The dishonesty displayed by Mitt Romney during the campaign, along with reports of animal cruelty and disturbing reports of converting deceased individuals to Mormonism after their death have all raised questions as to whether Mitt Romney is morally fit for political leadership. The latest reports that Romney acted in a cruel manner towards gay students and others while he was a student at Cranbrook are possibly even more damaging. The potential damage is increased when contrasted with Barack Obama’s acceptance of gay marriage yesterday and soon after a gay Romney staffer was forced to resign. Here is the most disturbing example:
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 Romney campaign has been placed on the defensive, trying to get former classmates to defend him. ABC News quotes one as saying “he believes Romney is lying when he claims to not remember it.” This is consistent with what we have seen throughout the campaign, with Romney showing a shocking inability to differentiate between fact and fiction. Another evaluation of Romney’s character from a former classmate:
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 “evil” and “like Lord of the Flies.”
Realistically these incidents are not the main reasons to decide who to vote for, but looking at Romney’s character is relevant, especially, as Jonathan Chait points out, it is difficult to get insight into Romney’s frequently changing opinions:
The best way to assess a candidate is not to plumb his youth for clues to his character but to look at his positions and public record. The problem is that this is a harder exercise with Romney than almost any other national politician. He has had to run in such divergent atmospheres, and has thus had to present himself in such wildly different ways at different times, that his record becomes almost useless. There is hardly a stance Romney has taken that he has not negated at one point or another. This makes the fraught task of trying to pin down his true character more urgent, though not any easier.
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.
Bullying is also being taken more seriously recently, and this report could be more damaging than some of the earlier revelations about Romney’s character.
Kevin Drum adds:
I think mining the past for clues to people’s character is basically OK as long as you don’t engage in endless pretzel bending to draw absurd conclusions. Barack Obama’s youthful drug use and his community activism say something about him, so they’re fair game. Pretending he’s a whitey-hating anti-colonialist because of imagined influences from his Kenyan father isn’t. In Romney’s case, describing how he treated both friends and non-friends while he was growing up is fair game. It’s partly a window into Romney, and partly a window into the era and culture that he grew up in. But pretending that this makes him an anti-gay bully today isn’t. He’s got decades of adult experiences that tell us what kind of man he’s become. That should be enough.
I do not believe Romney has no memory of this. I believe he is lying. His absurd statement that he has no memory of the event but that he didn’t target the boy for being gay is hilarious for its self-contradiction. A boy who routinely snickered “Atta girl!” when one young gay kid in his class spoke up is not just bashing hippies. I went to an all boys high school in the 1970s. What Romney did was a gay-bashing.
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.
Mitt Romney is just starting to get vetted. Back when the primaries were competitive, he was faced with embarrassing reports regarding his business career. How much more will come out about him over the next few months?