My first impulse when I heard this story was, I admit, “Wow, what a spectacular piece off oppo research. Now Mitt Romney can be pigeonholed by people who were never going to vote for him anyway as both a gay-basher and the guy who strapped his dog to the roof of his car.”
[Recent self-serving protestations by the WaPo ombudsman aside, no one can deny that there were reasons why playing up particular aspects of this story made sense in the midst of our current debate.]
My second impulse, which I shared in a personal message to the RP, was “Having known some rich privileged [jerks] in high school I am not surprised to hear that rich, privileged Mitt Romney was a [jerk] in high school.”
Neither of those impulses, however, completely expresses my mature thoughts on the matter. Which gets back to the RP’s original point (and Steve’s) that there is a big difference between the impulsive acts of idiot teenagers and the (hopefully) mature positions of thoughtful adults.
Upon mature reflection, the story of Mitt Romney’s actions makes me feel a combination of anger, disgust, and sadness.
I attended an elite boys’ high school myself, though it was not a boarding school like Cranbrook, and I graduated high school exactly twenty years after Willard did. Things had changed somewhat in the intervening decades, and have changed even more since then. So the experiences are not identical, but they do rhyme: I saw and experienced the kind of casual sneering cruelty that adolescent boys can mete out to each other in a culture of macho preening and rigid social hierarchy. A few times I was on the direct receiving end of it, though most of the time I was a bystander.
Thankfully I never witnessed or experienced the kind of physical attack described in the recent newspaper accounts. Nevertheless, certain memories still bother me 25+ years later, and it is also true that I can never look at some of my former classmates (especially those now more active in public life) without at least some bitterness. If any of them were to be on a ballot, I would have a hard time voting for them. So I can understand that some of Romney’s classmates continue to have ambivalent feelings about him so many years after Cranbrook.
Does that mean that one’s behavior in high school reveals permanent and enduring elements of one’s character and should completely shape our view of the adult? God, I hope not. If we can credit other people with “evolving,” then we should all be able to accept that people can overcome the callow idiocy of youth and become more well-rounded and empathetic human beings.
But because we accept that people can learn from their youth and grow beyond it, we should expect, even demand, that when a public figure is confronted with questionable deeds and words from his/her past, that public figure will own the past and explain how it fits into the present. Complaining about the story’s publication is pointless at best, and pretending that the past does not matter is even worse. If Mitt Romney wants to run for president, and to make use of his personal history in his campaign, then he has to accept that the darker shades of his personal history will be discussed as well. The challenge for him, and for those who would defend him, is not to get lost in semi-denials and hemi-demi-apologies, but to own his past actions and explain how if at all they contribute to making him the man he is today.
Just as the history of nations includes both light and dark chapters, both of which need to be analyzed and understood honestly and completely, an honest assessment of a personal history should not try to evade unpleasant topics. It is Romney’s responsibility to address the past, and the responsibility of the rest of us to listen to his story and decide how to evaluate both the boy he was and the man he is. Forgetting is never the proper approach. Honest, even painful, remembrance of the past is the only way to build a better future.