classmate for being different:
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.Among the five former students who independently recounted the incident to a Washington Post reporter, one is a former county Republican Party chair. Four spoke on the record, one of whom acknowledges (and regrets) having played an active role in the assault; others regret their failure to stop it. Romney, through a spokesperson, initially claimed he did not recall the incident, then later said “I just did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by it, obviously I apologize” and “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize.” There is, in short, little if any reason to doubt that the episode happened as Romney’s classmates describe 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. […]
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.
That Romney’s behavior was deeply inappropriate is self-evident to all but the irredeemable bigots and blind partisans. But does the incident -- and lesser, but still serious, examples of Romney’s cruel prep school behavior, like leading a nearly-blind English teacher into a closed door -- tell us anything useful about Romney? The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent makes the case for restraint, and makes it well:
But when it comes down to it, this all happened too long ago and too early in Romney’s life to know with real certainty whether it’s revealing of any of those things or not — particularly when it comes to who Romney is right now. I can’t get around the simple fact that I wouldn’t want to be judged today by some of the things I did in my teens, and I suspect many others feel the same way.I’m generally wary of assessing politicians (or athletes or entertainers or other public figures I do not know) based on my impressions of their personality and character rather than on the policy positions they take. Punditry about “authenticity” and “likeability” makes me nauseous, with a bit of anger and pity thrown in for good measure. But this isn’t “earth tones” or even dog-roofing: It’s a premeditated group assault on a gay teenager for being different. Romney’s high school bullying is unlikely to be a decisive factor for many voters, and it shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that the episode should be ignored.
I’m not running for president, obviously, and it’s a reality of presidential politics that those who do run will have every facet and stage of their life scrutinized relentlessly for clues to who they are. And character matters in a presidential candidate. But Romney says he’s changed; I don’t know how you can prove or disprove that. And to me, that’s the rub. Because of that, I don’t see how you can reach sufficiently firm conclusions about the meaning and relevance of these episodes to who Romney is now.
I have, since my own adolescence, been firmly of the belief that minors, particularly those in their high school years, should, in general, be taken more seriously as rational actors capable of making their own decisions, not less. That belief makes it difficult to dismiss Romney’s actions simply because he young. He was not, after all, a six year old -- he was 18, old enough to be drafted to serve in the war he supported (though, as the fortunate son of a wealthy governor, such a fate was unlikely.) If you’re old enough to drive a car, get married, and fight a war, you’re old enough to know that it’s wrong to lead a group assault on someone whose only crime is having hair you don’t like.
But people do change and, as Sargent writes, few of us would want to be judged by some of the things we did in our teens. But that’s because we’re ashamed of those things: We’ve grown, we’ve come to understand that what we did was wrong and to regret our actions. As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson notes, this is true of Romney’s classmates:
It is hard to forget that scene after reading it; how easy could it be after living it? For the five former students who spoke to the Post’s Horowitz —four of them allowing their names to be used—it seems to have been impossible, becoming the sort of indelible, awful wrong that haunts both sides. “It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” Thomas Buford said. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.” “It was vicious,” said Philip Maxwell. “He was just easy pickins,” said Matthew Friedemann.Romney, on the other hand, claimed he didn’t even remember the assault. When that didn’t convince anyone, he acknowledged having done “dumb things … if anybody was hurt by that or offended by it, obviously I apologize.” As non-apology apologies go, that’s a doozy: Romney tackled Lauber, pinned him down, and forcibly cut his hair off while his victim screamed for help. Now he apologizes “if anybody was hurt.” A clear, forceful statement of regret and denunciation of bullying could have been incredibly powerful -- a welcome and valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to reduce the kind of anti-gay bullying Romney once led. It wouldn’t be an easy thing to do, but Presidents -- and people who want to be President -- sometimes have to do things that are hard. Instead, Romney offers a perfunctory apology -- while laughing -- for “hijinks and pranks” that “might have gone too far.” That doesn’t suggest much personal evolution. It certainly doesn’t do much to comfort current teens who are the victims of anti-gay bullying, or to dissuade their antagonists.
Just yesterday, Romney indicated he still favors bullying of gays -- only now he prefers to use the law rather than a pair of scissors:
Like many conservative Republicans, Mitt Romney is opposed not only to same-sex marriage, but also to the civil unions that many states have adopted as an alternative to full marital rights for gay couples. […]Romney’s statement made clear that this is not about “respecting religious freedom” or “traditional definitions of marriage,” the excuses typically offered by those who wish to ban gay marriage. It’s simply a desire to discriminate against gays: Romney opposes giving them the same rights straight people have even if it isn’t called “marriage.” It doesn’t, therefore, have anything to do “definitions of marriage.” Romney just wants to treat gay people as second-class citizens. That doesn’t suggest that he’s changed much since he was bullying gay students as an 18-year-old.
“My view is the same as it’s been from the beginning,” Mr. Romney told a CBS affiliate in Denver. “I don’t favor civil unions if it’s identical to marriage, and I don’t favor marriage between people of the same gender.” Asked why he opposed civil unions, in particular, he explained that in many cases they represent marriage by a different name for gay couples.
“If a civil union is identical to marriage other than with the name, why, I don’t support that,” he said Wednesday.
Romney’s high school years also highlight the extraordinary life of privilege Romney has enjoyed. It’s worth noting that Romney wasn’t punished for the assault on his classmate, despite numerous witnesses and a “famously strict” prep school:
The incident transpired in a flash, and Friedemann said Romney then led his cheering schoolmates back to his bay-windowed room in Stevens Hall.Romney’s victim was later expelled for smoking a cigarette. Yet Romney wasn’t punished at all for leading a physical assault. It’s easy to assume this had something to do with the fact that Romney was the son of the state’s sitting governor, a wealthy auto executive. But even if that had nothing to do with it, it’s hard to imagine that a black teen who led his fellow peers in physically assaulting a white student would have escaped punishment, and even harder to believe he’d be a viable presidential candidate decades later. According to the Washington Post, when Romney wasn’t chosen for an advanced-placement program, he complained to the headmaster and talked his way in. Maybe a poor minority kid whose father didn’t run an auto company and serve as governor could have pulled off that trick -- but it’s less likely. Does Romney understand the privilege he has enjoyed as a wealthy white man? Or the injustice faced by those who do not share his good fortune? I’ve yet to see evidence of it in his policy preferences, which tend to favor those who, like Romney himself, have already been favored by chance.
Friedemann, guilt ridden, made a point of not talking about it with his friend and waited to see what form of discipline would befall Romney at the famously strict institution. Nothing happened.
The Washington Post’s account of Romney’s high school years also suggests a dismissiveness towards classmates who didn’t enjoy his financial comfort:
Others noticed a distance between themselves and Romney. “I was a scholarship student and he was the son of the governor,” said Lance Leithauser, now a doctor, who attended the school with his brother, Brad, now a noted poet. “There was a bit of a gulf.” Even a close pal like Friedemann felt that distance; their friendship was confined to the dorms. When Romney left the campus on weekends, he never invited him. “I didn’t quite fit into the social circle. I didn’t have a car when I was 16,” Friedemann said. “I couldn’t go skiing or whatever they did.”Has Romney grown out of that? He says people who are concerned about “the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions” and “the distribution of wealth and power” are just jealous of the wealthy. He pays a lower tax rate on his multi-million dollar income than many middle-income workers -- and wants to cut tax rates for millionaires twice as much as for everyone else.
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.
That’s why Romney’s school years, while certainly not the most important thing about him, are not easily dismissed: There is precious little evidence that he has changed, or that he has developed empathy for others. As a wealthy prep student, the targets of his “pranks” (at least one of which is better described as assault) were those weaker than he: The kid who was different, and thus easily ganged-up upon and the blind teacher. As an adult, he jokes about closed factories, makes light of unemployment, and makes jokes at the expense of waitresses. He tries to shut down disagreement with obnoxious offers of $10,000 bets his opponents can’t match. Most importantly, he consistently favors policies that favor wealthy, privileged people like himself while continuing to marginalize those who are different or don’t share his fortune. He was a bully then, and he’s a bully now.
UPDATE: TPM reports that as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney abolished a commission tasked with helping bullied gay kids -- a commission created by Romney’s Republican predecessor:
Mitt Romney clashed with a state commission tasked with helping LGBT youth at risk for bullying and suicide throughout his term as Massachusetts governor over funding and its participation in a pride parade. He eventually abolished the group altogether.
“We remember well what Romney tried to do as governor of Massachusetts and we now we have more info on some of his own attitudes that may have led to his policy actions,” Eliza Byard, executive director of LGBT anti-bullying organization GLSEN, told TPM, drawing a connection with reports that Romney cornered a youth in high school and cut his hair. “If he’s willing to dismiss that incident as ‘hijinks,’ I could understand that he wouldn’t understand at all why this program was so critical.”