The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Mitt Romney and The Politics of Bullying


Everybody deserves a second chance. Right? I mean, if I guy makes a mistake he       deserves a break. Doesn’t he? Seriously, who among us wants have the most embarrassing thing he ever did exposed to the eyes of the world? Even in the court of public opinion there has to be a statute of limitations.

Well, ok, maybe it’s different if that guy is running for President of the United States. When America’s hiring the leader of the so-called free world, we need all the character references we can get. But even so, if we’re talking about dirty laundry from high school (or in Mitt Romney’s case, sullied uniforms from prep school), there’s a certain point that we should live and let live. The only reasonable thing to ask for is an apology.

Ah, but what kind? That’s what I’ve been wondering since I read The Washington Post’s report of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “pranks” from prep school, which included pinning a supposedly gay student to the ground and forcibly cutting his hair. The former Massachusetts governor immediately appeared on Fox News radio and issued an apology; he could hardly have done otherwise. But given the candidate’s own opposition to gay marriage, and President Barak Obama’s recent evolution to endorsing it, I think it fair to examine the nature and the framework of the apology as we look towards who will lead us for the next four years.

The incident with Romney took place in 1965. Yet The Post quotes no less than five former classmates who remember the event as if it happened yesterday. “…to this day it troubles me,” says Thomas Buford, who actually pinned the victim down. “It was a hack job,” adds Philip Maxwell, another troubled witness, going on to describe it as “vicious.”

The Post reports that the victim, John Lauber, was widely presumed to be a homosexual. The breaking point for Romney seems to have been Lauber’s hair, which was bleached blond, and asymmetrically covering one eye. “That’s wrong,” said Romney, and with the help of his classmates, took a pair of scissors and made his moral stand.

I don’t know about you, but if I gathered a group of people together, pinned down a classmate, and cut his hair while he cried out for help with tears in his eyes, I think I’d probably remember. Not Mitt. “I don’t remember that incident,” he told Fox News. Another attempt at emulating Reagan? Perhaps. But Romney certainly acknowledges that his past behavior was less than stellar: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far,” the former governor magnanimously concedes, adding, “and for that, I apologize.”

Thanks, Mitt. And trust me, I know all about “hijinks and pranks”. I was the butt of many during my freshman year of high school. I grew up in Normal, Illinois. (Yup, that’s really the name of the town). The fact that it’s home to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (my father directed one of the first productions) didn’t make it any more hospitable to an un-athletic, artsy teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s. While I managed to win several speech competitions, I couldn’t run, tackle, shoot, or dive to save my life. It was a real bloody suckfest, I’ll tell you what. Most of the abuse was verbal. “Fag,” certainly wasn’t the worst insult hurled in my direction, but it’s the only thing I feel comfortable quoting on a site that’s accessible to minors.

But I got my share of physical abuse. It wasn’t too bad in middle school; things were different when I entered the 9th grade. Once during a PE class, several guys harassed me for running too slowly, and finally pushed me down. I still have a scar from the cut I sustained on my right calf. Earlier that year, some juniors forced me and another freshman to push pennies across the floor of the lunchroom with our noses.

Bad as both of those incidents were, they paled in comparison to what took place that spring, when I played the part of Schroeder in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Rehearsals were held afterschool; it was a time when there weren’t a lot of other people around. My part was relatively small, so I didn’t need to wait for a break to get excused to go to the restroom. On one particular occasion, I really wish I’d sucked it up and held the urine in.

For a while, I was lucky: I left the theatre, made it to the restroom, and went without incident. I was just was washing my hands when three of them walked in. They were tall. One of them put his back against the door, and he smiled at me. And that’s when knew it was over.

That was the worst part, the absolute worst. The following act of violence was terrifying, but relatively painless: they filled the sink with water, and shoved my head beneath. But the defining moment was the sound of the door shutting. And the awful knowledge I was helpless. And horribly alone. There was nothing I could do. And whatever they could do, they would. And they would do it simply because they could. And because they hated me. Because after all, why would you deliberately harm a helpless person who’d done you no wrong if not motivated by a wellspring of vitriol and hatred?

That’s what I would ask Governor Romney if I had his ear for five minutes. “I had no idea this person might have been gay,” he said on Fox. Yeah, right. Anybody who’s been part of a boy’s culture of bullying knows that “gay” is the default assumption when it comes to the the target in question. And in that context, “gay” doesn’t’ simply mean homosexual. It means un-manly. Less than, weak, girly-mannish, and a host of other emasculating assumptions and insults that conveniently fit under the dominant culture stereotype of “gay”.

Besides, if Mitt Romney doesn’t remember the incident, then how is he able to remember what assumptions he did or didn’t make about Lauber? And why would five witnesses of varying political persuasions claim that Lauber was presumed to be a homosexual? The Huffington Post quotes Romney as saying that he is “not going to be too concerned” about the report, which is probably the most truthful thing to come out of his mouth about the entire, shameful incident.

Sam Stein, author of the Huffington Post article, writes: “The idea that Romney, as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, holds the same mindset now as he did in his prep school days is, of course, absurd.” Actually, there’s nothing absurd about the idea at all. The WP has five witnesses, four of whom agreed to be named in the article, expressing disgust and remorse for their part in the bullying (a word that Romney avoids at all costs). In fact, the article cites one of the witnesses, David Seed, reporting running into Lauber at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in the early 1990s. In 1965, Seed had been a bystander in the haircutting incident; never the less, he took the opportunity to apologize to Lauber for not having stopped it when he could have.

But Romney expresses no such remorse. The Stein piece quotes him as saying: “They talk about the fact that I played a lot of pranks in high school. And they describe some that you just say to yourself, back in high school I just did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by it, obviously I apologize.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch advises his son not to apologize if he isn’t really sorry. I wish that Romney would follow the good man’s advice. I’m sorry, but pinning an outcast down and forcibly cutting his hair isn’t “dumb”. It’s mean. And wrong. And extremely hurtful. But it’s the kind of thing that you can get away with if your father’s the governor and you have a member of the wrestling team holding your victim down. No, Mitt Romney’s no fool. But his moral compass appears to be pointing in a completely different direction than five of his former classmates.

If Mitt Romney really is sorry, why doesn’t he prove it, get off his ass, and support gay marriage? The answer to that question isn’t complicated; it’s actually very simple. Romney, as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, does hold the same mindset now as he did in his prep school days. If he didn’t, he’d behave like a mature adult, and use appropriate language to describe his actions, such as “bullying,” “immoral,” “reprehensible,” and “wrong,” rather than “pranks,” “hijinks,” and “dumb”. Sorry, Mitt: John Lauber wasn’t Frank Burns, and this isn’t the 4077th. (Although if you take another look at Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H*, you’ll see that Donald Sutherland’s and Elliot Gould’s Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John are nothing but glorified, pseudo-left wing bullies posing as pranksters).

Of course, the problem isn’t simply Mitt Romney. It’s the entire red state Republican culture, which has devolved from the party of Lincoln into a burlesque of the anti-Reconstruction, reactionary, hate mongering clan that it courageously opposed a century and a half ago. Beyond that, the problem is American. We can all delight that President Obama has finally voiced his unequivocal support for gay marriage. If only he would show the same courage and close Guantanamo Bay, America’s gulag and house of torture.

“Torture.” Isn’t that simply a glorified form of bullying? Critics of Stalin long noted that confessions obtained under torture are notoriously inaccurate: a person will say just about anything to stop you from breaking her fingers. The Center for Constitutional Rights’ 2006 report on America’s prison at Guantanamo should have been enough for our president (himself a constitutional lawyer). But I guess Obama didn’t want to offend any Republican lawmakers. I wonder if that’s any consolation to Murat Kurnaz, who reported that “while in Kandahar (just prior to being brought to Guantanamo), his head and upper body repeatedly were submerged in water to the point of near drowning, a practice called water- boarding.”  Apparently, it’s a method of intimidation practiced by bullies of all stripes, professional and amateur alike.

Back on the home front, 71% of all students in the United States have reported bullying as an ongoing problem; 282,000 kids per month are attacked in schools throughout the country. Governor Romney has an opportunity to take some leadership in this area, and he should do it now. By frankly admitting the failures of his past, he could finally champion someone other than corporations, millionaires, and the precious lives of the unborn. He could call a press conference and say, “As your next president, I pledge to do whatever I can to make sure that what I did to John Lauber never happens to another child or teenager in America again.” He could have a true come-to-Jesus moment; a complete Scrooge like, eleventh hour turn around, and finally demonstrate the qualities that all great leaders share: introspection, audacity, and compassion.

But don’t hold your breath. After all, the man did apologize. Obviously. And as every former prankster knows, sometimes we all just do dumb things. Apparently, Mitt Romney’s not too concerned about it.

David Berkson



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4 thoughts on “Mitt Romney and The Politics of Bullying

  1. Michael Berkson on said:

    Dear Dave,
    That’s a splendid piece! When you refer to “Regan,” do you mean the former president? If so, his name is spelled “Reagan,” but if this is a different political figure, then perhaps the spelling is correct. Thanks for sharing this.
    Love, Dad

  2. David.

    Very eloquent and well thought out. Thanks.

    • Thanks for reading it. I’m puzzled by how quickly the mainstream media decided to drop this one. While this might not be the best issue for Obama himself to take up, there are plenty of people on his campaign who can and should bring this back to the forefront. For me, it’s less about what Romney did as a teenager, and all about the adult version of him processes those unfortunate actions.

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