Mitt Romney: high-school gay bully?

You’ve probably heard about this by now:

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — 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.

I am conflicted about this. One of my least favorite things about contemporary American politics is how irrelevant and pathetic the public discourse has become, and how thoroughly disconnected from the everyday reality of people’s lives the online and TV chatter is. (This frustration is rather nicely captured — although I don’t necessarily endorse the Chris Christie-esque tone of the example he uses — by this piece.)

On the other hand, this 47-year-old story has an odd resonance today, given the struggle for gay rights and the very prominent and ongoing issue of the bullying of gays in schools throughout the United States. It seems to show a whole new and very ugly side to Mitt Romney, taking away what was perhaps his last remaining unequivocal positive: being a “good guy.”

And yet this all seems so primitive at the same time. (The timing is suspicious as well — this appeared in the Post the day after Obama’s announcement on same-sex marriage? Seems bizarre, to say the least.) I mean, this literally happened almost a half-century ago. I constantly rail against the idiocy and irrelevance of criticizing presidential candidates for whichever drugs they did as college kids or how much they drank at social events or who they dated or what pretentious literary criticism they wrote to their female admirers as young, heady academics.

So, as horrifying as this incident assuredly must have been for John Lauber, I’m inclined to give Mitt Romney a break on this one. We’re not dealing with 1965 Romney today. Hell, as we’ve clearly seen, the Romney of today doesn’t even bear any resemblance on major issues to the Romney of just a few years ago, never mind 47 years ago.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that my views on Mitt Romney’s gay bullying are still “evolving.”

UPDATE (5/11/2012 1:48 AM Paris time):

Dish blogger (and prominent same-sex marriage activist) Andrew Sullivan comes to this somewhat similar conclusion:

Should we judge a man today by what he did all those years ago?

Not entirely. He has apologized. But there is surely something here: the notion that being privileged and conformist requires actual punishment of the marginalized and under-privileged; that you pick on younger, weaker boys, not older ones; and that you psychologically traumatize the victim by permanently marking his body.

And this matters because today these attacks on gay kids drive many to suicide, others to despair; they wreck lives and self-esteem. It matters that we know that one candidate for president was an anti-gay bully in high school, targeting a weak and defenseless kid and humiliating and traumatizing him. Today, he does the same thing in a larger, more abstract way: targeting a small minority as a way to advance his own power. It gives me the chills.

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About Jay Pinho

Jay is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York. Previously he studied international security at L'Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. He currently writes about politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography.

5 thoughts on “Mitt Romney: high-school gay bully?

  1. I agree that people change (well, most of us anyway) from who we were in high school, and most of us for the better. I shudder to think about how many times I used the word “gay” as a synonym for “stupid” when I was in middle and high school, and while there’s a world of difference between that and physically assaulting another student, my first impulse is to give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt and let him have a chance to explain how he grew up and realized he was wrong.

    Having said that, the aspect of this I find the most troubling is how dismissive he’s been of the incident. I expected that he would say more than the lame, blanket apology that he’s given thus far, which merely consisted of acknowledging that he was involved in “hijinks”, “pranks” and “dumb things.” I mean, really? “I don’t remember the specific incident and I’m sorry to anyone offended by my high school self” isn’t a real apology. Even if he is against gay marriage, the decent thing to do in this situation is to at least make a statement about how people who make different lifestyle choices from ours should be afforded our respect anyway. If he does that, I’ll have more respect for him than before the media got a hold of this story. I’m not holding my breath, though.

    1. True. But as a politician (and thus a soulless humanoid with very little connection to “anything like reality,” as Shep Smith said), his impulse to downplay it is, I think, understandable. I think it would have been weirder for him to make a huge deal out of apologizing, because then he’d actually be acknowledging just how bad it was in reality, which is a headache he doesn’t need.

      Obviously, none of this even remotely addresses whether or not this political calculation is “right” or not, but I guess I’ve mostly given up believing in politicians as moral beings. For example, I know Mitt Romney must wait for the monthly jobs reports and hopes against hope that unemployment stays high, and I’ve — for whatever reason…cynicism? resignation? — decided that’s probably pretty normal for candidates these days.

      1. I disagree- I think there’s a way to downplay it without seeming dismissive of it (see: Obama on race when the Jeremiah Wright controversy broke). What I find most troubling is not that the bullying incident happened but that Romney, even now, acts like it doesn’t and never mattered. That tells me that he lacks the empathy or compassion for others not in his position that I’d expect politicians to at least *pretend* to have.

        Anyway, Jonathan Chait put it as thus: “I don’t blame him for accepting the anti-gay assumptions of his era… 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.”

        And far as political calculations go, I think that it would have benefited him to make a bigger deal about it, given that bullying (and anti-gay bullying in particular) is a hot-button issue these days.

What do you think?