Was Mitt Romney a bully? Does it matter?
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney apologized this morning for “hijinks” during his high school years at a prep school in Michigan, an admission that came just hours after the Washington Post reported of his involvement in an episode in which a student was held down and his hair was cut by the presidential candidate
“I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize,” Romney told radio host Brian Kilmeade this morning. As far the specific allegation regarding cutting the boy’s hair, Romney said: “I don’t remember that incident.”
Romney’s acknowledgment of his behavior in high school so soon after his campaign issued something close to a denial in the Post story, which included a series of on-the-record retellings from others who participated, is a recognition on behalf of the campaign that prolonging this story would be detrimental to him and his chances this fall.
It also raises a larger question, however. Is how a person running for president acted more than four decades ago relevant to who they are today — and what they might be like as president?
In this particular case, how you come down on that issue is largely dependent on which partisan hat you wear. (Is there actually such a thing as a “partisan hat”? If so, where do you buy them? And does Nigel Tufnel sell them?)
Democrats quickly moved to cast the incident as a window into Romney’s soul. Tweeted Democratic National Committee Chairman Brad Woodhouse:
.@MittRomney was intolerant in 1965, assaulting a presumed homosexual with scissors, and he's intolerant today opposing civil unions and SSM— Brad Woodhouse (@woodhouseb) May 10, 2012
Republicans sought to dismiss the story as entirely irrelevant. Jim Geraghty of the National Review offered a common take via Twitter:
In light of the Post's story, I just don't think I can bring myself to vote for the 17-year-old Mitt Romney for president.— jimgeraghty (@jimgeraghty) May 10, 2012
Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant, called the focvus on Romney’s high school antics “beyond absurd”, adding: “I hear that Teddy Roosevelt gave someone a wedgie in middle school.”
Romney, too, tried to play the it-was-a-long-time-ago card in his radio interview. “As to the teasing or the taunts that go on in high school, that’s a long time ago,” said Romney. “For me, that’s about 48 years ago.”
The reality of the current way in which we pick presidents is that virtually everything you have done in your life is fair game. (Is that the right way to do things? That’s a different blog post.)
Go back through the last several presidential elections — or even the last several months of this race — and you see evidence of that fact.
Republicans sought to make an issue of the fact that President Obama wrote in his memoir that he had eaten dog as a child in Indonesia. His past drug use is also been fodder for the political gossip mill. John McCain regularly used his time at the Naval Academy to illustrate his maverick nature. Days before the 2004 election, the fact that George W. Bush had been arrested in 1976 for drunk driving in Maine came out. (Bush acknowledged the arrest shortly after the news broke.)
Running for president in this age of information overload, Twitter and the 24-hour cable news cycle has been described as a full body scan that reveals your soul. We agree with that assessment.
Remember too that people vote for president in a way that they vote for nothing else; the vote for president is heavily personality dependent — it’s far more about who you are than what policy positions you have staked out. Given that, what you have done throughout your life does matter.
Of course, it is possible that experiences in your younger life change you in some meaningful and important way. Romney said as much this morning; “I’m a very different person than I was in high school, of course, but I’m glad that I learned as much as I did during those high school years,” Romney said this morning. “I’m quite a different guy. I’m married, have five sons, five daughters-in-law, and now 18 grandchildren.” (Personal sidebar: The Fix was a very different person in high school — less confident, meaner, more petty — than we are today. Time can change things.)
We won’t know whether or not how Romney acted in high school — and it now seems that he went beyond simple pranks to what looks a lot like bullying — matters to voters until November. (And we may not even know then.)
But, the quickness of Romney’s apology is a signal that his campaign recognizes the potential political peril in an extended litigation of what he did or didn’t do in high school.