Commentary Magazine


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.

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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