Several email correspondents have asked me to comment on last week’s story in the Washington Post about Mitt Romney’s high school years since I also attended Cranbrook School; I was there from 1956 to 1962 and Romney was there from 1959 to 1965.
The story leads with an account of Romney leading other students to hold down another student, now deceased, and cutting off his long blond hair. It’s a nasty incident, but alas not atypical of the kind of thing teenage boys do to each other. In a Fox News radio interview Romney said he has no recollection of the incident but apologized for any pranks that “went too far.”
I find his denial credible, since in sharing recollections with family and friends I have noticed that they remember things I have no memory of at all and vice versa. I also note that the author Edmund White, who graduated from Cranbrook in 1958, in an interesting New Yorker piece, describes the atmosphere of the school as “anti-intellectual,” at least in comparison to the public high school he attended in Evanston, Illinois, a university town.
My impression was quite different: at a time of cultural conformism, I found Cranbrook to be tolerant of eccentricity, a school where there was respect for intellectual achievement and even for Edmund White’s literary flair as well as for athletic prowess. There was also considerable ethnic diversity, with a large number of Jewish students, and in the 1950s the school made a point of admitting black students, including Romney’s classmate Sidney Barthwell.
But teenage boys are teenage boys, and I am on record saying that I remember the 14-year-old Romney as a jerk, like all 14-year-old boys (myself very much included). I can remember teasing other boys in a cruel manner and wish I could somehow take it back. I am sure Romney feels the same way. If we disqualified every presidential candidate who did something cruel as a teenager we wouldn’t have many candidates to choose from.
I think it’s worth noting that the framing of the Post story—the suggestion that Romney and the others picked on this schoolmate because they thought he was gay—is anachronistic. In spring 1965 long hair was associated with surfers (the Beach Boys had their first national hit record in 1964) and the Beatles (who made their first U.S. appearance in January 1965). And hair length was a big issue in the 1960s. Men of the World War II generation, who had memories of military short haircuts, took umbrage when teenagers left their hair grow, and fathers would badger their sons to get haircuts. In addition, the Post had to make a correction which took some of the sting out of the story but initially left it unnoted on the web version.
The story was obviously intended to hurt Romney. The Post and other mainstream media outfits have shown much more curiosity about Romney than they did about Barack Obama; only now, six years after he announced he was running for president, has the Post’s gifted reporter David Maraniss gotten around to writing pieces about Obama’s childhood and school experiences. Four years ago news organizations sent dozens of reporters to Wasilla, Alaska, to (among other things) scout through public library records to see if Sarah Palin as mayor had banned any books. But they sent few if any reporters to research Obama’s past in the Punahou School (the Honolulu equivalent of Cranbrook), at Occidental College or Columbia. Might find something that hurts him with voters.