Leave it to Bully
Is Romney less Father Knows Best and more Eddie Haskell with a mean streak?
Mitt Romney has always struck me as the Ward Cleaver type. With his “Gee, whiz” vocabulary and stuffed shirt style, watching this 1950s-esque candidate on the 2012 campaign trail feels like watching Back to the Future, Part Whatever: Red, White and Whiter. The lead is played by Max Headroom's even less cool and more stilted cousin, and the movie is a mostly dull but occassionally funny account of his quest for the White (of course) House.
Incidents like Romney crating the family dog then strapping it to the roof of the car for a cross-country road trip have only served to confirm my impression. In Romney’s world, he isn’t often called on to handle every day chores like feeding or walking a dog, much less tackling more unusual challenges like how to humanely transport a pet on a long road trip when the car is already bursting at the seams with children.
And in Romney’s everyday life, he doesn’t often encounter people from different socio-economic backgrounds. So, when the campaign trail takes him to visit places where most Americans actually live, it’s a little like watching a variation of Borat — but instead of it being a Kazakhstani man who is out of step with life in America, it features a time-encapsulated rich white guy. In one uncomfortable but hilarious scene a clearly under-exposed Romney can’t even get through a quick photo op with a few of-color potential supporters without lapsing into the chorus of Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Ouch. Ouch-ouch-ouch!
When the campaign trail takes him to visit places where most Americans actually live, it’s a little like watching a variation of Borat — but instead of it being a Kazakhstani man who is out of step with life in America, it features a time-encapsulated rich white guy.
I’ve never thought Romney seemed fake or insincere. Rather, he just seemed painfully uptight and woefully out-of-touch. And to the extent it seemed like he lacked empathy (like when the family dog was quite literally scared shitless and Romney simply hosed him off and got back on the road again) I never thought it was because he was mean-spirited, I just thought he was clueless.
But the accounts that have surfaced of Romney’s behavior in high school have made me rethink this characterization.
Sure, almost everybody has screwed up in the past. And I’m more likely to distrust someone who hasn’t made any mistakes than someone who has. So, in some ways learning that Romney did some stupid or edgy things as a teen humanizes him, making him seem more like an actual person and less like a Richie Rich cartoon. But the incidents that Romney was involved in weren’t just stupid or edgy, they were cruel and in one case abusive. And when it comes to the most egregious incident, Romney wasn’t simply involved, he was the ringleader.
Both incidents occurred when Romney was a student at Cranbrook School, the posh private all boys academy that he attended for six years. In one case, Romney shouted “Atta girl!” as a student tried to speak up in class — a student who later came out as gay. Jerky, to be sure; but as far as high school behavior goes, that account isn’t all that shocking.
But the second incident is much more disturbing. Another student, John Lauber, who was different from his fellow “Crannies” and presumed to be gay, returned to school after a break sporting a new, non-traditional hairstyle and color. This was more than young Romney could abide. After days of stewing over it and remarking that it “just wasn’t right,” a scissors-wielding Romney led a group of other boys to find Lauber and hold him down as he cried, screamed and pleaded while Romney chopped off chunks of his hair. Romney then led the group — minus Lauber, of course — back to his room to celebrate.
Romney claims not to remember this incident but issued a half-hearted and fully-qualified apology just to be on the safe side. (“I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports and I'm not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school, and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.”)
When taken together, these incidents paint a picture of a man who doesn’t so much suffer from an absence of exposure as he does an abundance of superiority.
I grew up with two big brothers and have a son who is in his now in his twenties, so when it comes to high school boy behavior, I have had both season tickets and a first row seat. When I think of garden-variety teenage pranks lots of things come to mind, but physical assault isn’t one of them.
And although I’m younger than Romney I’m already no stranger to the occasional lapse in memory. But it’s a little hard to believe that he has no memory of an incident that dramatic. Still, these things happened in the mid-1960s, and there are plenty of people who don’t remember sizeable chunks of that decade.
Fast forward to 1983, when Romney was a Bishop in the Mormon Church. Romney went to visit Peggy Hayes, a 23-year-old single mother who was also a member of the church. Hayes, who worked as a nurse’s aide at the time, was pregnant with her second child. Romney visited her at her apartment and urged her to give the baby up for adoption. When she protested, Romney told her that, if she didn’t, she could face excommunication. Apparently, both the Mormon Church and Romney disapproved of single parenting.
Though conflicted, Hayes ultimately decided to keep her baby. After the birth, her baby had some health problems that required surgery and Hayes called Romney to ask him to come to the hospital to give the baby a blessing. Rather than coming himself, Romney sent two strangers instead. Hayes felt abandoned by Romney specifically and the church generally at a time when she really needed support. It was then she decided to leave the church.
Again, Romney’s recollection of this incident seems fuzzy. He remembers encouraging her to give the baby up for adoption, but he denies threatening Hayes with excommunication. Hayes maintains the threat was crystal clear. Maybe it’s the single mom in me, but as far as these two infractions go (pressuring someone to give up her baby vs. threatening someone with excommunication) I have way more of an issue with the former than the latter, especially considering Hayes was employed and appeared up to the job of taking care of her children. Had she been married, all would have been well in the eyes of Romney and the Church. But the mere fact that she was a single mom caused her to be deemed unfit and subjected to pressure to give her baby up. That’s not clueless, that’s cruel.
At the end of the day, it’s not that he doesn’t understand us; he just doesn’t approve of us.
When taken together, these incidents paint a picture of a man who doesn’t so much suffer from an absence of exposure as he does an abundance of superiority. It seems that when it comes to gays and single parents, at least, Romney feels their behavior is wrong, and he isn’t above using his personal might to make things his brand of right. At the end of the day, it’s not that he doesn’t understand us; he just doesn’t approve of us.
I can empathize with a guy so hapless that he’s socially awkward in situations where he’s out of his element. But I have no sympathy for a judgemental guy who pressures people who are vulnerable or bullies those who he perceives as different, and then suffers from convenient memory lapses when called on it. That’s not someone I trust to hold the highest office in the land.
I don’t know if Romney ever got an answer to his question concerning who let the dogs out. But I am grateful that the cat is out of the bag about these past incidents well before Election Day.