Amid the furor surrounding Mitt Romney’s admitted take-down of a fellow student at Cranbrook Academy 50 some years ago, one thing stand out starkly. It wasn’t what Romney admits doing as a teenager but how he responded to and explained his acts only a day or so ago.
I'm not surprised to learn that John Lauber, Romney’s victim was a closeted gay man. The atmosphere at such privileged educational institutions as Cranbrook virtually reeks of homophobia, a product of teenage confusion, fear, projection and ignorance. Countless young men who are now Romney’s age, myself included, have fallen into the trap of queer baiting. It’s inexcusable but inescapable in the battened-down world of an all-boys school where the need to establish rank and avoid social ostracism is paramount.
Was he a bully? Pretty obviously. But the bullying charge doesn’t shock or surprise me, though it may resonate deeply, as it should, with those many young people and their parents who have made bullying a political rallying cry for gay and straight students alike.
What stands out most painfully for me, for any man who sees his own twisted teenage history reflected n the Washington Post’s report is Romney’s assertion that he doesn’t remember what he did, at least not in quite the detail that his fellow bullies do.
I don’t believe that’s possible. And if it's possible, if Romney isn’t lying, I’m all the more appalled by his response to that report.
Reading the report sent me back to my own school days at Canisius High School, an exclusive all-boys Catholic school in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. I arrived there as a transfer student in junior year in 1966. I was the new kid in class, as dorky and self-conscious as any other high school junior, hyper-aware of all my failings, real and imagined.
Chief among my real failings was an obvious lack of athletic ability. It did not go unnoticed. One kid in particular appeared to have my number. But then I noticed this kid – we’ll call him Jim – was already preoccupied with teasing and taunting another student we’ll call Charles.
Charles was an especially gawky looking kid. He seemed unaware of this, which gave him an impenetrable air of innocence that, while increasing his his vulnerablity, might also have saved him from realizing how often his interactions with his "friend" Jim were tainted by contempt.
In Charles, I recognized how I could escape being similarly scrutinized and tortured by Jim. All I had to do was join Jim in teasing Charles. There was a pecking order at school, and I was intent on not joining Charles at the bottom of that order.
I won’t go into the tawdry details, other than to say my scheme worked. I escaped Jim’s ridicule and made Charles pay for it. I knew it was wrong then and I probably confessed it in the confessional. But I never confessed it to Charles, to my ever-lasting shame.
Over the years, I’ve thought about what I did to Charles. I don't like to be reminded. I’ve tried to find comfort in the possibility that circumstances, self-protection and even prep-school tradition drove me to hurt him and excused my actions.
But the truth is I enjoyed psychologically toying with – bullying – the young man who’d unwittingly saved me from being becoming an exile.
If I didn’t behave as righteously as I wish I had, all I can say is this: I’ve never forgotten what I did. Nor have I forgiven myself.
And that’s my point about Romney’s response to the news story. He admits he tackled John Lauber and took a pair of scissors to hair that he judged to be somehow “wrong.” He brought the terrified young man to tears (a further schoolboy indictment of his manhood). And now, confronted by the story, Romney says he doesn’t remember the incident.
I don’t believe that. I can’t believe that. And that’s the best light I can put on his response. Because if he did remember his actions, Romney would have to feel shame for what he did.
Instead, he explained his behavior by admitting --sheepishly --to “participating in a lot of hijinks and pranks” as a young man.
What kind of man – not teenager – confronted by such shameful deeds, claims he can’t remember the particulars of what he did? Other members of the pack that helped Romney take Lauber down remember only too well what happened. Several told The Post they’ve been haunted by what they witnessed and by their silence, participated in.
But the man who would be president can’t quite remember what happened, though he’s certainly, you know, sorry if some of those pranks “might have gone too far.”
Can anyone believe those are the words of a man who feels remorse for what he’s done? Lacking any evidence of remorse, of shame, I can only stare at Romney’s photo and wonder what recognizably human feeling resides beneath that ever-smiling visage.