What makes a bully? And what can change one?
When I think back on every bully I have ever known — in school, at work, in life — it strikes me that they all have one thing in common: a deep sense of insecurity that can be addressed only by convincing themselves, and everyone around them, that someone else is even more
That’s why I sense that there is probably some truth to this New Yorker piece by Edmund White, who was about seven years ahead of Mitt Romney at Cranbrook Schools outside Detroit, and who wrote a 1982 novel based on his memories of what it was like to be a gay boy there in the 1950s.
White didn’t know Romney, but he did know what it was like to feel different at Cranbrook, and he writes:
From what I can gather from the few details that have come out about Romney and his bullying of a student who was perceived as gay (forcefully cutting off his long, bleached-blond hair), a familiar picture emerges. Romney was not a good student nor was he athletic; he was the manager of one of the school teams, a sort of default position for boys who wanted to be athletic and cool and popular — a water boy, in essence. He was considered a class clown, always up to rather cruel pranks. I can picture his situation, though it’s only speculation on my part (I’ve never known any of his friends, though one of his older brothers was a classmate). On the one hand he had an embarrassingly famous father, the governor of Michigan, whom he idolized as the youngest child. On the other he was the sole Mormon, a member of what was definitely seen as a creepy, stigmatized cult in that world of bland Episcopalian Wasps (we had Episcopalian services at chapel three mornings a week).
. . . No wonder he became a daring and even violent prankster. He who worried about his own marginal status couldn’t bear the presence of an unapologetic sissy like Lauber, with his long bleached hair (the Mormons, then as now, have insisted on a neat, traditional, conservative appearance, especially in their young missionary men whom they send out all over the world). In scorning and shearing a sissy student and leading a gang of five other boys in this “prank,” Romney may have felt popular and in the right for the first time.
All of which makes me think back to the first time I met Romney, and the conversation that we had then about what it felt like to grow up feeling different.
It was Jan. 26, 2007, and the former Massachusetts governor, his eldest son, Tagg, and I were aboard a private jet that was making its way from Boston to Waterloo, Iowa. That would be the 16th trip to Iowa that Romney had made in two years, and part of the protocampaign that was leading up his formal announcement a couple of weeks later that he was running for president.
The Romney I talked to that day was looser and more accessible than the one I see campaigning this year. So I asked him what it was like growing up Mormon in a state where there were few of them.
He insisted to me that he had always found a way to fit in with his friends as a teenager.
“My faith was not a burden for me. I didn’t smoke and drink, and that was about it,” in terms of distinguishing him from his classmates, he said. Romney did allow that there had been some “boyhood indiscretions,” but when I pressed him, he laughed: “I won’t elaborate.”
Then he started recounting — of all things — a episode of “The Simpsons” that had struck a chord with him. It was one where brainy, earnest Lisa Simpson was feeling like an outcast, until her mom, Marge, explains that being different is also being special.
“It’s a helpful thing for the development of the character of a young person to be different from their peers,” Romney told me. “It’s a blessing to be different, to stand up for that.”
That sounds like the perspective that comes decades later, from someone who has had a chance to see how his life turns out. But it would be a rare adolescent who would have the sense of self to regard that kind of struggle as “a blessing” as he is still trying to figure out who he is and what he can be.
Romney’s reaction to The Post’s story about the bullying episodes has been analyzed quite a bit by now, including in this insightful post by our She the People colleague Melinda Henneberger.
As for me, I think he missed an opportunity to tell us something — not about who he was then, but about who he is now.
Sure, he told Fox News Channel that the years that followed Cranbrook had made him “a different person.” But that didn’t tell us much about what those years must have been like.
It was on his mission in France that Romney had to leave his comfortable existence as the adored youngest in a privileged family. As we talked in 2007, he recalled that there were a lot of doors shut in his face as he tried to make converts in Le Havre, a city where there was not a single member of the Mormon faith. “That concentrates the mind,” he said.
And it was during that mission that Romney had what was the most searing experience of his own life. He was almost killed when a car that he was driving was hit head-on by another vehicle that had passed a truck and missed a curve. So badly hurt was Romney that the policeman who arrived at the scene wrote in the young American’s passport “Il est mort.” (“He is dead.”) And one of his passengers that day — Leola Anderson, the much-beloved wife of the local mission president — did not survive.
The years that followed also seem to suggest that he had to grow up fast. As we talked in 2007, Romney recalled that at Harvard Business School most of his classmates — including, he assumed, another fellow with a famous political name, George W. Bush — would spend their off-hours in the on-campus watering hole known as The Pub. Romney was out in the suburb of Belmont, already the father of two babies.
By the time he graduated, however, he was the self-confident, bound-for-success Romney that we see today.
So as he thinks back through the years, it may well be that he does remember those episodes at Cranbrook and wishes he could take it all back — or at least, apologize to those he hurt.
It may also be that these are the kinds of feelings that people who live in the unforgiving political spotlight are wise not to share.
Everyone knew, for instance, that former first lady Laura Bush had a experienced an almost unimaginable tragedy when she was in high school. But it wasn’t until she wrote her memoir in her post-White House years that we got to know the depth of her remorse, and the many things that she wished she could do over again.
In her book “Spoken from the Heart,” Bush wrote of how, after running a stop sign, she learned in the hospital that she had killed one of her close friends: “On the other side of the hospital curtain, I heard a woman start to cry, and I knew that it was Mrs. Douglas. But I couldn’t stop asking God, over and over in my head, to please keep this other person alive.
It was Mother and Daddy who told me that Mike had been driving the other car, after I was home, in my own bed. But by then, I already heard the sounds of his parents’ choked sobs ricocheting in the far recesses of my mind.”
Laura Bush wrote that she wished she had defied the advice of her parents and friends and had gone to the bereaved family.
“Looking back now, with the wisdom of another forty-five years, I know that I should have gone to see the Douglases; I should have reached out to them,” she wrote. “At seventeen, I assumed that they would prefer I vanish.”
Did Romney feel something like that then? Does he feel it now? Maybe someday we will know — and as a result, know a lot more about him than we do today.
Karen Tumulty covers politics for the Post. Follow her on Twitter at @KTumulty.