Yesterday the world reacted to the news that, apparently in 1965 Mitt Romney, then a student at the exclusive Cranbrook School (below) in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, mocked and assaulted a student he suspected of being gay. Romney, then the son of Michigan’s governor, was not punished. Nor, apparently, did he ever apologize to the other student, who died in 2004. This actually is troublesome, but not for the reasons most people think.

Some pundits reacted to this story, published yesterday in the Washington Post, as if Romney’s being an occasional bully in high school is reflective of his general problems as a leader.

As Mark Kleiman puts it, “Mitt Romney’s ‘pranks’ seem to have had a common thread: picking on the vulnerable. This wouldn’t matter as much if Romney’s preferred public policies didn’t reflect the same theme: find someone helpless, and make that person’s life miserable.”


This is a little unfair. Not everyone was cruel in high school and but those who were, well, they grow out of it, or any any rate, being a jerk in private life doesn’t mean the polices and behaviors one pursues necessarily lack empathy. Empathy isn’t the thing to worry about.

Lyndon Johsnon, for instance, was known even as an adult for his personal cruelty and vulgarity. He delighted in humiliating and embarrassing others; male aides swimming in White House pool, for instance, would be forced to endure the president comparing the size of their genitalia to his own.

That didn’t stop Johnson from pushing policies—like the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Food Stamp Act of 1964, Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Social Security Act of 1965—that very much benefited the poor and the disposed.

For some politicians we never know about how they personally operate in the world, especially as teenagers. Karl Rove said of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign that “he’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” Perhaps he was; it doesn’t seem to matter.

But Mitt Romney’s bullying matters. It’s not that he’s was making fun of the (apparently) gay student for being kind of wimpy. This, unfortunately, is a fairly common behavior among high school students (Romney apparently did that also, mocking one effeminate student with “atta girl,” whenever he spoke up in class). No, this is troublesome because of the reason why Romney assaulted the student. According to the Post article:

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, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

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.

Right, around the same time college students were burning draft cards and taking LSD, when young people began to experiment with marijuana and premarital sex, Romney was worried about unconventional hair.

Conform! young Mitt demands. I will not have that creative, alternative hair in my line of sight. Obey the rules and be normal.

Ultimately this doesn’t matter much. His feeling about tax policy and environmental regulation are far more important to consider when making decisions about who should be president. This incident will soon fade into the background.

But this is important not because it reveals that Mitt Romney kind of a jerk as a high school student. It’s important because, even as a kid in the tumultuous 1960s, he really, really wanted to make sure that everyone conformed to his gender norms and didn’t behave unusually.

That shows something pretty important about how the man sees the world. “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him.” [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer