Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com
What interesting timing. I had recently planned a column on my observations about Mitt Romney at Cranbrook. Why? Not because of anything in the news related to Cranbrook—at least not yet—but because our careers there (mine and Mitt’s) overlapped. Then The Washington Post released its story about the young, alleged bully, Mitt Romney. Now my Romney article is twice as long as it would have been a week ago.
First, some background: I was a freshman in Stevens Hall, Mitt’s dorm, during his senior year. At Cranbrook, freshmen watched seniors, but didn’t hang around with them, so we didn’t know each other. I doubt that he would remember me from Cranbrook (although we did meet briefly prior to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games as a result of my daughter having written the torch relay song for that Olympiad).
Now, to the current issue: did Romney cut John Lauber’s hair? I have no personal knowledge of the incident; in fact, I can’t even remember John. But when men like Mitt’s classmates, Tom Buford and Matt Friedemann, say publicly that it happened, then it happened. “Kraut,” as we affectionately called Friedemann in those pre-political correctness days, was the prefect on my hall, and very kind to this freshman. I knew Tom, another prefect. I’d trust those two any day.
Was Mitt homophobic? The real question should be: Is the adult Mitt Romney homophobic? Cranbrook in the ‘60s had a culture that probably would be considered “homophobic” today, but was the norm then. I don’t know anybody there who actually hated or wanted to hurt homosexuals, but you sure didn’t want to be called one. We were a bunch of adolescent boys with macho complexes, trying to live up to what we thought “real men” should be like. In the ‘60s, that meant being masculine and heterosexual.
Did the school administration let Mitt get away with stuff because his dad was governor? Possibly, although seniors generally were a privileged class. As long as they didn’t set the dorm on fire, the adults pretty much left them alone to do their thing.
Just as we made mistakes in the classroom and then (sometimes) learned from those mistakes, so we learned by trial and error outside of the classroom. For example, several of the guys who helped Mitt administer the unwanted haircut have stated that the incident bothered them. They learned something important about themselves: It didn’t feel right to engage in unprovoked aggression against another human being. I’ll bet they never did it again. Maybe Mitt learned the same lesson.
Was Mitt a bully? By today’s standards, what Mitt did would be classified as bullying. By the standards of the ‘60s, though, “bullying” seems like too harsh a term. The bullies I knew as a kid were pathetically antisocial boys who derived perverse pleasure from inflicting pain on kids who were clearly weaker than they were.
Mitt was anything but antisocial. After reading about this incident, I went back to my 1965 yearbook, both to see if I recognized John Lauber (I didn’t) and to reminisce about Romney, Friedemann, Buford, and other guys I knew. There was Mitt in the Glee Club picture; as head of the Key Club; Mitt in the Pep Club; Mitt in “the Forum,” a student group that studied geopolitical events; Mitt the chairman of the Homecoming Committee. Here’s a guy who loved his school and gave much of himself—hardly the profile of the antisocial bully.
A bully’s primary goal would have been to hurt John Lauber. I think Mitt was motivated by a too-ardent desire to uphold the school’s unwritten cultural code, under the standards of which he thought John’s bleached, styled hair to be effeminate, and thus disrespectful to the school and its student body. Does that make what he did right? Of course not.
On the other hand, if, in order to be president, someone has to have had a spotless, mistake-free youth—no lapses in judgment and not having committed a single embarrassing deed—then the office will have to remain vacant. The Washington Post reported one strange incident that may have been taken out of its social, cultural, and temporal context.
In the interest of doing my little bit to flesh out Mitt Romney’s character, let me share a couple of first-hand observations of Romney at Cranbrook:
The one quality about Mitt Romney that stood out more than the others was his abundant joy. He was one of the happiest guys I’ve ever seen, although he had his serious side, too. His love for life was palpable.
I’d surmise that Mitt’s joy stemmed from his happy family life. When the demagogues sneer that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, they are right, but not in the way they mean. Mitt’s good fortune wasn’t his father’s money, but that his parents imparted to him great emotional wealth. He had to have a lot of emotional security and self-knowledge to be able to enter into such a successful, enduring marriage at such a young age, and I think that was George and Lenore Romney’s truly valuable bequest to him.
Romney’s joy is no mere trivial factoid. It has relevance for this presidential race. I would prefer POTUS to be a happy, secure individual, and one who has loved and been grateful for his country all his life.
Let me share another vignette with you, one that speaks to Romney’s character: At Homecoming of his senior year, a couple of the regular runners on Cranbrook’s cross country team couldn’t compete that week. That meant that Mitt, who was further down the depth chart of a very strong team, would finally get to run in a varsity race. When the runners burst into view on the far side of the football field during halftime, Mitt astounded everyone by being near the lead. He had pushed himself to run the race of his life. But then, about 100-150 yards from the finish line, he reached his physical limit. Starved for oxygen, his legs started to shut down. His stride gave way to an unsteady stagger. Runners started to race past him. Then, winded and ashen, his face contorted in acute distress, he collapsed on the track some 30 yards from the finish line.
He could have quit and stopped the agony. He had nothing to gain, it seemed, for every other runner had passed him, but still he didn’t give up. Instead, he literally crawled and dragged himself yard after yard on the cinder track, until finally he crossed the finish line and received some first aid. It was a heroic effort.
Lesson: When Mitt Romney is committed to something, he gives it his all.
President Obama and his supporters in government and the media have their work cut out for them. The president’s record is weak, so he can’t run for reelection on that. The logical Plan B is to turn Romney into a monster. That could prove to be a major strategic error.
I haven’t had the privilege of knowing Mitt Romney, the adult. Others will have to tell us about his adult conduct. All I can tell you is that I saw a lot of potential for a life of positive accomplishments in that lanky teen in Stevens Hall.