Romney Defusing Washington Post Report Accusing Him Bullying When a Teenager (UPDATED)
First we had the report that Barack Obama ate dog when he was a boy living overseas. Now comes a bit of a more serious accusation — bullying when a teenager — that Time’s Mark Halperin says has sparked a Mitt Romney “apology tour” (which will include a stop at Sean Hannity’s to be sure) due to this Washington Post report:
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.
Bullying is HUGE issue now in schools and states are passing legislation putting tight controls on schools to weed it out and make it clear that students who do it must face firm consequences and schools that don’t crack down on it may have administrators who can face career (or legal) difficulties. Some news reports and websites now refer to Lauber as a “closeted gay.”
This is a story that is unlikely to have “legs” (even though according to one report Obama operatives mailed it out to other reporters as soon as they saw it) but it can’t just be ignored since the Post did its journalistic homework. Most editors I worked with when I was a full time reporter insisted that on a story like this you have three independent sources to back up a controversial assertion. The Post has more than that:
The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be named. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.
“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Buford, the school’s wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was “terrified,” he said. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”
“It was a hack job,” recalled Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney who was in the dorm room when the incident occurred. “It was vicious.”
“He was just easy pickins,” said Friedemann, then the student prefect, or student authority leader of Stevens Hall, expressing remorse about his failure to stop it.
The incident transpired in a flash, and Friedemann said Romney then led his cheering schoolmates back to his bay-windowed room in Stevens Hall.
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.
When I’ve talked to school students at all levels about bullying, I tell them that the pain can last for years: I often ask them to ask an adult in their life about if and when they were bullied..a parent or even a grandparent…and they will usually find that an adult can remember bullying for many years, just like it happened yesterday. The pain is that profound. I even did a nationally syndicated Cagle column on it.
And apparently the pain lasted in this case for years, too:
After the incident, Lauber seemed to disappear. He returned days later with his shortened hair back to its natural brown. He finished the year, but ultimately left the school before graduation — thrown out for smoking a cigarette.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, David Seed noticed a familiar face at the end of a bar at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“Hey, you’re John Lauber,” Seed recalled saying at the start of a brief conversation. Seed, also among those who witnessed the Romney-led incident, had gone on to a career as a teacher and principal. Now he had something to get off his chest.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in the situation,” he said.
Lauber paused, then responded, “It was horrible.” He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and acknowledged to Seed, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then.”
Lauber died in 2004, according to his three sisters.
I’ve noted before that the difference between Obama and Romney now is that so much of Obama’s history has been gone over with a fine tooth comb. Romney is newer to the stage so reporters will still be peering into every facet of his life.
Romney has responded by doing radio interviews where he says he can’t recall the incident — not unimaginable, but a bit unusual given the number of others who do. If the story continues, it will be because he doesn’t recall it rather than just say he did it as a dumb kid. Here, it sounds like he’s trying to have it both ways:
In a radio interview added to the candidate’s public schedule at the last minute, Romney said he did not recall many specific incidents involving pranks or bullying during his school years — including the hair-cutting episode.
But he admitted that “did some dumb things,” and “if anyone was hurt by that I apologize for that.”
On the day after President Barack Obama announced his personal support for same-sex marriage, Romney called accusations that these alleged pranks — including reportedly mocking a fellow student with shouts of “atta girl” in class — were motivated by perceptions of these students’ sexuality “absurd.”
Without mentioning specific incidents, Romney apologized several times to anyone his “hijinks” may have hurt if or when they went “too far.”
“If I did stupid things, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it,” Romney said, pointing out that his high school days were many decades behind him. “I’m quite a different guy now.”
“I’m quite a different guy now” was his motif during the primaries, too.
Stories about Romney apologizing are now hitting the new and old media.
It’s never quite clear whether a politician’s high school years are fair game for political attacks. Romney suggested during the interview that the acts he was apologizing for were merely youthful indiscretions; the Post described him pinning a closeted gay classmate to the ground and cutting his long hair, for example. But with the story suggesting latent homophobia in an adolescent Romney and with President Barack Obama having endorsed same-sex marriage on Wednesday, the piece reverberated.
Still, Romney said he was “not going to be too concerned” about the item. He insisted that he grew up in a tolerant environment and that there was nothing about his pranks that were discriminatory towards gays.
Romney’s dog on the roof….Obama eating a organic, real hot dog..Romney bullying. I’ve argued that some of this is silly stuff — but bullying is an extremely serious subject, one that, unlike strapping a dog on the roof of the car while going on a family vacation or savoring dog meat as an elementary school kid won’t be as easy for late night comedians to lampoon (which doesn’t meant they’ll not do it).
Downside for Romney: he has to defuse it and it adds to a portrait that will not change the minds of those not inclined to vote for him or skeptical of him.
Warning flag for Romney: You are being vetted and Obama has been vetted a lot more. Will you be the source of more material for investigative reporters?
Graphic via shutterstock.com
FOOTNOTE: You can follow blog reaction here. In many cases theyr’e not about the issue of bullying or how the campaigns are going after childhood or teenage tidbits but written to defend or rip down a candidate the support or don’t support. Read a bunch of them and make your own decisions (if is fun and enlightening to surf blogs of varying viewpoints).
What would be the worst possible news for Mitt Romney to have to deal with the day after President Obama announced he supports gay marriage? Romney’s already had a gay staffer resign because social conservatives were outraged he’d hire an openly gay person. And having a hypothetical family member come out as gay would probably help him seem more compassionate. But one thing that might project an image Romney really wants to avoid — heartless outmoded anti-gay conservative — would be a long profile in The Washington Post about how he bullied a gay kid in high school. At the exact moment Romney doesn’t want to talk about gay stuff, the Post’s Jason Horowitz reports Romney led a gang of boys who singled out a gay kid, held him down while he cried, and cut off the kid’s offensively un-hetero hair. No one ever likes a bully, but it’s really a bad time to be an anti-gay bully. (Update: Romney apologized Thursday morning for high school pranks that went too far.)
“Aren’t there issues of significance you’d like to talk about? The economy, the economy, the economy,” Romney asked a Colorado TV reporter Wednesday with faux-niceness as she kept pestering him about gay marriage, immigration and medical marijuana.
UPDATE II: Jonathan Chait:
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.