May 11, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Andrew Rosenthal, who edits the New York Times editorial pages, got at the essential Mitt Romney yesterday afternoon when he wrote,
These days, [Romney] doesn’t want to bully gay people with a pair of scissors. He wants to bully them through government discrimination. On Wednesday, after President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, Mr. Romney said that ‘marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.’ He supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage across the nation … and he also opposes same-sex civil unions.
Rosenthal of course was responding to Jason Horowitz’s portrayal in yesterday’s Washington Post of Mitt Romney’s days at Cranbrook School, a prestigious Michigan prep school. Horowitz’s report was apparently inspired by the Romney campaign’s efforts to portray the candidate as a fun-loving regular guy, not the stiff, maladroit phony who “can’t connect” with ordinary Americans – an image that has emerged as a result of his “weird” remarks and awkward attempts at humor during the primary campaign. As Michael Falcone of ABC News wrote yesterday, “For months Mitt Romney’s campaign has carefully crafted an image of him as a ‘mischievous,’ ‘wild and crazy’ and ‘disobedient’ prankster.” Romney himself told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, “People don’t know me terribly well from the – you know, the kinds of pranks we play and what’s like in a home with five boys. But most of our dinner table – events were – involving humor of one kind or another most of which can’t be repeated on the air.” His wife Ann told CBS News, “Stiff, he’s not. He’s funny. I still look at him as the boy I met in high school when he was playing all the jokes and really being crazy, pretty crazy.” (In a severe wardrobe fail, Ann wore a $990 tee-shirt to the interview in which she proclaimed her hubby a regular guy.)
What Horowitz found when he checked out the crazy surely wasn’t funny. The episode that has rightly received the most attention was this one, which Horowitz verified through five witnesses whom he interviewed independently:
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…. Mitt … kept complaining about Lauber’s look….
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.
Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer and one of the men Horowitz interviewed, told David Muir of ABC News that he considers the attack on Lauber “to be ‘assault and battery‘ and that he witnessed Romney hold the scissors to cut the hair of a student who was being physically pinned to the ground by several others.” Maxwell, who participated in the assault, called the haircut “a hack job … clumps of hair taken off,” and he described the Romney gang as a “pack of dogs.” According to Emily Friedman, also of ABC News, another “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 ‘like Lord of the Flies.’”
Horowitz reported on other incidents in which Romney “pranked” fellow students and even a Cranbrook teacher. One victim was a teacher who was nearly blind. Romney, pretending to help the teacher, led him into a closed door. The teacher “walked right into it and … Romney giggled hysterically as the teacher shrugged it off as another of life’s indignities.” Yes, Mrs. Romney, leading a disabled person into harm’s way is hilarious. School administrators never even disciplined the governor’s son, but they did expel Lauber after a student prefect caught him smoking a cigarette on the campus grounds. Horowitz emphasized Cranbrook’s strict disciplinary code, but the evidence is that the purpose of the code was less to mold young citizens than to provide convenient excuses to rid the school of “undesirables.”
In case you think Romney was just being a “typical kid” when he led the attack on Lauber, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine reports a story Lanny Davis, a Democrat, tells about George W. Bush. The event took place the same year Romney bullied Lauber. Davis said,
A few of us were in the common room one night. It was 1965, I believe – my junior year, his sophomore. We were making our usual sarcastic commentaries on those who walked by us. A little nasty perhaps, but always with a touch of humor. On this occasion, however, someone we all believed to be gay walked by, although the word we used in those days was ‘queer.’ Someone, I’m sorry to say, snidely used that word as he walked by.
George heard it and, most uncharacteristically, snapped: ‘Shut up.’ Then he said, in words I can remember almost verbatim: ‘Why don’t you try walking in his shoes for a while and see how it feels before you make a comment like that?’
That’s right. Romney isn’t worse than Bush. He’s way worse than Bush. The contrast between Romney’s and Bush’s contemporaneous behavior could not be starker. Remember, too, that Romney and Bush had similar backgrounds: they were rich kids who had all the advantages and whose fathers were successful, high-profile politicians.
Andy Rosenthal got to the heart of the issue in his post, but his commentary was unusual. In Right Wing World, reactions to the Horowitz story have ranged from outrage to whining to outrage. In a post titled “Communists, Cop-Killers, and Cocaine: Why the Washington Post Focuses on Romney Instead,” the abominable Erick Erickson of Red State ticked off all the usual complaints: (a) “Why don’t they go after real criminal?” the real criminal being Barack Obama, who palled around with terrorists, etc., and is now “bullying religious groups from inside the White House”; (b) The story is inconsequential: all Romney did was cut a hippy’s [sic.] hair. (c) The so-called “victim” was a troublemaker who was kicked out of school. (d) The “victim” is conveniently dead so the story can’t be verified. (e) Vast left-wing conspiracy theory: it can’t be coincidence the story came out within hours of Obama’s announcing his shift on gay marriage. Erickson’s post is worth reading just to get an idea of the right’s obsessive hatred of the President. Erickson sounds like a loon in this post (among hundreds of others), but he’s so winger-mainstreamy that CNN hired him as a political analyst.
On the left, a number of prominent commentators have been ambivalent about the Cranbrook story. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post is typical. He concluded that
… this all happened too long ago and too early in Romney’s life to know with real certainty whether it’s revealing of any of those things or not – particularly when it comes to who Romney is right now. I can’t get around the simple fact that I wouldn’t want to be judged today by some of the things I did in my teens….
I think Rosenthal gets it right and Sargent misses the point. But to draw that conclusion, I had to go beyond Rosenthal and Sargent, et al., to find what I see as Romney’s lifelong pattern of bullying. Rosenthal, after all, skips over nearly half a century, and Sargent excuses Romney for a sensible, but ultimately flawed, reason: most of us were jerks as teens.
Let’s look at what we know from the Horowitz piece. Romney was of age. He was 18 years old, and had he been prosecuted for assault and battery, he would have been tried as an adult. He was old enough to marry and old enough to serve in the military. As Horowitz recounts the story, Romney was not just a bully; he was the ringleader. It appears he bullied other students into picking on Lauber. Ann Romney characterizes her husband’s youthful antics as “playing all the jokes,” which suggests she is too dimwitted to realize that the butts of Romney’s hilarity were people who suffered some physical disability or social disadvantage. Romney wasn’t just merrily short-sheeting his friends’ beds; he was seeking out victims who would suffer from his “pranks.” The pranks I remember from my school days were ones where the object of the pranks were not hurt; when they realized they had been pranked, they laughed loudest. It was, in fact, almost an honor to be pranked – being the target of a prank showed your friends cared enough about you to go to some trouble to make you the centerpiece of their joke. Being pranked was a measure of popularity – because we never would have picked on the vulnerable or conducted pranks that would be hurtful. Those pranks actually were jokes. It’s telling that the Romneys can’t tell the difference between good-natured jokes and mean-spirited bullying. If we ever pulled pranks to get somebody, that somebody was a powerful person who we felt had abused his power, not a person whose situation marginalized him or who suffered a physical disability. Rosenthal writes, “I doubt anyone’s surprised to learn that Mr. Romney may have had a Doug Neidermeyer streak.” Neidermeyer was the bully ROTC cadet commander in the film “Animal House.” He gets punked in the film (and the closing credits [I think] reveal that he was killed by his own platoon in Vietnam). He is the kind of person who deserves to get his comeuppance, though of course not the ultimate punk. That is, Mitt Romney himself was the kind of kid who merited a payback. As we’ll see in a moment, it is possible he got it, and there may be a question of which came first.
Alec MacGillis of The New Republic says Romney himself was a misfit at Cranbrook: in a school where sports were especially important, Romney was not athletic; he was not a particularly good student; and he was not an elected school leader. His religious beliefs precluded him from participating in some usual boys-will-be-boys misbehavior, like sneaking drinks and bedding the local ladies. I think being the governor’s son may have been more of a disadvantage than an advantage, too. Apparently leading his merry pranksters was Mitt Romney’s claim to fame at Cranbrook. Practical jokes, which morphed into bullying, were Romney’s modus operandi. MacGillis recounts an incident in which Romney made a flip remark at a school meeting and two students pounced on him. The person who told MacGillis that story said of Romney, “He just sat there and took it. The meeting was adjourned and I apologized that he had to go through that, and he just shook his head…. He had to survive some belittling as a schoolboy, and when that happens you become tough or you become passive – and he became tough.”
Romney did not drop his penchant for violence against hair when he left Cranbrook. In an April 17 report, Horowitz wrote, “At Stanford, he lured rival University of California students into a trap in which his buddies ‘shaved their heads and painted them red,’ according to a 1970 speech at Brigham Young University by his father, George Romney.” Romney claimed yesterday not to remember the Lauber attack he led; it appears to have been a model for the later attack on the U.C. students: Romney rounds up malicious friends and they remove the hair of people who are “different.”
Then there’s this story, also reported by Horowitz: George Keele, who served his mission with Romney in France, recalled being home alone one night in Bayonne, France, when he heard a knock at the door. “Two men, their faces hidden by sheets, ordering him in French to put his hands behind his back, turn around and not utter a word. Keele fled out the back door only to hear Romney, his mask removed, laughing uproariously in the house.” So here is an ostensible friend of Romney’s, alone in a foreign country, in a city he doesn’t know well and who probably also had difficulty with the language, and he is accosted at night by hooded intruders. WTF is funny about that? Most of us would be terrified, as Keele evidently was, too.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
Romney’s cruelty and callousness apparently served him well at Bain Capital. As has been well-documented, Romney established an innovative model for decimating client companies by loading them with debt, bankrupting them and laying off workers. As Digby put it, “Certainly, there are plenty of instances in his career at Bain in which he essentially held down workers and forced them into submission — and walked away laughing. That’s the grown-up, rich guy version of what he did.”
In a Washington Post op-ed published this January, William D. Cohan, who was a deal adviser when Romney ran Bain, wrote that Bain was “a master at bait-and-switching” and so unethical that Cohan refused to work with them. The “Bain way” that Cohan describes is a form of bullying, too: Bain would put in a high bid for a company, but once the company accepted and had therefore lost its leverage with other suitors, Bain would start “finding” things that they said made the company worth much less than their offer, and they would renege on their original deal, leaving the company – with no more suitors – in such a weakened position that its officers felt they had no choice but to accept Bain’s new low-ball offer. Even in the dirty world of high finance, Bain’s word, Cohan wrote, “was not worth the paper it was printed on.” This is a form of bullying that is not just for fun, but for profit, too – huge, multimillion-dollar profit.
While bishop of the Boston stake, or diocese, of the Mormon Church, reports suggest Romney repeatedly bullied women members. Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, authors of The Real Romney, write in a Vanity Fair adaptation of their book of an incident in which Romney reportedly ordered a poor parishioner who was pregnant to give up her child or face excommunication: “Give up your son or give up your God.” In another case, Romney visited the hospital room of a parishioner whose sixth pregnancy led to a serious, life-threatening blood clot. At only eight weeks pregnant, the woman decided to have an abortion so she could live to care for her other five children. Romney told her not to have the abortion: “As your bishop, my concern is with the child.” The woman wrote, “Here I – a baptized, endowed, dedicated worker, and tithe-payer in the church – lay helpless, hurt, and frightened, trying to maintain my psychological equilibrium, and his concern was for the eight-week possibility in my uterus – not for me!” Romney said he could not remember the incident.
Romney’s homophobia at Cranbrook and his penchant for bullying apparently carried into his term as governor of Massachusetts. Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo reports that “Mitt Romney clashed with a state commission tasked with helping LGBT youth at risk for bullying and suicide throughout his term as Massachusetts governor over funding and its participation in a pride parade. He eventually abolished the group altogether.”
During his run for president, hints of Romney’s custom of bullying have emerged, and not just in his campaign tactic of money-bombing his opponents out of existence. Remember when Romney challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry – by Romney’s standards, a poor man – to a $10,000 bet? Romney’s fall-back position when he gets into a disagreement seems to be to one-up the other guy, to make his opponent feel small. That is what bullies do. Romney even uses a form of bullying as a persuasive technique and as – seriously – a conversational ice-breaker. Several reporters have noted incidents in which Romney bested ordinary people in a way that made him appear “better” than they were. If the fellow says he went to Michigan State, Romney says, “Oh yeah? My brother is on the board of trustees at Michigan State.” I don’t know that Romney has difficulty connecting with ordinary Americans. I think maybe he just doesn’t want to. The Romneys have a unusual sense of entitlement. Romney seems to be running for president to make things worse for regular people and better for his “class” of people. His wife Ann believes “It’s Mitt’s time. It’s our turn now” to be president. Really?
Several weeks ago Romney hired a foreign affairs adviser who is gay. When conservatives objected, the Romney campaign told the advisor, Richard Grenell, to lay low and surprised him by ordering him to listen in but not to speak on a conference call about – foreign affairs. Grenell quit the campaign, making clear in his leaving that he felt he didn’t have the campaign’s full support. This was not an instance of Romney’s doing the bullying, but one in which Romney allowed bullies and gaybashers to dictate his staffing decisions.
As the New York Times reported this past Wednesday, Mitt Romney does not believe gay Americans have the same rights as do straight Americans:
Like many conservative Republicans, Mitt Romney is opposed not only to same-sex marriage, but also to the civil unions that many states have adopted as an alternative to full marital rights for gay couples….
‘My view is the same as it’s been from the beginning,’ Mr. Romney told a CBS affiliate in Denver. ‘I don’t favor civil unions if it’s identical to marriage, and I don’t favor marriage between people of the same gender.” Asked why he opposed civil unions, in particular, he explained that in many cases they represent marriage by a different name for gay couples. If a civil union is identical to marriage other than with the name, why, I don’t support that,’ he said Wednesday.
Romney also supports a U.S. Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage, an amendment which would prevent marriages between same-sex couples who live in or travel to states that currently allow gay marriage. In what amounts to an elaboration of Andrew Rosenthal’s remarks, Jamison Foser writes,
Romney’s statement made clear that this is not about ‘respecting religious freedom’ or ‘traditional definitions of marriage,’ the excuses typically offered by those who wish to ban gay marriage. It’s simply a desire to discriminate against gays: Romney opposes giving them the same rights straight people have even if it isn’t called ‘marriage.’ It doesn’t, therefore, have anything to do ‘definitions of marriage.’ Romney just wants to treat gay people as second-class citizens. That doesn’t suggest that he’s changed much since he was bullying gay students as an 18-year-old.
One aspect of the 1965 incident that Horowitz brings out is the participants’ later responses to it. All of the men Horowitz interviewed expressed regret and shame at their youthful behavior. One said he even apologized to Lauber when he ran into him in an airport decades after the incident. By contrast Romney pretended to Horowitz he couldn’t even remember the incident. Then yesterday, he literally laughed it off in a non-apology apology in which he said, chuckling, “I just did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by it, obviously I apologize” and, “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize.” Later he denied knowing Lauber “was a homosexual”: “… As to pranks that were played back then, I don’t remember them all, but again, high school days, if I did stupid things, why, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it,” Romney told Fox “News.”
As Jamison Foser writes, “A clear, forceful statement of regret and denunciation of bullying could have been incredibly powerful – a welcome and valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to reduce the kind of anti-gay bullying Romney once led…. Instead, Romney offers a perfunctory apology – while laughing – for ‘hijinks and pranks’ that ‘might have gone too far.’ … That doesn’t do much to comfort current teens who are the victims of anti-gay bullying, or to dissuade their antagonists.”
In short, what you have is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has a lifelong history of bullying in one form or another. Bullying is not something Romney “got over” as he matured. He simply found new ways to channel the bullying skills that made him “special” at Cranbrook. Would Mitt Romney use those skills in new and creative ways if he became the most powerful person in the country? I can’t predict the future, but his biography suggests that yes, he would.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com