The Leadership Romney Might Have Shown
His behavior today is the real issue

May 13, 2012

The Washington Post published a Jason Horowitz article, detailing Mitt Romney's mostly boring exploits at Cranbrook, an all male Michigan prep school. A few hundred of that article's 5500 words explore Romney's pranks, practical jokes, and sometimes harassment and bullying of both students and teachers. Horowitz cites five different witnesses to one bullying incident, where Romney and a few friends threw a classmate to the floor and forcibly cut his long, bleached blond hair—Romney at one point having said, "He can't look like that. That's wrong."

Romney used a prearranged Fox Radio interview with Brian Kilmeade to apologize for the incident, which he seems also to have denied remembering. He had nearly five minutes of open microphone to deliver a planned response.

Much of the comment regarding his radio-interview apology has been focused either on its believability and genuineness, or on the importance of the incident today, in light of the serious issues our nation faces. Those are valid questions for consideration, but my mind is focused first on what Mitt Romney didn't say in that interview—and those implications today.

I'm a few months younger than Romney, and graduated from high school in 1964, a year earlier than he did. (That year makes an important difference—but I'll come back to it.) I was a bigot in high school, probably far more overtly so than Mitt Romney might have been. (Of course he had bigotry in him; we all do, somewhere.) Today, I openly challenge and confront bigotry wherever I find it, whether in myself or others. I have written and spoken, publicly and privately, about the person I was in my youth, the events and experiences that changed me, and who I am today. (Look here and here.) It's important that I do this. I believe each telling chips away a chunk from the wall of bigotry that divides us from each other.

I wish Romney had used the Fox interview to engage in a classical exercise of moral story-telling. The formula is ancient and simple: what was I like; what happened; what am I like now? He might have said something like, "You know, I had some attitudes—and I said and did things as a teenager, that I'm not proud of today. I'd like to say a few words about that, because there are undoubtedly some kids that age today, who are either doing what I did, or are victims of it. I want them to be able to learn a different way—as I ultimately did." He could then have told how he was changed, and what he believes today. He could have concluded by urging his audience to search within themselves for fear and intolerance—of which they might become free.

I would have admired and appreciated that object lesson. Of course, an apology would still have been needed, and it would then have rung more true. Such a teaching story would have exhibited the kind of moral leadership I hope for in a person who aspires to command the most powerful military force the world has ever known, and to make critical decisions impacting the lives, liberty and pursuits of happiness of more than 300 million Americans.

As I listened to a recording of the Romney interview, I heard no such leadership. I heard a smart politician working to get out in front of a damaging news story.

Now, let's return to the difference between the years 1964 and '65—as perceived by a high-school adolescent. The Beatles exploded into our lives in the winter of '63-'64, with haircuts and stacked-heel boots that looked bizarrely feminine to some eyes. The Beach Boys, early sixties
The Beatles arrive in U.S. with hair over their ears and eyebrows.(both images in public domain)
I recall a high school acquaintance who dismissed the British band out of hand, using the word "fag." (Gay wasn't commonly associated with sexual identity until the early seventies, though earlier examples of that usage can be found.)

Early-sixties America had nothing like the diversity of styles we see everywhere today. No males in my 2400-student urban high school had long hair in the Spring of 1964. I was in college in Southern California before I saw much of the hippie look, which was often greeted with jeers, condemnation, and suggestions of homosexuality. The musical Hair gives us another chronological way-point. It premiered on Broadway in 1968, and James Rado and Gerome Ragni had begun writing it late in '64.

The hair of the Broadway play and the Romney bullying attack had happened between my senior high school year and Romney's, and for some people, it had distinct associations of homosexuality. That initial identity confusion later emerged as unisex fashion, first in the late sixties, and again in recent years.

Romney's protestation that he had no knowledge of his bullying target's homosexuality—and that the victim didn't came out as a gay man until years later, is irrelevant. Few people of any age were openly homosexual in 1965. What is relevant is the behavior of Romney and his friends. They didn't just jeer at their victim; they took him down and butchered his hair. That was a sexual attack. It could have been nothing else.

Whether deliberately conceived and executed as such or not, and no matter what Romney calls it today, it had a component of sexual violence. We have every reason to believe the victim would have experienced it as an attack against his sexuality. And to whatever extent it might not have been overtly sexual, it was still a violent act of degradation—not a hijink or prank. It was wrong by the standards of 2012, and by the standards of 1965.

Of course Romney's 1965 behavior needn't disqualify him from leadership today, any more than my bigoted attitudes of that time prevent me from living a loving and tolerant life today. But his failure to lead in a disturbing situation—and his eagerness to snuff out a potential wildfire before it could scorch him? Those are matters of moment. They are today's concerns.

  The Muser

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