Bullying story cuts into Romney's image

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Forty-seven years after he was pinned to the floor of his dorm room and his bleached-blond hair was viciously sheared, John Lauber would probably enjoy the measure of discomfort the brutal incident is now bringing his old prep school tormentor, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately, Lauber succumbed to liver cancer in 2004, so he'll never experience having his sanity or his patriotism questioned by right-wing media. Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz was able to find five former students who witnessed the incident, including several participants who fingered Mr. Romney as the posse's ringleader.

"It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me," said Thomas Buford, the school's wrestling champion who is now a retired prosecutor. He said he joined Mr. Romney in restraining a "terrified" Lauber but subsequently apologized. "What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do," Mr. Buford told the Post.

Because Lauber was bookish and soft-spoken, his classmates suspected he was gay, the only thing worse than being black at the prestigious Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1965. As it turns out, their crude "gaydar" was vindicated when Lauber, who was closeted during his prep school years, came out to his family a few years later.

When the story of Mr. Romney's adventures as a young gay-basher broke the day after President Obama announced his support of marriage equality, it established the worst possible contrast between the two candidates.

Mr. Romney insisted that he didn't remember the incident reported in Mr. Horowitz's exhaustive story, but he didn't rule it out as having happened, either. "[The article] talked about the fact that I played a lot of pranks in high school," Mr. Romney told a radio interviewer. "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 or offended by it, obviously I apologize."

Although it must be a relief to the Romney campaign that the alleged victim isn't around to share details from his journal or give tearful interviews, there is no minimizing the fact that Mr. Horowitz found five witnesses who insist the incident happened.

It is also interesting that Mr. Romney hasn't accused his old classmates of having dredged up false memories or exaggerating. He can't stomp his feet and accuse them of being part of a liberal media conspiracy because the incident is within the realm of possibility, and he knows it.

Confronted with the accusation of scalping a fellow student in high school, most people could say definitively whether it happened or not, even if many decades have passed. For Mr. Romney to say he doesn't remember an incident this disturbing means he's either (a) not telling the truth or (b) guilty of so many acts of bullying that he can't keep track of all of his victims. Unless he's suffering a sudden onset of dementia, he should be able to remember whether he cut off another person's hair.

The story is resonating because most people have encountered bullies at some point in their lives and secretly harbor fantasies of punishing them. Because Mr. Romney is already suffering from the perception that he is awkward and robotic, a story that makes him look like one of the preppy, elitist thugs from "Animal House" isn't going to help him. No one will ever be in a hurry to align themselves with Dean Wormer and vote for Doug Neidermeyer or Greg Marmalard.

Recently, the Romney campaign did something uncharacteristically clever. To blunt the meme about the candidate strapping his sick dog to the top of the family car for a five-hour drive to Canada, they found an obscure passage in Mr. Obama's autobiography about having eaten dog meat during his youth in Indonesia. It was an effective feat of jujitsu that finally muted the narrative.

Because of that tactic, I suspect legions of right-wing bloggers are already scouring the record for "evidence" that Mr. Obama mercilessly bullied his classmates during his formative years in a Kenyan madrassa. They will leap for joy if they can "confirm" that Mr. Obama became president of the Harvard Law Review by threatening his law school classmates with bodily harm.

If Romney was a bully, then chances are really good that Obama was Hitler.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1631; www.twitter.com/TonyNormanPG First Published May 11, 2012 12:00 AM


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