I don’t quite know what to make of the WaPo story on Mitt Romney’s high school bullying.
I cut Mitt some slack on the dog-on-the-car thing, and I’m inclined to be generally forgiving of high school hijinks. I didn’t go to an all-boys prep school, but from what I’ve heard, what Mitt and friends are accused of doing sound pretty typical of that time and place. Organizing pranks and posses are one way adolescent boys demonstrate leadership. I expect there are many more anecdotes about the young Mitt showing exemplary leadership than there are of him showing cruelty.
But Romney’s reaction to the story has been, so far, terribly disappointing it. The Post account is loaded with weighted words (“posse,” “vicious,” “closeted gay”) that apply 2012 standards to a 50-year-old event. A more gifted politician would put a more benign face on the story to blunt its impact. Instead, Romney denied remembering something that others who were present found unforgettable, then made a weaselly apology: “Back in high school, you know, I, I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize.”
Writing about it in the New York Times, Charles Blow takes much more offense over the original incident than I, but he makes a good point. Over the last year or so, a rash of teen suicides have inspired a serious and important discussion about bullying. In schools across the country, kids are learning that there’s a line between teasing and harassment, that kids shouldn’t be ostracized just because they are different, that, in the words of my dear mother, “if it’s not fun for everybody, it’s not fun for anybody.”
By responding to this old story with candor instead of half-hearted spin, Romney could bring something positive to this discussion. He could talk about what he should have done, or what others should have done to stop the hazing. He could talk about what he might tell the victim, now dead, if it were possible. He could share the lessons maturity brings, instead of just giggling uncomfortably giggling. Blow’s accusation — “Romney has an uncanny ability to turn a bad thing into a worse thing by failing to be forthright” — stings.
I hope Romney addresses this again and does a better job drawing lessons from it that can add to the national discussion on bullying. That’s how a president demonstrates leadership.