For the past two days, the presidential campaign has been dominated by a Washington Post story that reported Mitt Romney, in high school in 1965, led a group of bullies that pinned down another student to the ground and cut his hair. Obviously, the story makes it seem that Romney was heartless as a teenager 47 years ago. Even if the story is true, however, it’s important to recognize that people are complicated and, to use a word that’s been in the news a lot lately, they can evolve over time. In the years following the alleged hair cutting incident, Romney had a lot of life changing experiences, such as nearly dying in a terrible car accident in France when his was a Mormon missionary, falling in love with and marrying Ann, and raising five children. Though we hear a lot of stories that reflect Romney’s callousness (Google also: “Romney dog on the roof”), we read a lot less about his generosity.
If we’re going to set the standard that whether a politician has been kind to others in real life should factor into voters’ decisions about whether or not to make him president, then it’s only fair to highlight some of Romney’s acts of charity over the course of his lifetime.
In their excellent biography The Real Romney, Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman – no cheerleaders – found many examples of Romney’s private compassion. Such as:
-- In 1995, a Mormon family, the Nixons, had recently moved to the Boston area and got devastating news when two of their sons were rendered quadriplegics by a terrible car accident -- a tragedy that was compounded by the financial strain. Having heard their story, Romney called the parents to see if they’d be around on Christmas Eve. Romney, even though he didn’t know the Nixons very well, showed up with Ann and his sons. They brought the injured sons a new stereo system and other gifts. According to the book, the Nixons “were floored” that Romney had not only taken an interest in them, but that he and Ann had taken time out of their busy schedule to deliver the gifts themselves and turn it into a family event to set an example. Romney also offered to pay for their sons’ college educations and participated in multiple fundraisers for them over the years. “It wasn’t a one time thing,” the father told the authors.
-- One time, Romney found out that a church member had broken his foot by falling off a ladder trying to remover a hornet’s nest. Romney showed up and devised a way of removing it from the inside of the house. “Everyone who has known Romney in the church community seems to have a story like this, about him and his family pitching in ways big and small,” Kranish and Helman write. “They took chicken and asparagus soup to sick parishioners. They invited unsettled Mormon transplants to their home for lasagna.” Another time, a fire broke out near where Romney lived and he “organized the gathered neighbors, and they began dashing into the house to rescue what they could: a desk, couches, books” until the fire fighters made them stop. He also helped build a playground to honor a neighbor’s child who had died of cystic fibrosis. “There he was, with a hammer in his belt, the Mitt nobody sees,” the neighbor, Joseph O’Donnell recounted. “Romney didn’t stop there,” the book reads. “About a year later, it became apparent that the park would need regular maintenance and repairs. ‘The next thing I know, my wife calls me up and says, “You’re not going to believe this, but Mitt Romney is down with a bunch of Boy Scouts and they’re working on the park.”’”
-- As I’ve written before, Kranish and Helman recount a perfect example of the contrast between Romney’s callous public image and his personal generosity from his 1994 Senate race in Massahcusetts against Ted Kennedy. Roughly a week before the election, Romney did a campaign stop at a Boston shelter for homeless veterans. The director of the center, Ken Smith, told Romney that their budget was being hammed by the cost of milk. In his political mode, Romney awkwardly joked that they should just teach veterans how to milk cows. Obviously, that did not go over well. Quietly, Romney later called Smith and asked how he could help. The authors write: “(N)ow, instead of paying for a thousand pints a day, the shelter was paying for just five hundred. And it wasn’t just some political stratagem. ‘It wasn’t a short-term “Let me stroke you a check,”’ he said. ‘It happened not once, not twice, but for a long period of time.’ In fact, Smith said he understood that Romney was still supporting the shelter when Smith left in 1996.”
There are numerous other examples like this, such as the better known one in which Romney shut down Bain Capital so that all the partners could search for the daughter of one of the partners who had gone missing in New York City. Obviously, we know about these stories because members of the mainstream media have reported them. See, also, this CBS report on Romney helping out a victim of California wildfires. But such stories have not been amplified in the same way as stories that feed into the idea of him being cold-hearted.
Personally, I don’t think any of this should have bearing on whether or not Romney deserves to be president. But those who want to make the fact that Romney reportedly did something inexcusable in high school into a campaign issue must also grapple with his numerous acts of charity and generosity over the course of his lifetime.