Critics of The Washington Post’s story detailing Mitt Romney’s bullying of a classmate nearly 50 years ago may be right: It has little bearing on the man he is today or the president he might become. The incident hardly matters. His handling of it is a different story. It matters.
Romney says he does not remember forcibly cutting the hair of what was purportedly a gay classmate — a bullying so revolting that some of his former classmates not only remember it years later but can’t get it out of their minds. “To this day it troubles me,” said Thomas Buford, the school’s wrestling champion, who had joined Romney in the bullying of their classmate, John Lauber. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.” For Romney, this is not a failure of memory. It is a failure of candor.
Or . . . and this is in some degree even worse, the incident meant so little to Romney that I can only conclude that he lacks empathy. He could bully a classmate at the Cranbrook School – cut off his flop of bleached blond hair – and not give it a moment’s thought. This falls into a different category — the-I-love-to- fire-people category, or the down-with-Planned-Parenthood oath he took during the primary fight. He cannot distinguish between losers and victims. They both leave him cold.
In either case, Romney has apologized. This is cute. The victim of his purported bullying died in 2004. It is a bit late to apologize to him. So, if Romney is not apologizing to his victim, then to whom? The man’s next of kin? His classmates? The school? The American people? Or, as is really the case, nobody. It is an empty, pro-forma apology, a sincerely insincere gesture sent out like an air kiss, as genuine as a performer’s expression of love to his or her fans: “You’re just great. I love you.”
Kids will be kids and as ugly as this incident was, it is easy enough to explain. It even lends itself to a story of emotional growth — how Romney was once one sort of person and now he is another. It could have been his version of the standard confession of having once smoked pot — “experimented” is the required verb — since there is nothing else in his background that suggests anything other than perfection — not even, as far as I can see, acne. Once he was younger. He was never young.
But Romney admitted nothing, confessed to nothing — except youth. He occasionally “might have gone too far” with certain unspecified pranks. Nothing more. Nonetheless, there is something about Romney that brings to mind the towel-snapper. This incident, as old as it is, only reinforces the image. That’s why it required a formulaic response: confession of amnesia and a pre-wrapped apology. He’s sorry.
He sure is.