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What We Learn from Mitt Romney's Disgusting Teenage Bullying

That a teenage Romney abused classmates perceived as "effeminate" tells us a lot about the candidate--as does his reaction to the revelation of this part of his past.

 There are many things that have been – and will be said – about  Mitt Romney as he seeks the presidency. But this week, we can add one more moniker to the list – high-school bully. Thursday, the  Washington Post dropped a bombshell of a story that suggested Romney was more than merely a prankster or mischief-maker, as his wife likes to joke on the campaign trail, but that his antics as a young man included a mean, even sadistic streak.

The key allegation of the Post article is that Romney led a group of his prep school cronies in cutting off the hair of an effeminate classmate named John Lauber. Lauber was held down, crying and begging for the attack to stop, while Romney allegedly cut off clumps of his bleach-blond hair with a scissors. The piece also suggests that Romney mocked another effeminate student, saying "Attagirl" whenever he made a comment in class. The stories are upsetting; and for anyone who has been bullied, it brings back terrible memories of helplessness and adolescent vulnerability.

As horrendous as the incident might have been, it should not, in of itself, be disqualifying to Romney's presidential aspirations. Bad behavior at the age of 17 or 18 is, quite rightly, the sort of behavior that, within limits, should be forgiven. There is not a person alive, I would imagine, who did not do something stupid as a teenager, or even as a young adult, for which they wish to be forgiven.

But, of course, forgiveness must begin with recognition that someone has made a mistake. Little in Mitt Romney's response to these charges suggests he has made that connection. Indeed, when initially contacted by the Post, Romney denied any memory of the incident – a notion that simply doesn't seem credible, particularly considering the searing psychological effect that the assault had on the other boys who were involved.

For Philip Maxwell, who participated in the attack and who still considers Romney a friend,  there is clearly an extraordinary amount of guilt about his actions:

"It's a haunting memory. I think it was for everybody that spoke up about it … because when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it. And that was what we all walked away with."

That the only person who appears to have no memory of the event is the one running for president of the  United States seems more than mere coincidence. That he remembers Lauber well enough to know that he didn't think he was gay – yet has no memory of attacking him – also fails to pass the smell test. There is, of course, an even worse possibility: that Romney did participate but has simply forgotten that he committed such a heinous act of cruelty.

Faced with the fact that five eyewitnesses, including indirectly the victim, confirmed the Post's account, Romney was forced to walk back his initial blanket denial – offering instead,  the most tepid of apologies:

"I played a lot of pranks in high school and they describe some that, well, you just say to yourself, back in high school, well, I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize. But overall, high school years were a long time ago."

The classic non-denial denial.

There is a disturbing inference in Romney's words – namely, that the blame should be placed as much on the sensitive shoulders of those who were hurt and offended, rather than the person who might have been responsible for inflicting pain upon them. What is missing from Romney's non-apology is the recognition that pranks, hijinks, assaults or whatever you want to call them, can leave psychic scars that stay with the victim for years to come.

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