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May 11, 2012

Mitt Romney: Homeopathic* Hair Bandit from Heck

vidal.jpgImagine our deep unsurprise this morning to find Memeorandum lit up like the 4th of July over the bombshell revelation that what young Mitt Romney really wanted to be when he grew up was Vidal Sassoon. We know this because the WaPo, deeply concerned at the possibility of having overlooked some vast, untapped motherlode of journalistic irrelevance, has offered up this Pulitzer-worthy feat of investigative reportage:

Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

The solution was obvious. Young Romney, showing early signs of the sociopathic tendencies breezy leadership style that would one day shower him with undeserved race, gender, and class privileges, grabbed a pair of scissors, rounded up a few classmates, and...did Lauber's hair. Sadly, this was not to be Young Mitt's last foray into the wild and woolly world of non-consensual makeovers, though the obvious connection to Barack Obama's startling evolution on gay marriage may require a bit of explaining:

It turns out Mitt Romney probably wasn’t discriminating against John Lauber for being gay when he cut his hair off in high school. Romney says he doesn’t remember the incident but it looks like cutting hair was just something he liked to do. Almost like a sick hobby.

From a Washington Post story published in April:

As a kid in Michigan, Sidney Barthwell Jr., a high school classmate, recalled Romney as a prankster driving doughnuts in snowy parking lots. At Stanford, he lured rival University of California students into a trap in which his buddies “shaved their heads and painted them red,” according to a 1970 speech at Brigham Young University by his father, George Romney.

What are we to make of this sudden metamorphosis from socially awkward, goody two-shoes/humorless automaton to seething, homophobic gang leader? To put it mildly, there seems to be a bit of a dispute about which narrative we're to believe this week. Is Romney more like Melanie Wilkes or Scarlett O'Hara? Wendy, or Peter Pan? Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

A more appropriate question might be, why do we feel the need to oversimplify news stories to the point of absurdity; to shoehorn them into a one size fits all mold that explains everything from a candidate's Weltanschauung to where he comes down on the all important boxers-vs-briefs debate?

A number of things jump out at me here.

1. Seldom has a news story offered so many people who clearly have neither read nor understood Lord of the Flies the chance to showcase their ignorance. William Goldman's novel was set on a deserted island where a group of schoolboys, abruptly severed from civilization, struggle to recreate society from the ground up.

What this has to do with the behavior of a group of schoolboys in a tony private boarding school run by adults apparently need not be explained (the eerie parallels being self-evidently self evident).

In my junior year of high school, I moved to Virginia and my parents placed me at a former country day school. The notion that there is any similarity between a private school where students wear ties and follow stricter rules than their public school compatriots and a deserted island with no adults and no rules is frankly delusional.

The usual aim of such schools is to socialize their students: to teach them a uniform set of values and standards. This was so in the late 70s and was even more so in 1965, a time when rock and roll stars kept their hair short and performed in coats and ties. Non-conformity was not a prized attribute, as this author quickly learned, having spent most of her junior year trying to get kicked out of a similar prison environment. If you're determined to throw out a literary allusion, this novel might be a better choice.

2. What you make of this story will likely depend on two things:

* Whether you believe isolated incidents from one's teen years accurately predict an adult's character.
* How you feel about Mitt Romney.

I don't like bullying, but I'm not sure this meets the definition of bullying. What it is, if true, is bad enough: a group of teens decided for reasons we'll never know that it would be funny to gang up on an outsider and cut his hair - possibly to make him fit in, possibly because they could get away with it, possibly as some kind of weird bonding thing, possibly because he was different, or effeminate, or gay. The thing is, we'll never know, will we? But that won't stop us from projecting our imagined motives onto the participants after the fact.

Either way, as Slate's Emily Bazelon (presumably not a Romney fan) observes, it wasn't a nice thing to do:

Let’s assume that the details five other people (most but not all of them Democrats) keenly recall are true. How bad is this, as an example of bullying? Was this just the sort of thing that went on at boarding schools in the 1960s? Or does it show a troubling lack of empathy on the part of Romney? The short answer is that it’s both.

Slate founder Michael Kinsley graduated from Cranbrook in 1968, overlapping with Romney, and remembers the school as fairly progressive. He put the story about Romney into the category of things teenage boys do that they’re later ashamed of—not beyond the bounds of Cranbrook’s culture in those days, if also not good. “He missed an opportunity,” Kinsley said. “If he could go back, he’d have broken up that group rather than leading it.”

In lashing out at kids who were perceived as effeminate, Romney wasn’t alone. Horowitz recounts that when Romney shouted “Atta girl!” at another closeted gay student who tried to speak up in English class, he was using language of the sort even teachers employed. Kinsley says that’s plausible but not typical.

Technically speaking, the Post account doesn’t make Romney a bully. The academic definition of bullying is verbal or physical abuse that involves a power imbalance and that’s also repeated. We don’t have evidence that Romney went after Lauber more than once.

Teen boys and girls are known for doing stunningly callous things to each other. Girls ostracize each other, spread gossip, and destroy the reputations of other girls they dislike. The aggression of boys usually takes a more physical form: pushing, shoving, hazing. But there's another component to this story that has received little attention: society's changing gender roles.

If we were to transport students and teachers from the 1960s into today's classrooms, they would be like fish out of water. Boys of my generation were expected to be tough, to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to hide their feelings and ruthlessly suppress "feminine" emotions like tenderness, sympathy, compassion. Boys who failed to do these things were labeled sissies or Mama's boys. Men in charge of young boys behaved in ways that to modern eyes seem quite brutal, often using ridicule, shame, and intimidation to curb their youthful high spirits and toughen their skins.

One need only look at the startling evolution of military training to see how things have changed. In the 1960s it was not uncommon for discipline problems to be solved by taking the offender behind the nearest Quanset hut for an impromptu thumping. These days, such behavior would land a drill instructor in the nearest brig. Adult men complain about "blaming and shaming" behavior, labeling once traditional behavior as misandry that scars the souls of young boys.

How much sense would it make to go back in time and apply that modern label (misandry) to what was then considered traditionally masculine behavior? Not much, I'm thinking.

3. People change, and the best predictor of their future performance is their recent behavior.

If you believe that Barack Obama at 20 or 22 was the same man he is today, then you should probably apply the same standard to Mitt Romney. This makes little sense to me, but then I haven't paid much attention to stories of Obama's misspent youth. What is relevant to me is his behavior today.

Interestingly, aside from his self-reporting shoving of a younger black girl at his school, no stories suggesting a propensity for bullying have emerged from Obama's youth. Yet during the 2008 Presidential race, the Obama campaign urged its supporters to gang up on (and shout down) an author they disagreed with.

Twice.

Fast forward to the 2012 race where the pattern of intimidation - both direct and by proxy - continues:

Here's what happens when the president of the United States publicly targets a private citizen for the crime of supporting his opponent.

Frank VanderSloot is the CEO of Melaleuca Inc. The 63-year-old has run that wellness-products company for 26 years out of tiny Idaho Falls, Idaho. Last August, Mr. VanderSloot gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC that supports Mitt Romney.

Three weeks ago, an Obama campaign website, "Keeping GOP Honest," took the extraordinary step of publicly naming and assailing eight private citizens backing Mr. Romney. Titled "Behind the curtain: a brief history of Romney's donors," the post accused the eight of being "wealthy individuals with less-than-reputable records." Mr. VanderSloot was one of the eight, smeared particularly as being "litigious, combative and a bitter foe of the gay rights movement."

About a week after that post, a man named Michael Wolf contacted the Bonneville County Courthouse in Idaho Falls in search of court records regarding Mr. VanderSloot. Specifically, Mr. Wolf wanted all the documents dealing with Mr. VanderSloot's divorces, as well as a case involving a dispute with a former Melaleuca employee.

Mr. Wolf sent a fax to the clerk's office—which I have obtained—listing four cases he was after. He would later send a second fax, asking for three further court cases dealing with either Melaleuca or Mr. VanderSloot.

Empathy is much in the news these days. The question is, which is more relevant to this contest? Nearly 50 year old "revelations" that show a "disturbing" lack of empathy from a then-teenaged Mitt Romney?

Or a consistent pattern of thuggery and intimidation by a sitting President? Any bets on which stories will be hyped (and which ignored)? If bullying is bad, then it is bad regardless of who the aggressor is. And if empathy is important, then one might expect the media to discern a disturbing lack of empathy when a fully adult man uses his position (and the bully pulpit) to crowdsource his opposition research and gang up on private citizens who have done nothing wrong or illegal.

The President's contemporary acts of thuggery do not mean a story nearly a half century old should be ignored or suppressed. Two wrongs don't make a right. But the question I'm left with is, "What standard is being applied here?"

And to what end?

*malapropism fully intended

Posted by Cassandra at May 11, 2012 06:29 AM

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Comments

In an effort to avoid plunging into a spiral of blue-black depression resulting in multiple self-inflicted injuries, I have decided that everything is A-OK, and in fact, getting much much better! Why, it was only last week that we were worrying our selves to death over unemployment, the economy, Afghanistan, Syria, terrorism, the collapse of Europe into (pick any two) socialism, fascism, or anarchy, Chinese hegemony, and dogs as luggage or dinner. Thank heavens that gay marriage is once again the single most important issue facing this nation, and, I would argue, mankind.

Yep. Things are looking up, folks! Tears of joy.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 11, 2012 11:14 AM

In an effort to avoid plunging into a spiral of blue-black depression resulting in multiple self-inflicted injuries...

SELF-BULLIER!!!!!!

Thank heavens that gay marriage is once again the single most important issue facing this nation, and, I would argue, mankind.

Especially for a presidential candidate. After all, it's not as though marriage law were something the states normally decide for themselves....

Personally, I can never quite decide which candidate to vote for without knowing their position on issues they really have no power to decide :p

Posted by: Knut, the Adorably Psychotic (and now dead) Gay Teen Bear at May 11, 2012 11:49 AM

Perhaps young Mitty was simply trying to make his separate peace while simultaneously violating the injunction against going up the down staircase. But it was a blackboard jungle back then, and today we can say only, "Welcome back, Romney."

...believe isolated incidents from one's teen years accurately predict an adult's character.

Frankly, I'd be worried if he didn't have isolated incidents and youthful bounds oversteppings. People change, and the best predictor of their future performance is their recent behavior. How else can we assess such...evolution...absent such incidents?

In the 1960s it was not uncommon for discipline problems to be solved by taking the offender behind the nearest Quanset hut for an impromptu thumping.

Indeed. Was a time when we trained our soldiers about the risks of being shot at by...shooting [near] them during boot.

What standard is being applied here?
And to what end?

I think you answered these with your preceding Fast forward.... paras.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 11, 2012 12:16 PM

"If bullying is bad, then it is bad regardless of who the aggressor is. And if empathy is important, then one might expect the media to discern a disturbing lack of empathy when a fully adult man uses his position (and the bully pulpit) to crowdsource his opposition research and gang up on private citizens who have done nothing wrong or illegal."

In a funny sorta way, that probably explains why O did not mount an attack against his democrat challenger in the primaries, other than maybe mistaking him as an Administration insider.

The fundamental difference between the two Democrat candidates is one will pay for his crimes against society.

Posted by: Larry at May 11, 2012 01:23 PM

...other than maybe mistaking him as an Administration insider.

... or part of the Justice Department!

Posted by: Bada Boom, Bada Bing! at May 11, 2012 01:34 PM

"... or part of the Justice Department!"

Well, technically, yanno.....
0>;~}

Posted by: Snarkammando at May 11, 2012 01:44 PM

It was terrifyingly real to read that terrifying act of terror Romney caused.

Clap... clap... clap.

I thought yellow journalism was a lost art, the WaPo has given it new life. A Pulitzer you say? Absolutely, Joe was a master of the craft.

Next up... "Mormons are really nice people, but have you noticed how creepy their church is?"

Posted by: Allen at May 11, 2012 04:37 PM

Heck, wouldn't Obama's supporters consider his own bullying of Romney supporters to be virtuous, since it's in the service of (to them) a just cause? Alinsky-style demonizing of the opposition, refusal to play fair, and all...

Posted by: Matt at May 11, 2012 09:49 PM

Bullying is in the eye of the beholder. Especially if you get poked in the eye by a sharp stick.

Whining and complaining and blame shifting, however, are indicative traits of not quite fully mature human being. They are, however, endemic traits of the man presently occupying the White House as the country's chief executive.

And we've all taken a bit of haircut in our values that last few years. It will be a close shave if we manage to save the Republic. The government is going to have to trim spending greatly. They need to comb the budget for savings.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 12, 2012 03:54 PM

we've all taken a bit of haircut in our values that last few years. It will be a close shave if we manage to save the Republic. The government is going to have to trim spending greatly. They need to comb the budget for savings.

*Raising a cold one in Eric's and your general direction...*

Beer is a thing with bubbles
That clingeth to the mug
And effervesceth merrily
As though daring me to chug.
And sweetest, in the tap, is heard
Oh! sore must be the churl
That could forgo the tasty draught
That causeth one to hurl.

I've sipped it from the chilliest mug
And from the tallest glass
And, if I quaff enough of it
'Twill knock me on my ass.

Posted by: Beer Me at May 14, 2012 05:32 PM

OH YOU GUYS! Can't one quaff a delectable Barq's Root Beer without snorting all over the screen while reading the mad musings and sane screed of the Assembled Villainry?

Posted by: Carolyn at May 18, 2012 02:50 PM

"Can't one quaff a delectable Barq's Root Beer without snorting all over the screen while reading the mad musings and sane screed of the Assembled Villainry?"

Apparently not.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at May 19, 2012 09:45 AM

I love tossed salads and scrambled eggs...

Posted by: Carolyn at May 19, 2012 10:15 PM

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