None of us wants to be judged by the dumb stuff we did in high school -- or in college, for that matter, whether they involve cruel "pranks" (Mitt Romney) or pretentious letters (Barack Obama). Still, biography is meaningful. Early episodes are not dispositive, yet they are illustrative. Character and disposition are capable of change, but they also reveal themselves early on. Why, otherwise, do we talk about Washington and the proverbial cherry tree?
So how to think about the Washington Post's story of Romney and the purportedly gay prep school classmate he bullied? Recklessness is a common side effect of adolescence -- drinking too much, driving too fast. Meanness is another matter. Yes, teenagers are more prone to displaying the primal cruelty of "Mean Girls" and "Lord of the Flies" than their grown-up selves. But the Queen Bees of middle school have an unpleasant tendency to grow into the Real Housewives of Wherever.
Romney's reported leadership in the episode, his merciless wielding of the scissors to snip off the bleached-blond hair that seemingly so offended his sense of propriety, his continuing cuts despite John Lauber's cries for help -- these do not speak well of him. You want to imagine your future president in the role of the wise-for-his-years leader who intervenes to calm the howling mob of his more foolish peers.
But that is not the chief concern with the Romney story. The real problem lies in the adult Romney's reaction to it -- or, more precisely, his non-reaction. Others involved in the episode told the Post's Jason Horowitz of their continuing shame and guilt. One said he apologized to Lauber years later.
Romney, judging by his own words, seems not to have given the ugly encounter a second thought. His campaign's initial response was denial. "The stories of fifty years ago seem exaggerated and off base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents," said spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
As it turned out, the Post story was so detailed, gripping and well-sourced that a brush-off wasn't going to suffice, so response No. 2 was to issue the classic, conditional quasi-apology. "Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that," Romney said in a radio interview. "I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize."
Hijinks? Pranks? This was an assault, pure and simple. Romney says that sexual orientation had nothing to do with the incident he doesn't recall. "I certainly don't believe I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s." But it's clear that Lauber's offense lay in his being different from the others on the island of Cranbook prep, whatever label was attached.
So I don't really blame Romney for what he did. I blame him for what he fails to remember, or to acknowledge, that he did. Imagine if Romney's response to the Post story had been to own up to the episode and talk about his enduring regret.
"I would think this would be seared in his memory," one classmate who participated, Phillip Maxwell, told the New York Times. "Certainly for the other people that were involved, nobody has forgotten."
That Romney has forgotten, or says he has, speaks volumes -- more than anything that happened on a spring day in Michigan half a century ago.