What We Learn from Mitt Romney's Disgusting Teenage Bullying

 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.

Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking elements of the Post story is that 30 years after it took place, one of the perpetrators, David Seed accidentally ran into Lauber at O'Hare International Airport and tried to apologize for not doing more to help his classmate. "It was horrible," Lauber recounted. He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and acknowledged to Seed, "It's something I have thought about a lot since then."

In recent years, Americans have woken up to the horrible impact of bullying, especially on children. Though many schools no longer take a "kids will be kids" response to such behavior, and even at a time when gays enjoy far greater acceptance in American society, a 2009 survey found that "85% of kids who identify as LGBT said they'd been verbally harassed at school, 40% physically harassed, and nearly 20% physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation."

Those who suffer such abuse are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and social withdrawal – and are five times more likely than those not bullied to try and take their own lives. Bullying is not something that simply "toughens up kids"; it wounds them, often deeply.

From this perspective, these revelations actually provided Romney with a unique opportunity to own up to his past behavior and publicly recognize the trauma of bullying and harassment of children. Considering the extent to which anti-gay attitudes find a home in the modern GOP, it could be, one might say, a teachable moment. For Romney to speak up would be a statement of leadership and would send a powerful signal that anti-gay bullying, or bullying of any kind, is unacceptable and should be condemned.

Here, the contrast with Romney's opponent in November is instructive. Two days ago, President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage. It was long overdue, politically calculated and forced upon him, in part, by the big mouth of his Vice President. Nonetheless, it was perhaps the most important civil rights statement by a sitting president since Lyndon Johnson declared "We Shall Overcome" to a joint session of Congress in 1965. And it was a statement cloaked in a resounding sense of empathy for gay Americans:

"When I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained, even now that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage … at a certain point, I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Whatever the motivation or calculation that led Obama to speak, these are the words of a man who recognizes that not only should gay Americans be treated with equal rights under the law, but that the basic humanity of gay Americans – so often forgotten in this debate – must be celebrated. There was compassion and identification in Obama's words that no doubt resonated with millions of gay (and non-gay) Americans – including and in particular those who had suffered the same trauma as John Lauber.

To be sure, considering that he has adopted a position (or been forced to adopt a position) of complete rejection of equal rights for gays, even opposing civil unions, it is hard to imagine Mitt Romney taking a similar course. Still, he might have made a start in the right direction by owning up to his own behavior and counseling others to act with greater humanity. He chose otherwise.

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