Commentary Magazine


Topic: high school prank

The Striking Bias of the Washington Post

I wanted to add to what Alana and Jonathan wrote about the nearly endless front page story in today’s Washington Post.

The title of the story is “Romney’s pranks could go too far.” Indeed they could. As Ed Morrissey wrote, what Mitt Romney, then in prep school, did — clip the bleached-blond hair of a high school student while he was pinned to the ground and crying for help – is pretty cruel. “It’s one reason not to vote for a teenager for president,” according to Morrissey.

As for other things that could go too far, in addition to Barack Obama’s admitted drug use, we could add to the list Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, Bill Ayers’s domestic terrorism, and Obama’s support as a state senator for infanticide, to name just three. But did the Washington Post devote 5,000 words to each of those stories? Did it devote 5,000 words to all of those stories combined? I doubt it.

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I wanted to add to what Alana and Jonathan wrote about the nearly endless front page story in today’s Washington Post.

The title of the story is “Romney’s pranks could go too far.” Indeed they could. As Ed Morrissey wrote, what Mitt Romney, then in prep school, did — clip the bleached-blond hair of a high school student while he was pinned to the ground and crying for help – is pretty cruel. “It’s one reason not to vote for a teenager for president,” according to Morrissey.

As for other things that could go too far, in addition to Barack Obama’s admitted drug use, we could add to the list Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, Bill Ayers’s domestic terrorism, and Obama’s support as a state senator for infanticide, to name just three. But did the Washington Post devote 5,000 words to each of those stories? Did it devote 5,000 words to all of those stories combined? I doubt it.

What the three of us are saying is that the Post was noticeably more indifferent to things from Obama’s past – at least those things that might not reflect well on him — than they appear to be when it comes to Romney’s past. Consider this story a preview of coming attractions.

The Washington Post is home to some outstanding reporters and columnists. But it is also a newspaper with a decidedly liberal bent (which is why Obama says he respects it and the New York Times so much). And today’s breathless front page essay (posted online yesterday) on Romney the Mean-Spirited Prankster simply confirms that most of the press, which was embarrassingly one-sided in Obama’s favor in 2008, hasn’t evolved much since then.

None of this is surprising. But that doesn’t make it any less striking.

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Media Bias on Politicians’ Younger Years?

Jonathan wrote about this weak WaPo hit on Mitt Romney earlier today. In some ways, this story actually highlights the difficulty the Obama campaign has had in finding anything scandalous in his past. Biden was a plagiarist. Obama has spoken openly about his drug use. Meanwhile, Romney…cut some kid’s hair as a prank in high school? It’s not very nice, but wasn’t that sort of stunt par for the course in 1960s prep schools?

Anyway, now that Romney has apologized for a practical joke from 48 years ago, the difficult path to healing and redemption can finally begin:

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Jonathan wrote about this weak WaPo hit on Mitt Romney earlier today. In some ways, this story actually highlights the difficulty the Obama campaign has had in finding anything scandalous in his past. Biden was a plagiarist. Obama has spoken openly about his drug use. Meanwhile, Romney…cut some kid’s hair as a prank in high school? It’s not very nice, but wasn’t that sort of stunt par for the course in 1960s prep schools?

Anyway, now that Romney has apologized for a practical joke from 48 years ago, the difficult path to healing and redemption can finally begin:

But probably not. As much as Romney wants to move on, it doesn’t look like the story’s going away yet. Conservatives are calling out WaPo for media bias, a charge that Dave Weigel says has no merit:

Okay, before anyone sputters about media bias, remember that the Post assigned David Maraniss to write probing stories about Barack Obama’s pre-teen and teen days. And he wrote them, starting off on the journey that would conclude with his Obama bio, out next month. There’s just no story of the young Obama hassling a swishy kid.

But the point is that all the (vaguely) worthwhile dirt Maraniss has on Obama is coming out this year, after Obama has had close to a full term to define himself and the stories have less of an impact. Where was the trenchant reporting on him in ’08? Compare today’s Romney story to how Maraniss buried Obama’s drug use (which was already old news anyway) on the last page of his big five-page story on Obama’s younger years in 2008. Not that it mattered, as he broke no new ground on the issue, other than getting some reassuring quotes from Obama’s friends:

Some have suggested that [Obama] exaggerated his drug use in the book to hype the idea that he was on the brink of becoming a junkie; dysfunction and dissolution always sell in memoirs.

But his friends quickly dismissed that notion. “I wouldn’t call it an exaggeration,” Greg Ramos said. Keith Peterson said: “Did I ever party with Barack? Yes, I did. Do I remember specifically? If I did, then I didn’t party with him. Part of the nature of getting high is you don’t remember it 30 minutes later. Punahou was a wealthy school with a lot of kids with disposable income. The drinking age in Hawaii then was 18, so a lot of seniors could buy it legally, which means the parent dynamic was not big. And the other partying materials were prevalent, being in Hawaii. There was a lot of partying that went on. And Barack has been very open about that. Coming from Hawaii, that would have been so easy to expose. If he hadn’t written about it, it would have been a disaster.”

In the scheme of things, Obama’s teenage drug use matters about as much as Romney’s high school pranks – which is to say very little. But the stories were emphasized differently, and that’s the problem.

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Operation Demonize Romney: High School Edition

A general rule of thumb is that when you run for president you’ve got to expect every moment of your life will come under scrutiny. Of course, that hasn’t always applied to Barack Obama, as questions even about his associations as an adult politician have been widely interpreted as a form of racism. But if your name is Mitt Romney, the other rules apply, as any reader of today’s edition of the Washington Post will discover when they take a look at a nearly 5,500 word feature–a fine-tooth comb examination of the Republican candidate’s high school career which includes a single incident in which he is alleged to have played a rough prank on a schoolmate.

The story of Romney and others giving a kid a forced haircut doesn’t reflect well on him. But considering it took place 47 years ago when the future businessman and politician was a teenager living at a boarding school in which such hijinks were obviously far from rare, it hardly rises to the level of a major scandal. Nor, considering the other evidence in the article which points to Romney being more of a dorky, do-gooding hard worker than the school bully, you’ve got to wonder why the Post bothered to devote so much space to a story that is clearly framed so as to portray him as such as well as a social climbing prig. That is especially true because — correct me if I’m wrong dear readers — I don’t recall any massive stories in major media outlets like this in 2008 seeking to dig up dirt on Obama’s time at the Punahou School, the elite Hawaii private prep where the current president hung out as a teenager. Some outlets may have recycled stories that Obama told about his past but frankly, I don’t recall anything but hagiographic coverage of the first African-American presidential nominee. But as Romney should have learned by now, being the first Mormon presidential nominee has been treated as a license for prejudicial writing by mainstream newspapers–not the kind of kid glove treatment Obama received.

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A general rule of thumb is that when you run for president you’ve got to expect every moment of your life will come under scrutiny. Of course, that hasn’t always applied to Barack Obama, as questions even about his associations as an adult politician have been widely interpreted as a form of racism. But if your name is Mitt Romney, the other rules apply, as any reader of today’s edition of the Washington Post will discover when they take a look at a nearly 5,500 word feature–a fine-tooth comb examination of the Republican candidate’s high school career which includes a single incident in which he is alleged to have played a rough prank on a schoolmate.

The story of Romney and others giving a kid a forced haircut doesn’t reflect well on him. But considering it took place 47 years ago when the future businessman and politician was a teenager living at a boarding school in which such hijinks were obviously far from rare, it hardly rises to the level of a major scandal. Nor, considering the other evidence in the article which points to Romney being more of a dorky, do-gooding hard worker than the school bully, you’ve got to wonder why the Post bothered to devote so much space to a story that is clearly framed so as to portray him as such as well as a social climbing prig. That is especially true because — correct me if I’m wrong dear readers — I don’t recall any massive stories in major media outlets like this in 2008 seeking to dig up dirt on Obama’s time at the Punahou School, the elite Hawaii private prep where the current president hung out as a teenager. Some outlets may have recycled stories that Obama told about his past but frankly, I don’t recall anything but hagiographic coverage of the first African-American presidential nominee. But as Romney should have learned by now, being the first Mormon presidential nominee has been treated as a license for prejudicial writing by mainstream newspapers–not the kind of kid glove treatment Obama received.

The idea of running this sort of muckraking feature about non-criminal activity during the teenage years of a future leader is itself questionable. But it bears pointing out that some of the details included in the story work against the narrative that intends to paint a dark portrait of a man who is well-known to be a straight arrow with no skeletons in his closet.

One is the fact that the five fellow Cranbrook School alums who dished to the Post’s Jason Horowitz about the haircut incident are not fans of their former classmate’s politics. Horowitz says they “lean Democratic.” One is described as someone who has abandoned a former allegiance to the GOP. The reporter’s claim that politics did not color their recollections cannot be taken seriously. Nor can the timing of the piece (which came out the day after President Obama endorsed gay marriage), be dismissed, as the clear intent of the piece is to imply that Romney harassed the subject of the prank because he was gay.

There are also elements of the story that could have painted the future GOP standard-bearer in a positive light but were ignored. Though Horowitz attempts with little evidence to describe Romney as a class-conscious snob, he downplays Romney’s status as a religious minority and his clear affinity for members of other minority groups. In one incident described in great depth, Romney is helping to mop floors at the school (not exactly the stuff of privilege) when he is challenged about his faith. Horowitz closes the account by quoting the student who was bullying him about being Mormon with calling his defense of his religion as “a cop out.”

Horowitz is also not interested in the fact that a girl Romney dated was a Jew, the daughter of Max Fisher, a wealthy man and ardent supporter of Israel who raised money for Romney’s father’s political campaigns. If Romney was as big a jerk as the Post would like us to believe, doesn’t it also say something that he did not succumb to the religious prejudices that were just as prevalent in that era in a private Christian school setting as anti-Semitism?

Horowitz strains to portray the victim of the haircut incident as a gay man who was scarred for life by a teenage jerk who grew up to be famous. But he does little to show that what happened was anything more than the usual rough and tumble of life in a claustrophobic boarding school. Nor when one considers all of the contrary evidence that seeps into the story about Romney’s character does he prove anything more than Romney played pranks whenever he got the chance and was nothing more than a high-spirited kid who spent most of his time following the straight and narrow path of virtue.

No doubt Romney grew up a lot after his days at Cranbrook. Of course, the same can be said for any former teenager. Rare is the adult who will not look back at isolated incidents in their childhood without cringing. Subjecting anyone’s high school career to the sort of scrutiny that is rightly applied to government service is absurd, but that’s what happens when you run for president these days. Except, of course, if your name is Barack Hussein Obama.

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